What Does It Mean to Dress Like an American?


First of all, don’t fall prey to the jeans-and-leggings stereotype — or to any stars-’n’-stripes hogwash. It’s as hard to generalize about style across the United States as it is to generalize about style across Europe. New England is different from the South is different from Texas, which is different from California. (Even Northern and Southern California are different from each other.)

All of which is to say, it’s hard to define what qualifies as an “American look” these days. National style stereotypes of all kinds are fast going the way of the dodo. That is, frankly, a good thing.

Even when such grand declarations were more in vogue — when “American style” was synonymous with sportswear of all kinds, for example — it was more of a fake construct than a real one. (For every Bonnie Cashin or Levi’s fan, there was a Babe Paley.)

Still, because it is often hard to see your own forest when you are in the trees, I thought I would ask some fashion week colleagues who hail from other countries if they thought there was an “American” signature, or giveaway. I was surprised at what came back.

Almost universally, they said they could tell an American not by what they wore but by how they wore it. Chioma Nnadi, the new head of editorial content for British Vogue, grew up in London and spent years in New York before moving back to Britain. She said that for her it was a high-low combination of relaxed and polished that stood out.

“Ayo Edebiri at the post-BAFTA party, for example,” she said, noting the actress’s white button-up shirt, Bottega Veneta “jeans” (they were actually leather made to look like denim) and giant Tiffany aquamarine necklace. “She still looked major, but she also looked cool,” Ms. Nnadi said.

Bryan Yambao, the editor of Perfect magazine, was born in the Philippines and lives in Sweden and became famous as a blogger under the name BryanBoy. He also said that he thought “polish” was the hallmark of an American look and that it had more to do with hair, skin and nails than any specific items of dress. Americans, he said, are not afraid to look as if they are trying in the morning. (He thought that was an admirable trait.) As if they care what they put on and how they put it together.

That’s about attitude more than anything else: a willingness to engage actively with the process of dress, take responsibility for it and not to dissemble. All of which suggests that the sheer fact you are asking this question and thinking about how you will be perceived means you are already on the right track.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.



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