Friday, December 11, 2009
A Symposium on American Fashion
After I visited the "American Beauty" exhibition at F.I.T, I was invited to attend the accompanying symposium on American Style, which was intriguing. Though I did not attend the entire two-day symposium, which included many noteworthy speakers and talks, I did catch Caroline Rennolds Milbank (above) who spoke about the origin of the American Look, and Kohle Yohannan (below) who talked about two important designers, Valentina (below left) and Claire McCardell (below right).
American fashion occupies an interesting spot in the world of style. In most cases American fashion can't really compare to the fantastic confections and complicated creations which come out of Paris and the French couture. On the other hand, the simplicity, the clean lines, the comfort, the ease and usefulness, the speed of American fashion means that it expresses a modernity all it's own. "Chic is nothing, but it's the right nothing," goes the line. That to me is American style.
Caroline Milbank is certainly a name that I recognize; she has written several books on fashion including Couture and New York Fashion. She explained in her talk that after the American Revolution when the United States was still a newborn country, its people desired a new fashion which was simple and lacked ostentation – the opposite of European royal court dress.
Later of course American style did incorporate opulence. But a simplicity always remained at its core. In the twentieth century Claire McCardle came up with the wonderful American invention of sportswear separates – jackets, shirts, skirts, pants meant to mixed and matched. She created clothes that were for a vigorous, strong, American body. Her designs from the 40s allowed for freedom and movement but were also beautiful and timeless like this draped gown wrapped with a sturdy belt.
Halston, another great innovator in American fashion, further whittled away superfluous elements in the 70s and edited fashion down to pure luxury, like cashmere sweater sets and silk, halter columnar gowns which elongated the body like this one on Marisa Berenson.
You can see threads of Claire McCardle and Halston in contemporary American designers like Michael Kors and Isaac Mizrahi. As for the place that the United States holds in the history of fashion, I thought Caroline Milbank made an insightful comment at the end of her talk about the impact of American style when she said, "It's hard to look at something simple or plain and understand how radical it was at the time."