The fashion world has always had a complicated relationship with America. In the collective estimation of the trendsetters who make their living crisscrossing the globe to find the very best things you can put on your back, the clothing, shoes, and accessories produced by the designers here in the States aren’t as experimental as what you’ll find in London or Tokyo, nor as sensual as the stuff in Milan, and certainly not as generation-defining as what designers in Paris can create.
But there’s an interesting tension underscoring those criticisms: many of the fashion darlings on foreign shores have long been inspired by designs with uniquely American heritage. For proof of this, look no further than the late Yves Saint Laurent, one of the greatest designers ever to pick up a needle and thread, who said more than once that he wished he’d invented blue jeans. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity,” he once said. “All I hope for in my clothes.” Levi Strauss rolled out the first pair of jeans almost a century before Saint Laurent would utter those words.
What San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, and both Portlands lack in flash, they more than make up for in innovation. The hallmark of American fashion is not a desire to set trends, but rather a deep and abiding respect for the people who are actually going to wear the clothes. Athletes needed shoes that would help them run faster and jump higher, so Converse created the All Star; soldiers needed to carry extra ammo, so Alpha Industries designed the many-pocketed M-65 field jacket; workers needed protection from the elements (and, occasionally, their own tools) so Carhartt and Timberland made clothes and boots that would keep them warm and safe. And as all of these elements filtered into our broader culture, they created an American style playbook that respects function and form equally, and that prizes timelessness and longevity over short-term impact. It’s why when we talk about heritage brands, so many of the first names mentioned were first trademarked here in the United States.
Below, a look at the 200-year history of United States fashion through the brands that have defined what it means to dress like an American—and the iconic products they created that you can still get today.
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