The stereotype is that Americans aren’t always considered the most fashion forward bunch, save for a few urban pockets. We love our comfy sweatpants and huge hoodies. As a fashionista who has lived in several rural areas that weren’t exactly what we’d call fashion epicenters, I know what it is like to express yourself through fashion only to garner mixed reactions from peers and colleagues.
Fashion or Freak Show?
I went to high school in a super hippy town. Everyone has their own funky style, to be normal in one’s fashion was considered abnormal. However, that liberal environment was limited to that one town in rural southern Oregon. Everywhere else in the vicinity was very conservative.
My mother was actually a teacher in one of the neighboring, conservative school districts. One day on my drive home from school, I stopped by my mom’s school to drop something off for her, rocking a purple beret and a red, bohemian-esque, belle-sleeve top. I opened the door to her classroom only to have all the students stare at me as if I was in a leopard in a zoo. After I left and when my mother came home, she proceeded to tell me that they were shocked that I was her daughter and that my appearance had, in her words, “caused quite a stir.”
Later I went to college in upstate New York. I was once riding the bus home. Unbeknownst to me, a guy I didn’t even know secretly took a photo of me and posted it on Twitter. He seemed to take issue with my purple sunglasses, black lipstick, and matching purple and black feather earrings, making use of the hashtag “#doingtoomuch.” I didn’t see the photo until many months later when a mutual friend showed me the post.
Now, would I be rocking my purple-sunglasses and feather earrings as a 27-year-old? Of course not, but it still saddens that my teenage self had to face such scrutiny and that there seemed to be little cultural acceptance to explore one’s fashion sense.
After that I went on to grad school at a Midwestern university. There were enough glares from female students around campus that made it clear that in terms of accepting fashion, I hadn’t really upgraded from rural Oregon or upstate New York.
How Did We Get Here?
The casualization of American fashion has been a well-documented phenomenon.
It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Americans didn’t dress casually all the time. There were dress codes and customs. Men wore suits and hats; women wore dresses. Jeans and T-shirts were for laborers, not professionals. We now find meaning in the way we dress in a way we didn’t in the early 20th century, when people dressed more aspirationally. They wanted to look as though they had higher social status than they actually did.
-Dennis Green, Business Insider
Fashion historian Deidre Clemente claims that during the 20th century American fashion divorced itself from being an indicator of where one stood in the social hierarchy.
Clemente has written extensively about the evolution of American dress in the 1900s, a period that, she said, was marked, maybe more than anything else, by a single but powerful trend: As everyday fashion broke from tradition, it shed much of its socioeconomic implications — people no longer dress to feign wealth like they once did — and took on a new meaning. The shift has, above all, led toward casualness in the way we dress.
-Deidre Clemente, Time
Certainly that is a good thing, for fashion to cease being an exclusive ticket to an elitist club. However, I personally would have liked to see an evolution of American fashion where trendy, fashionable clothes were accessible to everyone regardless of class, rather than the current rejection of all fashion as a means to equalize the classes.
The Modern Affordability of Fashion
The dream of fashionable clothes being accessible to everyone is already a reality with the emergence of online retailers such as Fashion Nova and AliExpress. Regardless of these new brands, it is possible to be posh and chic, even if you’re not in Los Angeles or New York City. People think you need Prada or Gucci to be fashionable, but you don’t. In that way I take issue with this statement from this Spanish marketing professor.
Fashionistas live on the East and West coasts. Then everyone else dresses in the Gap and Walmart and T. J. Maxx.
-José Luis Nueno, The Cut
While I don’t disagree that the fashion focal points of America tend to be split between the two coasts, I don’t think it’s fair to bash T.J. Maxx or other brands in that socioeconomic stratum. T.J. Maxx combined with Ross makes ups at least 70% of my wardrobe, if not more. Yes, there is the temptation of simple t-shirts and jeans at these stores, but there is a lot more than that. You can walk out the door a full-fledged fashionista if you just know what to look for.
It is this modern affordability of fashion that has left me frustrated with people who still harbor the perception that anyone who invests in fashion is automatically trying to shove their social status in everyone’s face.
I don’t own anything from Gucci or Prada or Dolce & Gabbana. I rarely follow “high” fashion and I couldn’t even tell you when Fashion Week is. I strictly believe in promoting a type of fashion that is available to everyone. You can of course follow high fashion for the sake of gleaning style inspiration, but not to actually buy such ridiculously expensive clothes.
How Do We Change the Casual Culture?
Part of what is needed to bolster fashion in the wider United States would be a cultural shift in viewing fashion as artistic rather than materialistic. That is exactly what one of my high school friends said to me, that my style was creative as opposed to pretentious. But again, this was at my supper hippy high school, where these sentiments regarding fashion were atypical for the area.
Because we used casualization as the means to break down socioeconomic barriers, some would perceive the return to formal wear and going back to that elitist club. With decent, affordable clothing now available, we do not have to go back to the elitist club. Economics becomes less of a factor where the major variables remaining are time and effort. It becomes less a matter of means as a matter of skill, to visualize an ensemble with the appropriate accessories.
What also needs to change is the perception that you cannot be fashionable and practical at the same time, that you must sacrifice one for the other. Being fashionable doesn’t mean you’re wearing four-inch heels every day. Utility and beauty can be found together, surprisingly enough.
Fashion can be a great tool in boosting one’s condifence and thus enhancing one’s life, yet it is a tool we abandoned decades ago because the monetary overpowered the creative. All the men and women rocking their normal lives in style should lead by example to show others that good fashion isn’t unattainable.