Icons of Classic American Style
This article follows on from my previous article on the Updated American style, “The Paul Stuart Variation: Classic American Style“. This article presents a selection of famous men considered icons of American style (sequel to follow).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr – One of Alan Flusser’s favourite icons of classic style, Fairbanks followed his father into Hollywood stardom. He was know for his tailored double-breasted suits, old-world elegance, and strongly European sense of style and deportment.
Fred Astaire – The most famous American dancer of the twentieth century is often held up as the “missing link” between Savile Row style and classic American styles. G Bruce Boyer describes how Astaire, with his Anderson & Sheppard suits, introduced a more relaxed, comfortable style of dress, partially spurred on by the wardrobe demands of his profession, but also influenced by the Duke of Windsor who was revolutionizing men’s clothing in his own way. With an emphasis on shaped but roomy jackets, and full but not billowy pants, Astaire’s style evolved during the Depression into a “mid-Atlantic” style, combining the famous Savile Row “drape” style with softer, more casual Ivy League styles.
Clark Gable – Hollywood’s leading man for decades, the “King of Hollywood” was an early customer and fan of Brioni, helping to introduce the firm’s products and styles to America and to challenge the Savile Row and Ivy League traditions. In leisure, his wardrobe choices were casual American.
Gary Cooper – Truly the “Quiet Man” of Hollywood movies, Cooper was know for his modest lifestyle both on and off the screen. A true outdoorsman, he exchanged the suits worn in studio publicity photos for classic American outdoor clothing when hunting and shooting with his family and friends. But his suits, when worn, show classic proportions and details, well suited to his tall, lean build. Privately, he wore basic white T-shirts more often than anything and had a preference for low-vamp kiltie tassel loafers worn with white socks.
Henry Fonda – Once one of Hollywood’s most famous and respected actors, today Fonda is sadly not well remembered by filmgoers. His sense of style was pure American and embodied a comfortable, prosperous, middle-class sensibility. Just look at those pressed chinos and cardigan!
Cary Grant – What more can be said about Grant, possibly the most famous Hollywood actor of the 20th century? Take a read through Torregrossa’s excellent book for a detailed and informed analysis of Grant’s wardrobe. Polished, debonair, and always well-dressed, Grant will be forever linked with the suit he wore in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. But looking back over a lifetime in photos, it’s apparent that Grant’s wardrobe never stood still and he remained a man sensitive to fashion trends—he was much more than just that suit in that movie.
Jimmy Stewart – One of the most beloved and gentlemanly of Hollywood actors, Stewart made a successful career of playing the honest, decent, and upright American citizen. And it turns out he was like that in private too. Never quite as sharp as Cary Grant in terms of style or grace, he managed to hold his own most of the time and overcame the sartorial challenges presented by his “bean pole” physique.
Frank Sinatra (and The Rat Pack) – Five men who left an unforgettable mark on the history of American entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. Although together for only a few short years (and only one major film), they kept nightclub and lounge acts cool for a while longer and always looked good doing it.
John F Kennedy – One of America’s most popular presidents was an early adopter of the Updated American style introduced by Paul Stuart. Emulated by American men, Kennedy was an ideal showman for a new, more youthful approach to American style. While the Duke of Windsor was ahead of his time in adopting modern style, Kennedy rode the wave of post-war youth-focused American style. From here on, youth would lead the way in style and fashion.
Robert Kennedy – For a long time always photographed looking over his older brother’s shoulder, Bobby Kennedy was the most traditional and grounded male member of his family. It shows in his style: conservative two-piece suits and sensible footwear, timeless and modern at the same time.
Bill Blass – Designer to the most famous and wealthy American women, Bill Blass was one of the most classically American and traditional of designers in the second half of the twentieth century. Although professionally Blass was primarily a womenswear designer, he himself was a great advertisement for updated classic American menswear.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan – Not generally known as a style icon, Senator Moynihan nevertheless kept the classic American Ivy League style (and its subsequent offshoot “preppy”) wearable and in the public eye decades after its popularity had waned among the general population.
Ralph Lauren – Considered the most successful men’s clothing designer of all time, Lauren keeps classic American style moving forward while never losing sight of its past, modifying classic Ivy League styles with modern shapes, colours, and mixes and adding in a healthy dose of British style and elegance. He’s so good he usually does it better than the originals did.
G Bruce Boyer, Fred Astaire Style (New York: Assouline Publishing, 2004)
Jonathan Coe, James Stewart: Leading Man (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1994)
Alan Flusser, Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (New York: Harper Collins, 2002)
Maria Cooper Janis, Gary Cooper Off Camera (New York: Harry N Abrams Inc, 1999)
Richard Torregrossa, Cary Grant: A Celebration Of Style (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2006)
Geoffrey Wansell, Cary Grant: Dark Angel (New York: Arcade Publishing Inc, 1996)