Chicago Manual of Style—11/5/2010

From across the pond, a new perspective on American style

By Jessen O'Brien

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne writes about how the discovery of the New World led to a clearer definition of self. When confronted with the other, we are better able to know ourselves through this contrast, at least according to Montaigne.

Don’t worry, you haven’t stepped into a second-rate Sosc essay masquerading as the style column, and I promise not to spend the next few hundred words on my amateur interpretations of philosophers. I bring up Montaigne only because this idea has lately been affecting the way I think about fashion and style. You see, I am currently studying abroad in Paris, and whenever I look up from my Civ readings, I find myself surrounded by a style slightly different from that in Chicago. These differences have caused me to re-evaluate my definition of style in general and American style in particular.

First, what is style? The ever-convenient gives 22 unique definitions in its first entry alone, the most obviously relevant one being the fifth: “a mode of fashion, as in dress, esp. good or approved fashion; elegance; smartness.” However, I don’t think this goes far enough.

To start with, style is not simply “a mode of fashion,” and, in fact, fashion and style often contradict. To me, fashion refers to various trends of clothing and accessories throughout specific periods of time. Whether it’s ephemeral or cyclical, something in fashion is bound to be unfashionable in due time. Furthermore, there is a certain accepted code to fashion. You can see that a shirt’s fashionable, put on a fashion-forward dress, and even be a fashionista. And given a little time and training, anyone can be fashionable—it’s not so hard to dress in “approved” fashion. Style, on the other hand, cares little for the ever-changing approval fashion depends upon.

As naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon said, “the style is the man himself.” Sure, he was talking about writing and not clothing, but the principle still applies: Style is an expression of self. Consequently, your style is a personal statement about who you are and, unless you’re still a preteen, you’ve probably developed a fairly consistent character. To have style, therefore, is to transcend the temporariness of fashion and cross into a far more permanent realm.

With this permanency and personalization comes a sort of defiance of the dictates of fashion. Instead of trying to look trendy, you see if trends complement youre existing look.

However, outside of the whole kindergarten teacher idea of “everyone is special with their own special tastes,” not everyone actually has style. Most people put only a passing effort into their clothes, while others work to be simply fashionable. A select few try to establish their own style, and still fewer succeed.

This does not mean that style is wholly unique. In fact, it’s often derivative or referential in some way. Even style icons draw inspiration from someplace, and more often than not that place is other style icons (look at Madonna and Lady GaGa). However, style must be recognizable. When someone has personal style, you instantly know whom you’re looking at by what they wear and how they wear it.

Now to American style in particular: What is it, exactly? For starters, there are a lot of strong lines and shapes. There’s a tendency towards the bold, graphic, and structural. When I think of quintessential American designers, names like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Marc Jacobs come to mind. Whether it’s minimalism, preppy, or a little rebellious, American styles often prefer to have a powerful, immediate impact on the viewer.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Americans don’t do subtle or frilly, but, nevertheless, there is a general American style that falls along these lines. If you need more convincing, I plan to write about French style later in the quarter—in a country a thirtieth the size of the United States, you can find so many different looks your head would spin. And maybe the contrast will do for you what it did for me.