FASHION: The American Look

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The Meaning of Elegance. The American Look has developed almost unnoticed by the women who wear it. "Elegant dress," wrote Economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 in The Theory of the Leisure Class, "serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive but also because it is the insignia of leisure." But in the U.S., the meaning of elegance has changed as much as the meaning of leisure. It is a leisure of action—barbecue parties in the backyard, motor trips along country roads and across the country, weekend golf and water skiing. From America's lively leisure has evolved a new, home-grown fashion, as different from Paris fashion as apple pie from crepes suzette. Paris can still claim its title as the custom-fashion capital of the world. But the French still design for Veblenesque leisure. Their clothes compliment the designer, whereas America's are made to compliment the wearer. A young Manhattan mother put it simply: "When I get dressed up, I have little time to make up to the dress; I want the dress to make up to me."

Genuflect to Paris. The person who understands best how American women want to look is a shy Manhattan designer named Claire McCardell. Says she: "Clothes may make the woman, but the woman can also make the clothes. When a dress runs away with the woman, it's a horror." Designer McCardell speaks with authority, for she started the casual American Look. Even among fashion editors, who genuflect to Paris before every deadline, she is considered unique. "Claire started the feeling for Americana," says Vogue's Babs Simpson. Agrees Diana Vreeland of Harper's Bazaar: "She gave the American woman a look of her own, and she did it without outside pressures."

Claire McCardell's creations are dedicated to the propositions that 1) clothes should be made to be worn in comfort, and 2) only comfort can create sense-making style. Her clothes are functional, simple and clean of line. She likes "buttons that button and bows that tie." She is, says Dallas Retailer Stanley Marcus, "the master of the line, never the slave of the sequin. She is one of the few creative designers this country has ever produced."

She borrows styles from no one, at home or abroad; when she is in Paris on vacation, she visits no collections lest she be influenced by what she sees. Almost everyone can buy her clothes, which range from bathing suits and play clothes ($10 to $50) to dresses ($29 to $100) and suits and coats ($89 to $150). Anyone can wear them, but they look best on what countless ads have presented as the ideal American beauty—tall, slim, long-legged.

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