What Does It Mean to Dress Like an American?

After years as an expat, I am finally moving back to the United States, but I worry I will stick out like a sore thumb because of my wardrobe. Not to oversimplify things, but I hate the idea of changing up my wardrobe to leggings and jeans. How can I look as if I belong without giving up my style? — Carmen, Winnetka, Ill.

First of all, don’t fall prey to the jeans-and-leggings stereotype — or to any stars-’n’-stripes hogwash. It’s as hard to generalize about style across the United States as it is to generalize about style across Europe. New England is different from the South is different from Texas, which is different from California. (Even Northern and Southern California are different from each other.)

All of which is to say, it’s hard to define what qualifies as an “American look” these days. National style stereotypes of all kinds are fast going the way of the dodo. That is, frankly, a good thing.

Even when such grand declarations were more in vogue — when “American style” was synonymous with sportswear of all kinds, for example — it was more of a fake construct than a real one. (For every Bonnie Cashin or Levi’s fan, there was a Babe Paley.)

Still, because it is often hard to see your own forest when you are in the trees, I thought I would ask some fashion week colleagues who hail from other countries if they thought there was an “American” signature, or giveaway. I was surprised at what came back.

Almost universally, they said they could tell an American not by what they wore but by how they wore it. Chioma Nnadi, the new head of editorial content for British Vogue, grew up in London and spent years in New York before moving back to Britain. She said that for her it was a high-low combination of relaxed and polished that stood out.

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