My Endless SEARCH for American FASHION
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
When I started my career, I saw the potential for an American style that was beautiful, uncomplicated, and singular. Where has it gone?
Cathy Horyn

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.

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