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Origins of American Casual

Elena Wang

We’re all familiar with the idea of quiet luxury and understated elegance, but restraint isn’t, generally speaking, the name of the fashion game. Modern style may stand out for its streamlined aesthetic relative to the corseted structures and passementerie of earlier centuries; however, super-pared wardrobe staples point to a distinctively American contribution to the history of fashion.

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Our first ‘casually dressed’ first-lady

Arguably, the American fashion industry scored its first big break from Parisian influence in the 1910s, when wartime conditions compelled Americans to rely on their own sartorial ingenuity. Lifestyle changes toward sports and leisure then created the perfect conditions for a new fashion sensibility to emerge.

Women designers led the American fashion revolution. In contrast to the bias cuts and Grecian pleats of gowns across the Atlantic, they prioritized versatile separates and durable fabrics. Their inspirations came from menswear, children’s clothing and military garb. Enter blouses worn with skirts or shorts. Cotton playsuits. Linen shirt-dresses.! The Baracuta jacket brought to America by film stars like Steve McQueen

The new American wardrobe equally evoked the specific rhythms of places dear to the American imagination. California’s laid back culture was a major influence. New York’s high-octane environment drove innovations in luxury sportswear.

It is little mystery, then, why the fashion icons of mid-century America embodied simplicity at its most refined. By the 1950’s, one of Truman Capote’s swans, the columnist and socialite C. Z. Guest, became famous for entertaining in cashmere sweaters, while First Lady Jackie Kennedy glamorized capris and tees in a minimalist palette of black, white and beige.

The best-dressed American men exhibited the same casual panache. On-screen and off, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen reigned in denim button-downs and Baracuta jackets. Bob Dylan captivated in suedes and stripes.

By the end of the century, the “casual look,” as it was referred to, had become seriously bankable. Over the years, American brands known for basics in primary colors morphed into booming multinational corporations.

Today, more than ever, the fashion industry cycles through silhouettes, colors, prints and accessories at dizzying speeds. But there is an art to stunning through simplicity – and we would do well to remember that the art is homegrown - and distinctly America.