December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
An expert on fashion history looks at portraits of some eminent Americans to see what they say about the native style
Until recent years the United States wasn’t known as a capital of fashion for men. If anything, our historical male image has been rough and artless compared with suave British counterparts and elegant Continental models. Nevertheless, we have had true masculine fashion figures, men whose dress has harmonized so well with their free American souls that the whole world has been moved by the combination. American sartorial heroes have leaped past fashion, sidestepping the understated masculine icon invented in England by Beau Brummell early in the nineteenth century. In this country a different standard arose for male looks, based on an ideal of strong individual personality devoid of eccentricity, free but sane. It allowed a way to dress that might incorporate—but was never a slave to—the restrained look of success in an ordered middle-class society. Instead, an American man’s clothes could reveal some unique style or personal goal and be a mirror of those cherished ambitions America hopes to foster in each citizen. Here men’s clothes at their greatest moments have had the sense of liberty without lawlessness that all the best American style embodies.