Today, no matter where we come from, we’re all a bit American. Coca-Cola, Nike and Disney, blue denim, cowboys and roadside motels: these references are ingrained in the way people think, feel and consume worldwide. The references are universal and instantly recognizable, which makes them perfect working material for fashion brands.
Americana influences popped up in many SS18 collections, and they were overwhelmingly present in the recent FW18 men's shows.
In Milan, Bella Hadid opened the Dsquared2 show wearing a denim shirt and red-and-black check cowboy jacket. An array of cowboy hats, string ties, studded leather trousers and belts with huge buckles followed. In blue LED lights, it was not Americana of the prairies, but Americana of the mall, which celebrated big money, reality TV and shameless consumption. The Dsquared2 collection was the tip of the iceberg in fashion’s current obsession with the cultural codes and myths of the USA. Whether it’s American tragedy, American horror story or American dream, everyone wants a piece.
America is the epicenter of mass culture. Its culture and aesthetics have been copied and reproduced so widely and so badly that they are rarely considered high brow — which makes them highly relevant in an era when bad taste makes good fashion.
But in fact, it’s not always the case, and one of the most poignant examples of the trend is exactly the opposite. Raf Simons’s work for Calvin Klein is built entirely on visual tropes of U.S. culture, with its shiny surface and underlying darkness. Simons’ collections for the brand featured modernist versions of sheriff shirts, blood-stained cowboy boots and plastic coats, which simultaneously channeled Twin Peaks, American Psycho, and plastic-wrapped couches. The designer also tapped into the history of violence in American art and film, by using prints of Andy Warhol’s "Knives," “The Ambulance Disaster” and “The Electric Chair," and of Dennis Hopper counterculture classic Easy Rider.
Simons’ Americana is refined, controlled and handsome, much like American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman, but his designs hit a nerve when the first lady Melania Trump appeared wearing one of CK's red Western shirts. It was like the pop culture snake biting its own tail: Raf’s creations in the midst of the real-life political horror that inspired them. Back in the 20th century, the U.S. gave us the first televised war in Vietnam— and now we’re all living under the threat of wars started via Twitter. Right now, global politics are impossible to ignore, and contemporary fashion has picked up the agenda.
With its endless variety of tropes and references, the Americana aesthetics offer endless possibilities for different stories. Palm Angels showed a mixture of rough punk aesthetics and the American Midwest, completed with spiked balaclavas, tartan and Grant Wood's cult painting American Gothic. In its SS18 womenswear collection, Versace had black leather cowboy outfits with golden studs and chains, straight out of an ’80s NYC fetish club.
N21 had shirts printed with a picture of a red motel sign against bright blue skies. Cow-and-red-floral jackets popped up at Marques Almeida, and Ashleigh Williams combined cowboy hats with hoodies and bomber jackets. Astrid Andersen created a young, urban version of a midnight cowboy, complete with puffer jackets and loose-filling tartan trousers. Dries Van Noten’s take was perhaps the most subtle and romantic, with aesthetics of the Western movies coming through in shirt collars, seams and snakeskin boots.
Translated into clothes, the Americana aesthetic is built on pre-existing stereotypes, and goes in line with fashion’s obsession with national identities and the nature of the local in an increasingly global world.
Gosha Rubchinskiy got the whole world hyped about post-Soviet cool, with tracksuits, football scarfs, cryptic messages in Cyrillic and underground Russian raves. In search of a rejuvenated look, Burberry tapped into the history of British photography and got Blondey McCoy posing in a classic beige check trench coat.
The journeys designers embark on — either to Moscow’s tower block estates, Britain's bleak countryside or a highway in Arizona — are never about real places, but ideas of places, about looking for identity in politically challenging circumstances. It’s essential to question what it means to grow up in Russia under Putin, to be British after Brexit, or to be American in the era of Trump. And do these categories even make sense in a world where nationalities are gradually and irreversibly receding?
Americana works because it’s universal. The American Dream is a quest for freedom, success and love — and the spectacular downfall they could bring.
But today, the image of the all-white nuclear family is falling apart, and we need new images to stand behind. Young Thug toying with the aesthetics in the video for "My Family Don’t Matter"; and A$AP Mob, Kelela and Solange starring in Calvin Klein's denim campaign are just a couple of expressions of what it means to be American today.
It’s obvious that the Americana obsession has some dark undertones, both on and off the runway. In recent years, films like American Honey, Tangerine and The Florida Project painted a luminescent picture of America’s underbelly, with forgotten youth and invisible inhabitants of roadside motels. Contemporary art is also on it: Cali Thornhill Dewitt's 29 Flags project rewrote the most horrific murders in U.S. history on American flags; photographer Jim Krantz put one of his cowboy photos on a Supreme jacket, and French artist The Kid got famous through making sinister life-like sculptures of American teenagers.
Kanye also chipped in: the zine for his Calabasas collection was a portrait of a new American frontier, an ultimate Californian non-place somewhere behind a nondescript gas station in LA.
In the end, fashion’s current obsession with Americana is multi-faceted. It's a search for new national identity, a restless game of cultural references, and a reaction to news-infused paranoia. Fashion has a new way of being political, and it's turning our fears and doubts into products.
With the Doomsday Clock ticking away, we can only hope that we’re not commodifying our own end.