Clothing is a social phenomenon, the key purposes of which traditionally were to satisfy aesthetic needs, protect from weather conditions, and signal the social status. In the 20th century, as the class polarization was obliterated, clothes still serve to emphasize different social groups, focusing on self-expression, and individuality as well as preserving the fundamental functions. The US experienced various historical periods and social changes, including Indian issues, African-American questions, Wild West development, Hollywood establishment, and global influences, each of which affected the American clothing and outfits in the chronological perspective, affecting the not only appearance of people but also their way of thinking.
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Rococo and Rococo Revival as Premises of American Outfits
For a long time, the concept of American clothing did not exist as such. It was partially borrowed from Europe and affected by it until the 19th century, and only in the following century, Americans moved away from the European canons, creating their unique outfit style. In this regard, it seems appropriate to briefly identify the main features of the European costume of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, the Rococo style was distinguished by elegance, fragility, refinement, sensuality, and some extent of mannerisms. The obligatory accessory of a man’s suit was a snow-white shirt with a vest and narrow knee-length trousers.
Women of that period looked like an elegant porcelain figurine as silhouettes of their dresses of bright were rather feminine due to the corset use. The core innovation in the field of male suits was a strict division of clothing for functional purposes: ballroom, home, and every day (working) suits. The female costume made of silk and woolen fabrics has become more fanciful. The most notable feature of the female costume was the crinoline design of willow rods and whalebone or metal hoops, giving the skirt a special splendor.
The historical events of the colonial era undoubtedly affected the life of the first immigrants and their dressing style, in particular. The first pilgrims represented a special outfit style as it was no longer completely similar to the European one related to the Late Modern Age. Men preferred suits, which, as a rule, consisted of knee-length trousers, the so-called breeches, shirts, and doublet (Karr). As the indispensable attribute of the female wardrobe, there was a corset called stays that was intended to give the body the necessary form. The waistcoat was dressed over the corset, which was very similar to the man’s jacket. As for the skirts, women wore woolen dresses regardless of season as they had to deal with housework.
Shoes were, perhaps, the most important subject of the wardrobe. The colonists sometimes traveled several dozen miles per day, thus wearing leather knee boots with the low stable heel and square or round nose (“Colonial Clothing”). The spurs helped to control the horse, but more often they were still attached to the male versions. To keep their feet warm, the first settlers put on wool stockings with garters that were fixed on the hips (“Colonial Clothing”).
As for the headdresses, the pilgrims preferred hats that were expected to protect them from the scorching sun, torrential rain, and strong wind. Thus, severe climatic issues largely affected the outfits of people in the colonial era.
To protect the clothes and keep them clean, the colonists wore aprons made of wool. For women, an apron was almost an indispensable piece of clothing, because they were engaged in household chores (Karr). Men’s aprons were used less often, mostly only by traders, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Despite the wild conditions, the first settlers wanted to look attractive. Even though their outfits were devoid of grace and luxury to some extent, it was one of the voluntary sacrifices they had made in the name of settling the New World.
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20th century: The Age of Revolutionary Changes
In 1906, Paul Poiret, the French designer, presented his collection of women’s clothes without the use of corsets, and women of the whole world and those of America, in particular, literally “exhaled”. The female costume was simplified with that corset cancellation while hats with large ornaments, on the contrary, became incredibly popular among the US women.
The period between the 1910s and the 1920s is famous for the so-called Jazz Age – the emergence of new music, social groups, and dances that led to changes in the fashion of Americans: both men and women needed costumes, in which it would be comfortable enough to dance incendiary dances (Blanco and Doering 105). Therefore, wide non-restrictive trousers became in style among men, and women wore short trousers below the knee that were decorated with fringe, which could flutter during the dance.
In the late 1920s, with the beginning of the Great Depression, the Americans had to control their expenses more properly (Ferdman). Women could not buy new clothes for themselves, yet the latest US fashion dictated the attention to changing old outfits by adding new accessories and elements. Ferdman states that the changes that occurred during that period made a huge impact on nowadays preferences of Americans, both men, and women: once they turned out to wear sports coats and convenient dresses, respectively, their approach to clothing became versatile.
The subsequent 1930s and 1940s were marked by the participation in the First World War and the Second World War along with their impact on society. Women were called to wear short dresses to save cloth for the military needs, and do not wear stockings as the material was used for designing parachutes (Blanco and Doering 116). However, since the US territory was free of hostilities, some women continued to create American fashion against all obstacles.
While the females of Europe tried on the style of the military, American women wore dresses with voluminous tops, hypertrophied shoulders, belt, and flared skirt. Men of that period were primarily dressed in military uniforms.
During the incredibly feminine 1950s, the Americans finally got the opportunity to fully plunge into fashion trends and pay as much attention to their appearance as possible. The world of women has been divided into “before” and “after” – there was a real fashion revolution – wide trousers, flared tops, showing the naked belly and, of course, a mini-skirts. According to Blanco and Doering, “pin-up imagery and sweater girl styles influenced fashionable ideal and softened the idea of women” (14). The rapid denudation of female legs shocked the society, causing controversial attitudes towards that trend.
The 1980s can be described as the excess of everything in outfits. The clothes of the Americans suddenly became too bright, tight, and shiny. It occurred as a result of the growing popularity of new styles of music, aerobics, hip-hop, and skateboarding. People tried to match their social group or subculture, so they often overdid with the identification marks (Blanco and Doering 218). It should be noted that “skirts and dresses were usually short and even provocative, especially in the latter part of the decade, however loose and flowing dresses, as well as long denim skirts, were also notable trends” (“Over Seventy Years of Fashion History”). With the onset of the 1990s, people remembered that jeans and over-sized sweaters are rather convenient, so clothing of that period is characterized by convenience mode for Americans. The beginning of the 21st century presented the importance of bright colors, open body, and Pamela Anderson as the icon of the style.
The American style of clothing fully reflects the mentality of this country, namely, the aspirations of people to independence and simplicity. Both men and women generally prefer a casual style that does not constrain movements. Among the current trends in outfits, the first places are taken by convenience and sports clothes (English 120). Americans prefer straight silhouettes and minimum luxury. Natural materials of fabrics such as cotton, wool, etc. have an unconditional advantage over synthetics. Among the modern trends, there is also the selection of T-shirts with colorful prints and various inscriptions. The waistcoat with a sweater or jeans and a shirt is the most comfortable and adorable type of clothing for many Americans.
In conclusion, it seems appropriate to emphasize that plenty of social, economic, and political aspects impacted the American outfits, changing them, and also the appearance of people. Among the most important events, there is the onset of new music, subcultures, world wars, the Great Depression, etc. The fact that modern America is composed of plenty of nations and cultures, presenting the so-called melting pot, also affects the clothing style and preferences of the Americans.
Blanco, Jose, and Mary Doering. Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe. ABC Clio, 2016.
“Colonial Clothing.” Land of the Brave. Web.
Ferdman, Roberto A. “Why Americans dress so casually?” The Washington Post. 2015. Web.
English, Bonnie. A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk. 2nd ed., Bloomsbury, 2013.
Karr, Karren E. “American Clothing.” Quatr.US Study Guides. Web.
“Over Seventy Years of Fashion History – How Fashions Have Changed Since the 1920s.” The People History. Web.
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