The Historical Roots of American and European Fashion

December 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The difference between American and European fashion is undeniable. Zac Posen acknowledged this a few seasons ago when he moved his runway shows from New York to Paris where he claimed people “better understand his clothes.” In a way Posen’s move made sense – Paris is the Mecca for over-the-top glamour while New York is best known for more egalitarian sportswear.

It recently came to my attention that the difference between American fashion and European fashion has roots in the history of each respective place. The first American settlers lacked time to amass or design rich clothes or accessories, whereas their European contemporaries (the aristocracy, at least) built upon a rich history of sartorial identity that involved jewelry, tailoring, and craftsmanship.

Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (1796)

The aesthetic (and indirectly political) differences between the U.S. and Europe can be seen in historical paintings of the late 18th century. One of the most recognized and canonical American paintings of this time was Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (1796) which showed a modest image of our founding father in a simple white shirt with black blazer. The incompletion of the work and the thin brushstrokes echo the overall pared-down mood of the time.

Francois Bouchert's Madam Bergeret (1766)

Compare this work to a French work of the same time period – Francois Boucher’s Madame Bergeret (1766). The subject is decked out in a silken ball gown adorned with freshly cut flowers. It’s set in an elegant salon and her arms are healthily plump.

The sartorial differences between the subjects of American and European paintings vary a bit, and these two examples illustrate general, overarching aesthetic and political mentalities pervasive at the time. In some ways, we can still see this dichotomous mentality when we compare Diane Von Furstenburg’s wrap dresses to Lanvin’s silk ensembles, or Ralph Lauren’s rugged workwear to Dior’s couture gowns.

Last season, Zac Posen moved his runway shows back to New York – Paris was a bust, apparently. Perhaps this just means that the French didn’t really understand Posen’s clothes. He is, after all, American.

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