Americana: A Working Definition

America is a relatively new nation compared to other fashion hubs like Italy, France, or England, and yet its history and relationship with clothing runs deep both nationwide and abroad. It’s remarkable how much of an impact America has had on fashion in such little time, but equally unsurprising considering its action-packed history, and the boiling pot nature of its own culture. Unlike most countries known for their fashion, Americana clothing has typically existed on the other end of the spectrum of its high-fashion counterparts in Europe. 

American style celebrates the heroism of the individual, as a maverick – the pioneer of your destiny, an identifier that remains integral to many present-day Americans. As we revisit our past, it is both surprising and expected to see the widespread presence of brands such as Levi’s, Carhartt, and Lee surpass their functionality and form to become the new staples of our modern-day trends. What sets American fashion apart from other cultural identities is its ambiguity and lawlessness. Whether it’s cowboys riding through the Wild West sporting Levi’s, hippies wearing the same pants in protest a hundred years later, or these brands’ lasting presence in film; Americana has continued to remain and evolve with the nation and world’s collective consciousness. 

Collection of ’70s and ’80s Levi’s Jeans

Levi’s for example, an industrial American staple was founded by a German-born, Jewish immigrant in 1873. With a focus on functionality, the brand established itself as one of the essential manufactures of early Americana style. While residing in San Francisco during the mid-1800s, Levi Strauss released his first jeans, when at the time, most Americans settled in the west were busy mining, ranching, and laying the foundation for the pre-urban West. It is during this time, that the American Dream and Manifest Destiny begin to collide in their efforts to define a nation. Levi’s paved the way for other denim-centric, heritage brands such as Lee and Wrangler to become household names and cultural mainstays, both nationally and abroad; putting quality basics like jeans, overalls, and denim jackets into the hands of Americans.

Movies such as True Grit, Stagecoach, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, embodied America’s fascination with Western folklore. Directors like Sergio Leone, put the spirit of manifest destiny on a silver, albeit bloody platter to worldwide viewers; thus prolonging, and strengthening Americana’s already sharpshooting presence within culture, fashion, and media alike. 

Clint Eastwood in The Good The Bad, and The Ugly

Even if you’ve never seen these movies, the name Clint Eastwood is synonymous with the west. Sporting blue jeans, a suede fur vest, poncho, and cowboy hat, Eastwood embodies the fantastical American Dream: a ruthless horse riding, sharpshooting, rugged badass. While it may seem that films such as The Good The Bad, and The Ugly present a fictional, idealized version of Western America, to a certain degree, they are not far from reality. Unfortunately, the lawless privilege that comes from manifest destiny causes us to overlook its harsh and traumatic consequences. Despite this oversight, manifest destiny continues to influence the actions of future generations.

“Bill” Dressed in Americana Style 1958

Fifteen years before Clint Eastwood hit the silver screen as the Man with No Name, a group of Congolese teenagers, inspired by Spaghetti Westerns, began to dress and act like cowboys. This movement, later known as Billism, was the result of half a dozen movie theaters opening in the African neighborhoods of Leopoldville. On their quest towards manhood and assimilation, these teens abandoned Congolese traditions and adopted the unruly nature of cowboys – who embodied the freedoms and privileges they desired. It may have been the spirit of American badassery, and the resemblance of these characters in Congolese folklore that drew Bills to this imagery; but the fact that these marginalized African kids were able to embrace this aesthetic proves the ever-lasting desirability of Americana fashion.

Dr. King Schultz and Django from Django Unchained

The style is so irrefutable that even those oppressed by this budding nation wanted to adopt the aesthetics of Americana in their efforts to define their place in history. Quentin Tarantino shows us just how powerful the intersection between identity and aesthetics can be with Django Unchained, a modern-day Spaghetti Western. Jamie Foxx’s character, Django, begins his journey as a slave accompanying bail bondsman Dr. King Schultz as he collects his bounties. In exchange for assisting Schultz, Foxx is able to buy his freedom. Despite being a freeman, Django must adopt traditional cowboy adornment – not unlike the garments worn by the cowboys in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – to bring legitimacy to his newly freed status. The aesthetics present in Americana fashion work to legitimize the lawlessness synonymous with American independence.

Although Americana fashion may not be high-end, the values it embodies transcend functionality, giving the wearer a sense of contextualized pride. Donning the same styles as our favorite icons brings us closer to a history that we as a nation, are constantly working to redefine. Whether it’s sporting cowboy hats as an act of defiance, embracing a lawless attitude while wearing jeans, or simply hoping for the freedoms and privileges seen on the silver screen, we are all working to evolve, interpret, and represent what we as a nation love about Americana fashion.

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