IN THE LATE SUMMER of 1986, I packed up my things and, with my 1-year-old son, moved to Detroit to begin writing about fashion for the News. I was 30, and I remember thinking that the true fashion of America was vernacular. It was the plain cotton dress, the beauty of the useful garment or the secondhand shirt. But, equally, it was the extraordinary loose-hip drape of the jeans of a young Detroit designer named Maurice Malone, who was involved in the city’s burgeoning techno scene, and who was the first designer I knew to see that the look of falling-down trousers on skinny male bodies was a kind of aesthetic. Proust may have written knowingly of women’s dress, but it was James Agee who showed me, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his and Walker Evans’s portrait of three tenant farming families in Depression-era Alabama, that all clothes “shaped to their context” can have dignity—the tailored suit as well as a “pierced, sewn-together cockeyed” sun hat. Or it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing about the early flappers, who led me to believe that the real archetype of the emancipated woman was not Coco Chanel, as historians maintain; rather, it was a hard-boiled American teen in a flimsy dress. Later, when I found a photograph of a young flapper in a cheap cotton shift, her bare legs dangling over the side of a Model T, I finally understood what Fitzgerald meant when he wrote, “Isolated during the European War, we had begun combing the unknown South and West for folkways and pastimes.” He was describing how the freedom of the automobile had allowed for new freedoms among young people, which gave rise to a liberated homegrown style. “Who could tell us any longer what was fashionable and what was fun?” he asked.
Of course, the roots of America’s greatest contribution to fashion—the jaunty, practical, ready-to-wear style known as sportswear—are precisely in the cheap and the uninhibited: the common housedress, the nylon nightie, the calico shirt, the heavy cotton double-topstitched chore jacket. Take, for example, the designer Claire McCardell, who in the 1930s and ’40s translated many of these ordinary garments into fashion. As Sally Kirkland, a fashion editor for Life, put it, “Claire’s girls were padless, braless, and heel-less.” (The prices were also startling: McCardell’s Popover dress, first issued in 1943 and based on a housedress, sold for $6.95.)
The American vernacular is one of the most powerful styles that there is, running through the visual arts, music, literature, and architecture. It may go in and out of popularity, but it can always be reactivated by an individual artist, designer, or craftsperson. That’s what I thought in 1986. And it’s why I didn’t buy into the notion that American fashion played second fiddle to European fashion. All around me I saw ingredients for a way to dress that was phenomenally rich. And entirely our own.
In 1986, when I got to Detroit, having met the job’s basic requirements as spelled out in the ad—“good writer, no fashion experience necessary”—the clothes on New York’s runways were definitely not simple and unpretentious. Fashion is meant to reflect the moment, and the city was having a moment of excess. It was the era of the ladies who lunch, of the Wall Street fat cat in the form of corporate raiders and junk-bond kings, and a front row stuffed with retail bosses. Underlying many collections was a sense of competition, felt in everything from the lavish amounts of French embroidery to Donna Karan’s vision of a cashmere-draped executive. Not everything looked so complicated. The designer Zoran (who once said, “You cannot spend ten days making a dress”) pioneered a concept of minimalist sportswear, done in high-quality fabrics and a handful of solid colors, which won him a huge following in both the U.S. and Europe. And for Calvin Klein’s 1984 menswear campaign, the photographer Bruce Weber made sepia-toned portraits of the designer at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico—an attempt to relate Klein’s own feelings about comfort and neutral tones to a uniquely American landscape. Still, I wanted more. I wanted designers to get out of the New York bubble and to see what I saw in the “unknown” parts of the country—the old factories, open spaces, towns, people who have an aesthetic of their own. And I wanted them to extract from that a new American vernacular. As a reporter who had traveled around a bit, I believed it was possible to discover these things, if one looked.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Nothing Like the Real Thing
Since when does a comedy special also need to be a documentary?
God Help Her
A biopic that’s heavy on the eye shadow, light on coherence.
Kumail Nanjiani's Feelings
The actor always wanted his own superhero transformation. Now he’s buff, a Marvel star, and struggling with how much of his new body is his own.
How Miami Seduced Silicon Valley
Awash in coders, crypto, and capital, the city is loving— and beginning to shape—its newest industry.
Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change
Even if his new book suggests it’s nearly impossible to make it stick.
860 minutes with…Stephanie Grisham
In Kansas with Donald Trump’s former press secretary, who does not believe she will be redeemed.
Bed in a Box
Just how much drama can you pack into a studio apartment?
COVID Diaries: Sarah Jones
The 700,000 Death Toll An atheist stumbles toward a way to grieve.
Performance Review: Ben Affleck Plays Himself
Becoming a tabloid star gave the actor his best role ever.
The Murders Down the Hall
393 POWELL STREET WAS A PEACEFUL HOME UNTIL RESIDENTS STARTED DYING IN BRUTAL, MYSTERIOUS WAYS.
SHOWOFF SERIES STAGE II
NO SHORTAGE OF TEXAS TRUCKS!
Pilots without them are just pedestrians with sunglasses and cool jackets.
LAST SCREAM OF THE JIMMY
In 1954, when Oliver needed a powerful diesel to one-up their competitors, they went to General Motors.
E3 The $500 Billion Bias Problem
How an unfair property-tax system blocks the building of Black wealth
A Certain Southern Gothic
STATE POLICE DROPS PHONE APP THAT MAKES TEXTS DISAPPEAR
The Michigan State Police told officers to remove a phone app that keeps no record of outgoing text messages, a newspaper reported this week.
This Budget-Built Nova Turned Into a Pro Touring Terror.
Detroit pivots to next-generation mobility and other new industries.
What Is Cylinder Head Swirl and Tumble, and Why Is It Important?
We think of electronic engine management systems and multiport electronic fuel injection (EFI) as primarily responsible for the improved air/fuel distribution and performance as Detroit clawed its way back in the mid 1980s, but—good as they were for that day—initially the new electronics were just Band-Aids grafted onto carryover engine designs. The big change started in the 1990s, when the OEs started tinkering with cylinder head design to induce swirl and tumble in internal combustion engines.
DETROIT RESIDENTS CONCERNED ABOUT TRAFFIC CAMERA EXPANSION
Detroit officials’ plan to install 200 more traffic light-mounted cameras at city intersections is facing community resistance amid privacy and racial discrimination concerns.