A generic gray flannel suit epitomized the tradition-bound 1950s. The 1940s war effort was made personal by women’s stingily crafted dresses — cut so as to leave ample fabric for uniforms, parachutes and everything else needed during World War II. Fashion has always reflected social change. But over the last few years, its symbolism, its intellectual resonance and its joyous verve have been enjoying newfound respect.
Now, fashion gets its own four-part docuseries on CNN. “American Style” begins Sunday with two episodes and concludes Jan. 20. The behemoth of big-tent cable news channels has turned its attention to fashion as a way of exploring the decades from the 1940s to now. “American Style” zips through fashion history, pausing along the way to draw connections between zoot suits and racism, miniskirts and sex, Sunday bests and the Civil Rights movement.
Much of this is well-covered ground: Woodstock, Rosie the Riveter, etc. But “American Style” is distinguished by its breadth and the way in which one trend is shown to lead to another as a result of the shifting cultural ground. The show removes fashion from a vacuum and reveals the way in which it functions more broadly. The producers don’t delve deeply into any one stylish moment. They give the viewer a buffet of ’40s shoulders, Paris sophistication, Garment District grime and a good bit of fashion public relations.
The result is a lively presentation of style history that relies on news clips, old Hollywood films, a full stable of expert talking heads and a handful of famous faces thrown in for good measure.
The producers manage to add nuance to their bullet points. The 1970s disco era, for example, drawing from gay nightclub culture and black music, was a time of sexual freedom and individualism. It was tamped down by chants of “disco sucks” and bonfires fueled by vinyl recordings. Some of those protesters simply preferred rock to Donna Summer. Others, however, decried disco because it celebrated and empowered the outsider cultures from which it rose.
As a society, we’ve all become more attuned to the revelatory nature of fashion. We scan a crowd of politicians for white-clothed women who might be part of the resistance. Hollywood’s stars walked the red carpet cloaked in black to protest sexual harassment. The hoodie is as fraught a piece of sportswear as there has ever been. It’s a uniform for soccer parents, a marker of Silicon Valley disruption and an instigator of our fear of young men of color.
After being considered a poor relation to the fine arts, fashion exhibitions have been welcomed into countless museums and galleries: the Denver Art Museum explored the history of Dior. Across the country, designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Isabel Toledo, Stephen Burrows and Isaac Mizrahi have been given a critical examination. A look at the relationship between fashion and the Catholic Church drew record crowds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And the National Museum of Women in the Arts mounted a retrospective on Rodarte. The scope and depth of these exhibitions vary widely, but the salient point is that they exist at all. For generations, fashion wasn’t welcome in the world of Rembrandt and Monet. It was an interloper.
But fashion couldn’t be ignored. Visitors delight in these exhibitions. Those at the Met’s Costume Institute have drawn history-making numbers of visitors, with “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” being the most-attended exhibition in the museum’s history. More people wanted to see Balenciaga’s monastic evening gowns than the Mona Lisa.
Filmmakers have turned their lens to fashion as well. Documentarians have done deep dives on the rise and fall — and rise again — of the New York-based designer Zac Posen. Netflix explored the controlled chaos that precedes a Chanel haute couture show for its series “7 Days Out.” And fashion has been a chapter in most every extended look at former first lady Michelle Obama’s eight years in the White House.
Fashion has always spoken volumes about who we are. Someone once said that a single fashion image — the right image — can tell you more about a moment in time than an entire history book. A glimpse of a girl in a miniskirt, a picture of a Black Panther, a woman in a bright pink, knit “pussy” hat all say in a single instant — and in a deeply emotional way — what it could take a writer a thousand painstakingly chosen words to communicate.
But the industry has had a rocky relationship to the outside world. Hollywood tends to caricature designers rather than present them as complicated, creative entrepreneurs. Even the much-lauded film “Phantom Thread” relied on the trope of the designer as tortured narcissist. CNN also has a history of reporting on the fashion industry, most notably when “Style With Elsa Klensch” taught a generation of fashion fans about how designers selected their color palettes, and the difference between jacquard and brocade.
But television tends to turn its eye to fashion sporadically: when a famous designer dies, when a first lady debuts an inaugural gown, when scandals break. Sustained attention to fashion, in the same way that the general media keeps its eyes on sports or technology, has been rare.
There are gatekeepers who determine what’s included under the category of “culturally significant.” They have been hesitant to give fashion entry.
Fashion has always connected us in a global web of aspirations and dreams. As individuals, we’ve always known that to be true. Now, the filmmakers and academics who tell our stories and write our history are ready to acknowledge it.
American Style (parts 1 and 2) airs Sunday at 9 and 10 p.m. on CNN, and continues with parts 3 and 4 on Sunday, Jan. 20, starting at 9 p.m..