Parsing American Style – The New York Times

Photographs by Simbarashe Cha, Rose Marie Cromwell, Michael Tyrone Delaney, Eli Durst, Holly Lynton, OK

Last month, after a nearly two year hiatus, Anna Wintour and her co-hosts once again sent out invitations to the Met Gala, fashion’s equivalent of the Oscars.

The invitations to the annual $35,000-a-ticket event announce a dress code that doubles as a theme based on a corresponding exhibit from the Met’s Costume Institute — usually a cryptic phrase that allows leeway for the A-list and their designers to improvise and riff.

Past events have been given titles like: “Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” (2018), at which Rihanna wore a John Galliano pope outfit, and “Punk: Chaos to Couture” (2013), where Sienna Miller threw a studded Burberry leather jacket over a gown. This year the theme for the Sept. 13 gala is: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”

As counterprogramming to this year’s Met Gala, the Styles section of The New York Times sent out 10 photographers to capture everyday Americans, searching out patterns and links between disparate styles. The editors asked me — a novelist, not a fashion expert — to write an accompanying text on what I see in the images.

My initial inclination was to turn down the assignment. Who am I to opine on the clothing of a few dozen strangers and claim them representative of a country of 330 million? But the photos themselves seduced me. As did the precedent they brought to mind.

Beginning in 1935, the Farm Security Administration sent out some of the most famous photographers of the day — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano and Gordon Parks among them — to document everyday people and introduce “America to Americans.” That first F.S.A. project began as America struggled to climb out of the Depression, and while this is a far more modest endeavor, these Times photographers have captured Americans as they struggle to climb out of the pandemic.

I think of the fashion of previous eras as being marked by certain fads that crossed demographics and subcultures. In the 1970s, one was as likely to find bell-bottoms on white people as Black people; in the ’90s, baggy jeans were the norm across many groups.

But, in these photos, I don’t find clear clothing trends from one image to the next. The most ubiquitous silhouette of the millennium thus far — skinny jeans — fails to make a single appearance. On the surface, the fashion consensus is no consensus.

Where are the iconic American brands? No Ralph Lauren horsemen. No Levi Strauss logos. Perhaps one or two Nike swooshes. When the luxury brand Louis Vuitton shows up, it’s casually paired with a can of Modelo beer. Were it not for late-model cars and the occasional cellphone, I wouldn’t quite be convinced that these images were all taken in the same decade, much less the same season.

The question of what these Americans are wearing seems to lead only into dissonance. But as I stared at these photos, the question of how these Americans are dressing began to strike me as more pertinent.

When I discussed this with Avery Trufelman, host of the fashion podcast “Articles of Interest,” she told me about an encounter she had with a fashion designer who refused to take off his suede jacket.

An outfit, he explained, is a sentence. Each piece in the outfit is a word that follows a grammar to add up to a meaning. To remove the jacket from his look would be like removing the verb; it would destroy the grammar, and worse, the meaning. So rather than looking at the people in these photos and asking what they are wearing, I began to ask myself, how they have selected certain items of clothing, as one selects one’s words, and then arranged them, as one arranges syntax, into meaning.

What those of us raised on social media choose to say varies across politics, cultures and regions, but how we say it has become more and more similar, driven by the homogenizing pressure of clicks and engagement. We speak in pith, in memes, in outrage. We speak in references and in pastiche. We avoid cringe. We pine for any era other than this one. We value authenticity and the casual ease of the viral. We know that trying too hard is suspect.

New York CityOK McCausland

MiamiRose Marie Cromwell

The sentences and syntax of online social media have colonized the sentences and syntax of fashion. The outfits in these photos seem to speak in the same syntax as social media: a syntax of reference — to eras, to fashion icons, to regions — that is used in simple sentences. Subject/verb/object. Shirt/pants/shoes.

Their phrasing favors the generically legible. There is little in the way of fashion arcana, no obscure designers or complicated French seams that only a couturier could admire. These outfits are recognizable in the seven seconds it may take a casual passer-by to peruse a TikTok. This is cowboy. This is punk. This is prep. This is queer.

In order to speak, via clothing, in the syntax of social media — in which words, phrases and concepts have a life cycle of a mere few weeks — Americans have come to rely on access to a huge, and ever-evolving, lexicon, rife with neologisms. In other words, the clothing equivalent of online lexicon is fast fashion. Just as we deploy online phrases and memes that may have a shelf life of less than a month, so too in our clothing do we lean on lexicons that may have cachet for only a few weeks, not even a season.

Or we may pull from lexicon only as much as is needed to assemble a pastiche. No need to dress exactly as they did in the ’70s: tailored tightly, in unforgiving fabrics. One can simply gesture in that direction with a few items bought from a fast-fashion retailer and worn in one of two sizes — slightly too big or stretchy. The majority of photos in this collection speak in this syntax.

A part of me wants to lament this turn away from longevity and durability, but that’s like lamenting the internet. This is the age we live in — for better or for worse. And when I spend enough time with these photos, I find myself becoming grateful. I find myself delighted by how fully the longstanding American art of vibes has come to fruition through our current method and fashion lexicon.

Look at the photo of the two older cowboys facing each other: vignetted in a masculine intimacy, nearly identical in their clothing, the poignancy of the closer, gruff-seeming cowboy atop a horse with a tenderly braided mane — vibes! The two women caught in a similar moment on the beach, in near-matching clothing, one standing between the other’s legs? Vibes! The diptych of deeply tanned shirtless men, in their heavy jewelry, creating a before and after from north to south. The group of laughing teenagers hanging out of a truck to smoke, no one looking another in the eye, paired with the two women zipping up a purse, their gazes steadily downward as a man grins from the driver’s seat of an S.U.V. The woman at the beach, one arm up to let her scarf stream in the wind, the other holding a snack folded into a paper plate.

In any language, grammar and syntax and lexicon ultimately all combine for one purpose: to communicate meaning. I find myself impressed by how casually but precisely and fluently they communicate a vibe that I would call American Fashion.

It is cruising on a skateboard to the imagined virtual applause of millions. It is cars and horses and beverages as accessories. It is eating on the go. It is a sense of space. It is twinning with like-minded people. It is having one’s choice of eras within which to find affinity. It is a certain ease, a casualness. It is not chic. It is not constrained. It flows.