America the Comfortable


IN THE DAYS WHEN the designers’ power seemed absolute, fashions changed at an alarmingly rapid rate, and often for no apparent reason. So capricious, so mysterious were the forces at work that specific styles, though they make sense in retrospect, seem to have come from nowhere. It was probably inevitable that fashion would in time acquire a little common sense, that the prevailing ideal of women’s beauty would become one of more naturalness, but hardly coincidental that it happened during the 1970s, when all America was going back to nature—eating granola, backpacking, and decorating city apartments with wicker, bleached pine, Haitian cotton, and plants. Artists, determined to get to the bottom of things, isolated the elements of composition and worked with each separately, distilling every form to the barest minimum. This was minimalism, and its nuts-and-bolts aesthetic, underlying Sol Lewitt’s paintings and Philip Glass’s music, isn’t far from the impulse that three years ago led Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Giorgio Armani to restrict their palettes to a narrow range of “neutral” colors—beige, gray, olive drab—shifting all the interest to the play of textures.

When fashion began in the seventies to appropriate plain clothes—the dutiful, sensibly planned sportswear that has historically been the American garment industry’s mainstay—American style finally came of age. This is the way of dressing we know best, and, whether or not it looks especially attractive, it’s comfortable, and we’re comfortable with the idea of it. The idea is essentially a moral one—a matter of ethics, aesthetics aside. The religion may have been lost along the way, but the Puritan sensibility instilled to this day in many Americans from birth holds our material desires in check. Objects—a chair, a spoon, a shoe—are defined by the function they perform, and any detail that doesn’t serve that function is frivolous, mere trimming. The beauty of a Shaker chair is in its integrity. Good prose must be pared down, stripped of decoration, if it’s to follow the plainspoken example set by The Elements of Style. Elegance is, to the American way of thinking, a little austere,

A crew-neck sweater, silk evening pajamas, or a pair of gabardine slacks— particularly as designed by Calvin Klein, whose name is to many Europeans now synonymous with the American style—is simple and declarative, as French clothes rarely are. Yves Saint Laurent’s, for example, insist on closer examination—the line of the lapel, the intricate construction, the shape of the sleeve, must be appreciated in detail. Between Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Halston, John Anthony, and Zoran, on the one hand, and Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Karl Lagerfeld, and Hubert de Givenchy, on the other, lie the ocean and the difference between American and French fashions, between ready-to-wear and couture—a difference that dates back to the nineteenth century, when Americans were ordering their wardrobes by mail from Sears, Roebuck and the French were commissioning theirs from local dressmakers. While our heritage is one of mass-market clothes, in shapes generalized enough to fit various body types, the French draw on a tradition of custom-tailoring; even in designing readyto-wear, a concession French couturiers first made—reluctantly—some thirty years ago, the French think in highly individual terms. Paris fashion is born in the atelier, a hothouse in which the immediate sensuous appeal of beautiful clothes is cultivated. The French notion of what constitutes a personal style in dressing rests with a woman’s discernment, her ability to select a beautifully designed jacket, shoe, or bag—and, of course, with those things themselves. (When I bought a blouse last winter in Paris, the salesgirl said: “Vous avez bien choisi.”) American style, for its part, is 10 percent the clothes and accessories a woman has to work with and 90 percent ingenuity, sleight-ofhand. It’s chic on the cheap—something made out of nothing, with bright-colored socks or a scarf or a belt—brash and a bit incongruous, but with a sense of humor. Judging by the clothes that fill most American women’s closets, few of us can be said to reside in the realm of high fashion, but we venture into it, flying by the seat of our Armysurplus pants.

European resistance to the way of dressing now known as American style has had nothing to do with recognizing its Americanness and everything to do with recognizing its style: for a long time, the “American style" was the absence of any style whatsoever. Today, American designers make fashion that suits the way their constituency feels about clothes, for the lives women are now called upon to lead. Americans have always understood “active sportswear” and conceived it in highly original terms (Claire McCardell’s designs from the 1940s, currently revived, confirm this), and it is that natural affinity for casual sports clothes that move well which they now bring to all kinds of dressing—for the office, for exercise, for evenings, for weekends. Sex appeal, when it enters the American fashion picture, is either ingenuous and cheerleaderlike, with overtones of highschool romance (as in Perry Ellis’s skating suits last winter), or turned-on and aggressive, in some advanced stage of undress (like Calvin Klein’s scant silk “bathrobe” wrap dresses). There is, apparently, no very practicable way for a woman to look sexy during the daytime—there is no reason she should want to. Sexy dressing is, to our minds, how to dress for sex.

If the absolute consistency of styles in any given year in the past now seems a bit baffling, it is not, as a good many people think, because fashion was once a conspiracy, with designers, editors, and department-store buyers all closeted in a back room at Maxim’s deciding how women should dress. Instead, it was circumstances that conspired to make one silhouette or hemline or color ubiquitous. The shape fashion takes always depends on the fabrics available at the time—crisp woolens suggest tailoring, for example, while soft woolens lend themselves to drapery—and twenty years ago, with fewer fabric resources to choose from, designers often found themselves on the same track. Then, too, the ready-to-wear industry was unashamedly out to copy the couture. Paris uttered the word, and Seventh Avenue passed it on. A good designer’s influence was everywhere, but his share of the credit—and the profit —was comparatively small. When French couturiers finally set about making ready-to-wear, it was to knock off their own collections and cash in.

THAT FASHION IS now bigger business than ever, with licensee agreements proliferating faster than designers can sign their initials to so many sheets, Cadillacs, and billfolds; that European couturiers have now come around to adapting their designs to mass-production techniques, for the vast and everexpanding import network in the States; that a hugely successful designer such as Perry Ellis comes equipped with a background in retailing and a first-hand understanding of what women want, of what sells—these are still more signs of new times, when fashion has had to learn how to hustle. This is the American way. Designers will probably never again agree on silhouettes and hemlines: too much depends on each maintaining his own distinct identity, now that the couture and readyto-wear collections are flagships for a conglomerate that bears his name.

Fashion is still news, but the press today reports a different story—not the theme of the collections but their diversity, something for everyone. Even so, for all these various shapes and colors and lengths, women today don’t dress so differently, one from the other, as might be supposed. There is still a prevailing mode, but it’s an attitude, no longer a look. Fashion now comes down to comfort: when a women feels comfortable, she looks her best. While a purely visual aesthetic is always somewhat arbitrary, this one is logical and morally defensible—like contemporary art. We live in an age of conceptual fashion.

But even now, freed from designers’ edicts—what’s “in” this year, what’s “out” —people persist in following trends (cowboy boots, at the moment), borrowing style from one another. It seems both ironic and predictable that a society of immigrants, the self-proclaimed melting pot of all nations, should seize on conformity as the means by which people are classified. By the clothes we wear, we declare that we belong, and what we belong to. So fashion, for all its frivolity, is a practical notion after all.

The course of fashion runs parallel to the histories of politics and art. That so much authority was vested in designers during the late forties and the fifties is not surprising; Americans then placed their faith in big business and big government; painters joined forces in the name of abstract expressionism and choreographers in the name of modern dance. Identity was defined collectively, in movements or causes, and individuality wasn’t yet the cult it was to become later on. Fashion was once a fairly reliable index to the social and political order—who was on top, who was climbing, who rebelled. The signals sent by clothes change when we come to need different information at first glance. Today, fashion is less concerned with propriety, not coy but forthright about sexuality, and ostentatiously preoccupied with wealth. Louis Vuitton bags are everywhere, not because they’re well-designed but because they’re expensive. Designer labels now designate income brackets, which are slowly supplanting distinctions of social class: old money is giving way to more money.

Appearances are as much to be trusted now as ever, and what to wear is, in America, still a question of right or wrong. Twenty years ago, the fashionable woman cared about fashion. Today, she dresses as if she didn’t give a damn. For the time being, clothes are chiefly required to tell the truth, in concise and straightforward terms. Fantasy, anything that might falsify or misrepresent a woman’s true identity, is cast aside as we strive for some realistic outlook on our lives and on the people around us. As an American, I subscribe wholeheartedly to this policy of honesty in clothes—in spirit. The flesh, however, is weak.

One afternoon, I wandered into Saks, where Saint Laurent evening clothes had been marked down, picked a velvet ballgown off the rack, and marched straight for the fitting rooms as if I’d been intending to do so all along. To say that the dress fit well is too literal a verdict; I saw myself as I never knew I could look. Like a heroine, I thought, and I bought the dress. That was five years ago, and it was two years before I could come up with an occasion to wear it.

In admiring and wearing Saint Laurent clothes since, I’ve come to the conclusion that his genius lies in this ability to reveal to a woman some undisclosed side of her personality. In the hands of the best designers, fashion sets a woman’s sense of herself free. Like little girls who try on different identities by playing dress-up, or actresses who put on their characters with their costumes, women rely on their clothes to help persuade themselves—and, probably, others—that they are whoever it is they need to be. At the moment, women urgently need to believe that they are competent, intelligent, responsible, ambitious, sensible, and strong, and American fashion provides the clothes to convince us of it.

My mother asked me how much I paid for my ballgown. I divided the price by four and added fifteen dollars. “Oh, my,” she said. Well, even that amount was an awful lot of money for a dress. But it wasn’t the dress I bought. I bought proof that people are larger than the everyday dimensions of their lives. □