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History of American Fashion Introduction

In A Nutshell

The clothes we wear and the trends we follow are often associated with superficiality and materialism. Fleeting styles come rapidly into vogue, then disappear as quickly as they came. But fashion has always been intrinsically connected to deeper elements of the American experience, from the economy and labor system to culture, religion, and class. From our underwear to our Levi's to our sneakers, what we wear has, for centuries, spoken volumes about who we are, what we do, and what we want. Whether Americans have dressed to make a political statement, to assert their class status, or simply to be irreverent, every style has carried a certain social meaning. This is in part because our culture has long ascribed great significance to individuals' public image, and because image has long been intertwined with the American capitalist economy. As Mark Twain once wrote, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."1 Then again, Twain never lived to see the rise of Playboy. Clothes—or the lack thereof—remain central to contemporary American culture and integral to our national history.


Why Should I Care?

Whether you've argued with your parents or friends about what you wear, or cringed as you gaze at old pictures of yourself in once-trendy styles, or judged another person by his or her choice of clothes, you know that fashion matters in our day-to-day lives. Terms like "white collar" and "blue collar" connote not just a line of work but a person's class status, and remind us that we tend to make assumptions about a person's income, line of work, and social position based on the way he or she dresses. Fashion history also extends beyond the economics of designer profits and class systems; issues of gender, power, and sexuality all intersect with the clothes we wear. Many people judge a woman's sexuality and values by the way that she dresses; if her clothes are deemed too revealing or flashy, she might be called a "ho." Regardless of how exaggerated or contrived these presumptions might be, they continue to pervade our popular culture and influence the way that we present ourselves in public and even in private. Even society's mavericks—the goths garbed in black, the hippies with long hair and natural clothing, the nudists—all indicate the importance of appearances and perceptions by dressing (or not dressing) in order to make a point about who they are and what they think of social conventions.

Whether you are a slave to fashion trends or proud to flout them, you are about to embark upon a history that is about much more than evanescent vogues and high-priced brand names; this is the story of class, race, sex, politics, big business, and popular culture, a story spun through the clothes we wear.

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