Channel These American Icons All Year, Not Just On Independence Day
Independence Day is the perfect time to break out your red, white, and blue garb and American flag T-shirts. But when you’re looking to pay homage to a classic tradition of American style in a slightly more subtle way, these iconic moments in American fashion are looks you can channel all year.
The Europeans may be known for their suits, but there’s something American about the white T-shirt and blue jeans Dean memorialized in the 1955 film, “Rebel Without a Cause.” The look is rugged but youthful — somewhere between working on the farm and laboring under the hood of a classic car.
Speaking of blue jeans, the iconic pants have a uniquely American history. German-American immigrant Levi Strauss and Nevada tailor Jacob Davis patented the first jeans in 1873. Originally created for miners who needed riveted pants that wouldn’t rip on the job, blue jeans have since become an American staple. Man or woman, you can pair them with a white T-shirt for a look that never goes out of style.
There’s a reason they called Grace Kelly “America’s Princess.” It’s hard to choose one iconic look from this Hollywood-royalty-turned-actual-royalty, who could rock anything from a pair of shorts to a fur coat.
But one of the 1950s starlet’s most recognizable go-to pieces was a simple, structured button-down shirt. Paired with jeans and penny loafers or slacks and espadrilles, Kelly’s button-down was sharp, practical, and completely timeless.
For a picnic, channel Kelly’s look by rolling up the sleeves and wearing high-waisted shorts. For the beach, take notes from another of her iconic moments and use a button-down shirt as a cover-up over a solid white swimsuit.
Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’
In what other country could bomber jackets have become a style staple? Even when Cruise’s Maverick isn’t in uniform, his blue jeans and patch-covered leather jacket look just as patriotic.
Bomber jackets don’t just look American, they have a uniquely patriotic backstory. First invented by the U.S. Army Aviation Clothing Board during World War I, the lined leather jackets kept pilots warm in open-air cockpits.
The famous aviator sunglasses from “Top Gun” have a similar history: they were originally created for pilots to offset the sun’s glare while flying. You can pay homage to America’s legacy of airborne innovators and explorers with a bomber jacket or a pair of aviators, and look effortlessly cool while doing it.
Were there some trends of the 1990s that should never return? Sure. But Crawford’s iconic Pepsi commercial is as American as it gets, from her red sports car to the retro gas station where she finds a vending machine. Cutoff shorts, a white tank top, and hoop earrings are still a foolproof uniform for a backyard barbeque.
Although he usually isn’t the one wearing his own iconic designs, no list of iconic American looks would be complete without Ralph Lauren on it. The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Lauren started his own business designing neckties. In a quintessential story of pursuing the American Dream, Lauren built a multi-billion-dollar fashion empire inspired by the rugged look of the American West and the preppy style of the Northeast.
The collegiate look resplendent with tweed blazers and reminiscent of Ivy League campuses is one of the iconically American looks Lauren popularized. The look was so fascinating to the rest of the world that it inspired a Japanese photographer in 1965 to publish “Take Ivy,” a lookbook of preppy American fashion that taught young Japanese students how to dress like their American counterparts.
More recently, preppy style has seen a resurgence by young American designers such as Kiel James Patrick. But no designer is as synonymous with this classic style as Lauren.
“I have always been inspired by the dream of America,” he says, “families in the country, weathered trucks and farmhouses; sailing off the coast of Maine; following dirt roads in an old wood-paneled station wagon.” Even if you don’t play rugby or have a house in the Hamptons, you can channel this iconically American look with a tweed blazer or a letterman sweater in the wintertime, or a classy blue and white striped shirt in the summer.
Ralph Lauren earns special placement on this list for memorializing not one, but two looks that encapsulate American style. He’s also famous for bringing style inspiration from the American West to the runway, celebrating the rugged flair and rustic warmth of flannels and denim.
Pay homage to the pioneering spirit with a plaid flannel or a sherpa jacket that no European runway could pull off. In the summer, get the look with a lightweight chambray button-down.
John and Jackie Kennedy
The Kennedys gave off an image of a noble, nostalgic America that everyone wanted to love — and their style was no exception. The president perfected a preppy, nautical look that looked like he’d just stepped off a sailboat, while the first lady is an icon in her own right for her bold colors and classic silhouettes.
Kennedy’s varsity-stripe ties on workdays and his shorts and button-down combos on casual outings are still stylish. As for Jackie, her name has become almost synonymous with oversized sunglasses, silk scarves, and tailored coats and dresses.
Both Kennedys mastered a style that was just ethereal enough to convey the Camelot glamor that Americans were eager to see after the hardships of World War II and an ongoing Cold War. Tie on a silk scarf and big sunglasses to channel Jackie or copy JFK’s summery, nautical look with boat shoes, chino shorts, and a button-down.
Originally born Nuta Kotlyarenko, Cohn left Eastern Europe at age 11, in 1913. The Jewish immigrant arrived in New York and grew up captivated with Western movies, as he refined his skill as a tailor.
Cohn eventually moved to Hollywood, where he started making flashy, embroidered suits with designs from rhinestones to lightning bolts. Western stars and singers including Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gram Parsons wore Cohn’s bedazzled suits, which have since become a symbol of Americana more for than in spite of their kitschiness. We dare you to wear one of these.
The high-end bridal designer is another example of the American Dream in action. Born in New York to Chinese immigrants, Vera Wang turned to fashion after attempting (and failing) to make it on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team in 1968.
After stints at Vogue and Ralph Lauren, Wang designed her own wedding dress upon failing to find a style that matched her taste. Since then, the Vera Wang brand has become famous in the bridal industry, and has ventured into perfumes, off-the-rack clothing, and home items.
Last year, she participated in Brides Across America, donating wedding dresses to first responder and military brides in appreciation of their service. Wang insists on the importance of comfort in her style, and even describes her own look as “slouchy.”
“I’m a T-shirt girl,” Wang has said. “The fact that I could democratize a democratic kind of look meant a great deal to me.” While you may not be channeling her bridal looks this summer, you can easily take notes from her laid-back, quirky, nonchalant style.
The Rat Pack
With the possible exception of baseball, few things rise to the level of iconic Americana as much as the Rat Pack does. Composed of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, the quintet famously crooned their way into the heart of golden-age Las Vegas.
The most famous three of the group were Sinatra, the son of Sicilian immigrants; Martin, whose parents came from Italy’ and Davis, an African-American from New York who defied social barriers of his time throughout his career.
Before the British Invasion, the Rat Pack defined cool for a generation of American audiences. Their style was an effortless combination of vintage glamor and relaxed nonchalance.
Rather than filling their wardrobes from European designers, the Rat Pack shopped at the Los Angeles store of Sy Devore. The son of Russian immigrants, Devore served in the Army before opening his business, where he dressed everyone from the Rat Pack to John Wayne to President Kennedy. Channel the Rat Pack cool with a classic suit or a dress shirt and cardigan combo.
American style isn’t all about simple, understated looks — 1970s icon Diana Ross tapped into a glitzy, eye-catching look reflective of Americans’ confidence and penchant for the extravagant. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Ross sang with the Motown girl group The Supremes before going on to perform on her own. Famous for her sequined outfits and poufy chiffon dresses, think of Ross next time you wear something glitzy.
It’s telling that this casual brand designed for adherents of skateboarding and hip hop culture did a collaboration with high-end designer Louis Vuitton in 2017. James Jebbia founded the Supreme brand in 1994, as an unassuming skate shop in New York City.
As the skater culture of the ’90s took off, so did Jebbia’s brand. From camouflage cargo pants to button-down shirts with photos of Bruce Lee printed on them to simply T-shirts with the blocky red “Supreme” logo, Supreme represents a youthful, casual, urban culture.
Not everyone can — or should — pull off her infamous cone bra outfits, but Madonna still made her mark on edgy, gothic trends that were popularized in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. From corsets to neon purple jackets to Cub Scout-inspired uniforms, Madonna represented a movement that was rebellious and unexpected. While some of her looks may be hard to duplicate, you can pay her a subtle nod with a crop top, a scrunchie, or chunky jewelry.
Nike Air Force 1
Not a person, but iconic nonetheless, Nike’s famous sneakers are quintessentially American in more than justs their name. Originally produced in 1982, the versatile and accessible sneakers reflect a marriage of fashion and athletics that’s uniquely popular in the United States. Wear them with anything from gym shorts to a denim skirt — it’s hard not to feel patriotic when your shoes are named after the presidential plane (and, speaking of icons, a fantastic Harrison Ford movie).
Americans may often get a bad rap for dressing too casually, but American style at its finest is practical, effortless, and classic. We’ve come a long way since Benjamin Franklin wore a coonskin cap as a representative of the young United States to the French court in 1776. Still, we think he’d be proud of the way the confident, independent American spirit has left its mark on our wardrobes since then.
Elle Reynolds is an intern at the Federalist, and a senior at Patrick Henry College studying government and journalism. You can follow her work on Twitter at @_etreynolds.