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In 1936, New York department store Lord & Taylor made news when it offered its female customers a clothing collection inspired by iconic American looks such as cowboy garb and New England fisherman knits. It was an unusual move: Back then, Parisian taste overwhelmingly shaped fashion, even if the clothes were made in the U.S.A.
Eight decades later, Americana is as orthodox a style reference as bohemian chic or naval uniforms. Even so, many of the fall 2017 collections lean more conspicuously and notably American than those in recent seasons. Designers from both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly Europeans, tapped into the “Little House on the Prairie” look. Was it an innocently nostalgic nod to American style, or a pointed commentary on today’s politics?
Some designers ostensibly went for pure fashion on the runway: Belgian-born Raf Simons, making his highly anticipated debut as the chief creative officer of Calvin Klein, worked with a plethora of American tropes, from red-white-and-blue marching band ensembles to quilted top coats with no hint of a reactionary subtext. London-based Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, a British brand that shows in Paris, used a bandana-like print that looked like it originated in a dude ranch bunkhouse. Prada’s line included suede fringed jackets. Isabel Marant played with patchwork quilt prints. Stuart Vevers, an Englishman who’s been the executive creative director at Coach 1941 for four years, embraced buffalo checks and prairie skirts.
Others who opted for Americana this season were openly political. That was the case
with Patric DiCaprio, David Moses, Bryn Taubensee and Claire Sully, the quartet behind the upstart, four-year-old New York label Vaquera, who sent a dress made from what looked like a deconstructed American flag down the runway. It was cut with a long train that dragged behind the model as she walked. “There’s a lot of anger and frustration,” said Ms. Sully. “We wanted to make an overt statement, to say, ‘Let’s talk about America.’”
Most of the latest iterations of Americana are quite distinct from the oeuvre of Ralph Lauren, who built a global empire out of his mastery of apple-pie imagery. The difference is their intent, said Bridget Foley, the executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily, who worked on Ralph Lauren : 50 Years of Fashion, a book about Mr. Lauren’s career, as documented by WWD. These current designers’ takes are more fleeting, less personal. “With Ralph, I think it’s a manifestation of a belief system,” said Ms. Foley. “It’s not a seasonal message. It’s a core value, an overall point of view. It’s who he is as a person and a designer.”
Another difference: Mr. Lauren’s vision is akin to painter Norman Rockwell’s in its cheery idealism, a stark contrast to this season’s Americana, which feels ironic and more complex, recalling director Terrence Malick’s dust-bowl love story, “Days of Heaven” and American painter Grant Wood’s haunting, self-aware depiction of rural life in his iconic 1930s “American Gothic” portrait. The collections were, for the most part, designed just after last fall’s contentious election, and can be read as a yearning for what seem like less complicated times.
“People are reaching for the familiar,” said Patricia Mears, the deputy director of the Museum at FIT in New York. “You see this in periods of uncertainty.” In fashion, that means turning to silhouettes and ideas that evoke an idealized past. This isn’t limited to Americana—at Gucci, for example, creative director Alessandro Michele mines the glories of the Renaissance, when Italian city states were at the height of their power.
Ralph Lauren’s Reign
As the new creative force at Calvin Klein, Raf Simons may be beguiling the fashion crowd with his riffs on Americana, but Ralph Lauren got there first. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Ralph Lauren brand, which more than any other fashion company has come to embody iconic American style. Here, a few highlights from his career.
A subtler point: When considering the origins of Westernwear, it’s important to note that, far from being the clothing of exclusively white male pioneers, it reflects a truly American mix of influences.
“Buffalo Bill was one of the first to take elements from Native American dress and combine it with Western workwear for entertainment,” said Ms. Mears. “In the ’20s, Eastern European tailors, like Rodeo Ben [ Bernard Lichtenstein ], combined tailoring, Western workwear, and Eastern European floral motifs. And they had many Latino workers. So Americana is this mishmash of different cultures.”
An immigrant of sorts himself, Mr. Simons arrived at Calvin Klein, having worked on his own line after serving as creative director for 3½ years at Christian Dior, the venerable French fashion house that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. In constructing his inaugural Calvin Klein collection around recognizably American archetypes, he seemed to be signaling his new allegiance, an admiration for his adopted country.
“I learned about American style through film, so my references have that Hollywood glow,” said Coach 1941’s Mr. Vevers, a Brit. “Days of Heaven” fed his nostalgia for the American prairie, but he had other influences, such as the clothes kids wore “Back in the Days,” the name of a 2001 book about the ’80s hip hop scene in New York City that affected the way he styled his Americana pieces. “We [paired] shearling coats with raw edges with a T-shirt,” he said, giving them a “more modern sort of luxury.”
See how designers like Coach 1941 and Isabel Marant reworked pioneer motifs like quilts, pony prints and fringed suede into great looks for fall
In general, said Mr. Vevers, American style represents the “shift” in how people learned to dress over the years: “When you think of classic American style, you think of ease.” So the explanation for the deluge of Americana references may well be more prosaic. For better or worse, the look of people on streets all over the world—dictated by comfort, determinedly casual, rule-averse—has a Made in America label on it.