If someone asked me to tell them what defined “being American,” I’d probably sit silently with my eyes turned towards the ceiling for 20 minutes. I could produce my passport, but that’d only remind me of all my failed attempts at trying to flee the motherland. A history book can only tell so much, and most of the narratives that make up the pith of traditional American-ness are deeply problematic. The relative youth of our country, paired with its multiplicity of regions and social factions, complicates the task further.
The vagueness behind “American” extends beyond a mere question. Anything that sports the label shouts its own demise. Cookbooks on American food provide a series of dishes that can be frequently traced back to European roots. When politicians stake a claim for “America” as a symbol of unity, I’m equally confused. “America” has often represented disunion and separation rather than togetherness. It’s a quantity in need of a constant recount, a concept falling apart at the seams.
Nevertheless, we assert its usefulness every day, and not only in our words. There are creative practices across the span of culture with an allegiance to an obscure, American way. Without deviation, New York Fashion Week shows us this idea in brilliant form every season. Specifically, there is a camp of designers with a particular allegiance to “America,” as an idea. They devote themselves to this notion for reasons that are hard to understand.
On one hand, the way some designers have flocked to an American aesthetic is understandable, given fashion’s inner workings. Fashion relies on these symbolic categories for both commercial and creative purposes. “American” is one, as are “woman” and “grunge.” To create and present something that fits in with one of these words is to provide something in a readily digestible format; people seem to respond to these categories, which helps to explain how trends come into being. Thus, to huddle under the shelter of American promises a certain degree of commercial protection; consumers know what they’re buying, which everyone likes in the long run. I’d attribute part of Michael Kors’ billion dollar success to the strategy of “American”-ness.
But that’s not all. An aesthetic attention to “American” is also a psychological one. Michael Kors isn’t the only one in the group. There’s Ralph Lauren and J.Crew; in the case that you’ve forgotten the many false starts at reviving Halston, there’s Rag & Bone. “American” figures largely in each brand mentioned, but because of the word’s hollow nature, their attempts to preserve sometimes seem forced, uneasy, and dogged. Ralph Lauren’s collection are by far the best of this group, his ability to create an iconic object still intact. Still, however, his clothes are sometimes deafeningly insistent on their origins. They hold onto them with dear life. But this is not far off from what you’ve probably already encountered: that one guy who tries to locate his purpose in the present by pointing us to his ancestors on Plymouth Rock, to little avail.
“American” fashion—that is, fashion that tries to signal its connection to some national iconography—might be called the fashion of lack. In psychoanalysis, lack motivates action; someone has to compensate for what they don’t have. What American designers don’t have is an essential identity on which to draw, a core set of values to motivate their design. On some New York Runways, this is exactly the psychic drama that plays out.
This fatalistic (and Freudian) portrait of the New York collections shouldn’t be taken as an end-of-the world prophecy. In fact, New York has probably increased its international stature on the fashion scene dramatically over the past five years, showcasing big talent with Alexander Wang and Francisco Costa. The city has arguably succeeded by becoming more than a hub of support of the “American” look.
The two designers I’ve mentioned are interesting specifically because they respond to this lack by ignoring it altogether. Their clothes seem oriented towards a more “global” aesthetic. Here, “global” is not as empty as “American.” Rather, I use it to describe a fashion that is decentered, unanchored, and potentially universal; a fashion unencumbered by the imperatives of a national project. This aesthetic has its own problems, each meriting its own investigation, but it nonetheless appears to be American fashion’s best bet, its safest gamble.
Header photo courtesy of Michael Kors