Documentary series American Style embraces fashion as an art form

American Style explores the decades from the 1940s to now as a four-part docu-series on CNN.
American Style explores the decades from the 1940s to now as a four-part docu-series on CNN.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM CNN

A generic grey flannel suit epitomised 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 docu-series on CNN.

American Style began on Sunday with two episodes and will conclude next Sunday. The 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 American civil-rights movement.

Much of this is well-covered ground: Woodstock, Rosie the Riveter and so on. 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 do not delve deeply into any one stylish moment. They give the viewer a buffet of 1940s 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 fuelled by vinyl recordings.

As a society, people have all become more attuned to the revelatory nature of fashion.

They 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 is a uniform for soccer parents, a marker of Silicon Valley disruption and an instigator of people's fear of young men of colour.

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 United States, 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 was not welcome in the world of Rembrandt and Monet. It was an interloper.

Film-makers 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.

Fashion has always spoken volumes about who people are.

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 (2017) 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 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 is included under the category of "culturally significant". They have been hesitant to give fashion entry.

Fashion has always connected people in a global web of aspirations and dreams. Individuals have always known that to be true. Now, the film-makers and academics who tell stories and write history are ready to acknowledge it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline 'Documentary series embraces fashion as an art form'. Print Edition | Subscribe