American Classics

How seven everyday clothing items became American style staples.

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Look into your closet or slide open a drawer and you’ll likely spot them: a pair of jeans here; a white T-shirt there; a set of sneakers or a baseball cap tucked into a corner.

They could be thrifted, bought in bulk, or hand-crafted by a high-end designer; maybe you wear them to do yard work, maybe they’re nice enough for the office -- or maybe they’re collector’s items reserved for special occasions.

Regardless of how you wear them, what those items all have in common is that they have a long history in the United States, helping to shape what we think about when we think of American style.

“American style is accessibility,” says Nancy Deihl, a costume studies professor at New York University and the co-author of “The History of Modern Fashion.” “It’s something that everyone can participate in. It can be a look, but I think it’s also a feeling; this belief, really, in that everyone has the ability or the opportunity to be stylish.”

It’s impossible (not to mention pointless) to try to think of a single “look” as being representative of an entire nation. Instead, says Emma McClendon, an associate curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, American style is less about a particular outfit and more about individualism.

“It’s an attitude toward clothing, and what you want out of your clothing,” McClendon says. “There is something in America that puts an emphasis on functional clothing that’s going to work with your lifestyle, whatever that lifestyle may be. It’s still about aesthetic, but the way that it’s made, the way that it fits, the way that it wears on your body has an ease, a function, and a comfort to it that allows you to do what you want to do.”

Here, we take a look at the rise of seven items that, through their flexibility, have become classic style staples in the United States.

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