10 Quintessentially American Fashion Archetypes

By Max Berlinger

America’s reputation as an everchanging melting pot gives it fashion freedom—and powers—that other, older nations may never experience. Sure, the U.S. has its own cultures and traditions, but the country is simply not old enough to have a single dyed-in-the-wool aesthetic. Instead, we have an evolving set of lookbooks, many born out of necessity: the blue-collar chic of workwear, the casual comfort of the surfer, the rugged outdoorsiness of the cowboy and the lumberjack. Is there a unifying element? Yes: The American man has been consistently creative. Not to mention damn good-looking. Here, we reflect on the 10 most influential style archetypes born in the USA.

The Prep

Preppy is a thoroughly American invention. The word harks back to “prep school” and evokes Ivy league outfits: Think of the Kennedys in Cape Cod or Brooks Brothers jackets on 19 year olds at Yale in the 1940s and 1950s (trust us). For the prep community, traditionalism reigns supreme, which means it’s easy to emulate. Items like khakis, polo shirts, navy blazers, and Oxford shirts are descendants of the prep-school uniform. Because of its universal appeal, designers like Ralph Lauren and, in his own subversive way, Thom Browne have built their brands around the idea.

The Surfer

Surfing, the sport, has been around hundreds of years, predominantly in Hawaii and Australia. But it was not a style, per se. Then in the late 1950s/early 1960s, something unexpected happened: movies and music began depicting surfer dudes and a form of fashion was born. Major credit goes to Gidget (starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, and James Darren) and the Beach Boys. The beach-centric lifestyle has a functional element to it—you need to move easily, swim freely, navigate sand, protect your eyes from glare, and most important, get tan. Thus, surfer style is filled with T-shirts, tank tops, swim trunks and shorts, sandals, sneakers, baseball caps, and sunglasses. Hurley, Volcom, Billabong, and Vans are the preferred brands. And maybe Coppertone.

The Cowboy

America is the land of Manifest Destiny and the wild, wild west. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that perhaps one of the most mythical, and enduring, archetypes is that of the cowboy. He’s been used as a marketing tool (the Marlboro Man) and has been personified by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as the ultimate symbol of virility and masculinity during the film genre’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s (it was such an appealing look that even Elvis Presley donned “western” gear from time to time). The modern cowboy can be identified by his boots, Wrangler or Lee jeans, western-style shirts (with signature piping and floral embroideries), and ten-gallon hat—a uniform that even the soignee designer Tom Ford sports while on his ranch in New Mexico. Much like prep, Ralph Lauren has tinkered with totems of cattleman-inspired fashion (and happens to also own a ranch, outside of Telluride, CO.) and he’s not the only one. Many designers stateside and abroad (Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld recently played with the idea for his Pre-Fall 2014 collection) have toyed with the romance of Western style at various times. Giddy up.

The Jock

If European countries are known for their mastery of traditional tailoring, America’s specialty has long been sportswear. That term, however, shouldn’t be confused with active-wear, the preferred choice of apparel of athletes. While this niche market—sportswear—has long been reserved for a specific purpose—i.e. the gym—the category has recently been appropriated for the mainstream, thanks to the effort of designers at Nike, Under Armor and designer labels ranging from J. Crew and Todd Snyder to Givenchy and Calvin Klein. Typical totems of jock-wear include sleek and sporty shapes (like trim windbreakers or second-skin biking shorts), and performance-minded details (like moisture wicking, breathable fabrics). More recently, tech-infused materials like nylon have been incorporated into the fabrication of everything from running shorts to T-shirts. Sometimes it seem that incorporating anything even reminiscent of sweat adds a dose of sexuality to menswear … and this follows the path of the ever-loosening dress codes started in the early 1990s with casual Friday. So though the jock has been around since gladiatorial days, he is really just providing the latest twist to a string of unexpected style cues.

The Techie

While there’s no denying that the tech industry has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, fashion is perhaps the most surprising place it’s been found. Recently, even the style choices of Silicon Valley have become topics of interest. Just look at the attention paid to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous hoodie, pajama pants, and slide sandals, elements of a uniform that was at once emblematic of the industry’s youthful insolence and its out-of-the-box ethos. It’s unclear if that’s actually a step up from 1980s era dorkware (see Revenge of the Nerds) though trendy short-sleeve button-ups and chunky glasses have become au courant. Over time, the “dweeb” aesthetic has sent style shockwaves through fashion circles and helped create a new wave of bookish chic that is anything but square. Just think twice before breaking out the Google Glass.

The Lumberjack/Outdoorsman

A man who works directly with the earth—trees, dirt, good with an axe—is a man who doesn’t have time for clothing to operate on a purely aesthetic level. Like the cowboy (and to some degree the surfer), his is a world of functional priorities. The irony, of course, is that over time those rigid denim pants, those waxed cotton utility jackets, those hefty flannel shirts, and those shit-kicker boots have been adopted by men who have far less exposure to the elements. Even so, Michael Bastian, Gant, and the French label A.P.C. are just a few of the brands that have given us luxe versions of these humble garments. Paul Bunyan needed to dress that way; he was a logger. The Brawny man has no such excuse.

The Blue-Collar Worker

From Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire to Archie Bunker in All in the Family America has long been fixated with the middle-class working man—and his uniforms. Any quick look around the coolest enclaves in your nearest city reveals pockets of “workwear chic,” in which traditionally down-market and inexpensive brands—like Dickies, Carhartt, and Doc Martens (see also: grunge)—are being worn in an upscale way, and without irony. Think: gas-station attendant jackets (perhaps gabardine but not necessarily), jeans and maybe trucker hats. Some observers claim that mechanic-style jumpsuits are having a moment, which would throw a wrench in any rational man’s shopping routine.

The Punk

Many archetypes (metalheads, beatniks, b-boys) take visual cues from a socio-cultural movement and musical genre. Punk, though, is conflicted because the idea, according to early pioneers, was to inspire a DIY, anti-establishment, every-man-for-himself aesthetic, and yet “punk fashion” crystallized into a few distinct cookie-cutter forms: leather jacket, T-shirt, drainpipe jeans, safety pins, ripped and tattered apparel, and sneakers or boots. The Ramones launched a million or more wardrobes (basically a uniform) after their debut album in 1976 (pictured above) though some fashion credit must go to Richard Hell. In an interesting twist, high-end designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier appropriated the subculture’s visual vocabulary (a la Johnny Rotten), and it was eventually celebrated in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year.

The Grunge Guy

The grunge mentality, a less ostentatious cousin to punk’s extreme approach to rule-breaking, first gained popularity in the early 1990s and was born in the Pacific Northwest. Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell came to typify the movement from music to style, and both seemed like they’d been put through a fuzzbox pedal effect that actually echoed a 1970s era, quasi-heavy metal vibe. Torn jeans, beat-up Converse sneakers, threadbare T-shirts (with a flannel tied around the waist—those Seattle nights could get chilly) and a head of shaggy, unwashed hair were telltale signs of grunge’s influence. Now, 20 years later, we’re feeling the re-emergence of the trend. As Public School designer Dao-Yi Chow said: “Flannel shirts never truly go out of style. They just keep being reinterpreted over and over again.” Angst, in so many art forms, can be a wonderful muse.

The Hipster

Different iterations of “hipster” have been chronicled over time (not to be confused with hippie, beatnik, or boho), and mentions of the term go back many decades in the New York Times. Most people, however, imagine young urban professionals (and starving artists), often involved in the indie/alternative music scene—and typically residing in trendy up-and-coming enclaves like Brooklyn/Williamsburg, San Francisco’s Mission District, and Los Angeles’ Silverlake and Echo Park. But you knew that. Hipster fashion can be boiled down to the following laundry list: skinny jeans, plaid shirts, and sneakers—sometimes culled from the local thrift store (heaven forbid it was purchased at Urban Outfitters). Oh, and don’t forget facial hair. Lots and lots of facial hair.

More from DETAILS:
Your Complete Fall Style Cheat Sheet
5 Foods That Make You Look Younger
6 Unspoken Rules of Hooking Up 

14 Healthiest Snack Foods to Buy 
How To Layer Your Fragrances
So You Mistreated Your Skin this Summer … Now What?

Image 5, left: photo courtesy of Everett Collection. All other photos courtesy of Getty