European vs American Fashion

Distinguishing between European and American fashion is often only a matter of cut

Twenty years ago, after I returned to my small Midwestern hometown after backpacking around Europe, everyone around me remarked on how much my style had changed. I had traded my oversized khaki cargo pants for olive green capris, swapped my sneakers for Birkenstocks and from thenceforth, was considered the resident European.

To people like my brother, who still has not ever crossed the Atlantic, I must have appeared an anomaly. But for people like Magda, my uber-Euro BFF whose Polish immigrant parents were cutting-edge artists, the shiny silver sleeveless shirt I wore to raves was just part and parcel of a wardrobe. Nothing particularly European about it.

How people back home imagine European women dress: catsuits and Babuschkas (as seen at Roeckl AW2013 show)

How people back home imagine European women dress: catsuits and Babuschkas (as seen at Roeckl AW2013 show)

Over the years, whenever I’ve returned to the US, people have remarked on my particularly “European” fashion sense, a compliment that has increasingly confused me. I mean, the brands who show on the ready-to-wear runways of New York are not necessarily all that different from those who show in London, Paris or Milan. At the very least, these fashion houses, no matter where they are based, are in dialogue as they create the trends that we see on both sides of the pond. And those trends look different in cities across the US and in countries around Europe. So why do some insist on making a distinction between “European” and “American” fashion? In a globalized world, where H&M and Zara are as ubiquitous in major cities both in North American and on the Continent, how can you differentiate between whether something is très Euro or totally American?

More than a question of aesthetics

That’s a question that many have asked me and it’s one with several different, somewhat related answers. For fashion-watchers in the game season after season, the distinctions are easy to make; they go even further, distinguishing between particularly Milanese or Italian sensibilities (as a great new exhibit in Milan showcases) and those which will do well in London. For the layperson, though, the distinctions are less transparent. I mean, when we’re all using Instagram for our influence, wouldn’t we all start to adopt a similar aesthetic?

As true as it is that people today are dressing more similarly across countries than they have in the past, there are some key distinguishers that mark a brand or style as being particularly European or American -- and I’m not talking about silly stereotypes, like to dress like a Frenchman you have to carry a baguette everywhere and wear a beret, like the Griswolds in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” do.

The epitome of French fashion: the monogrammed beret

The epitome of French fashion: the monogrammed beret

Beyond the super-polished white sneakers and bulky cargo shorts that scream Abercrombie American, one of the most noticable differences between European and American styles of clothing is the cut. Whereas Americans prefer a broader, wider leg in their pants, Europeans -- especially men -- prefer a fitted trouser. Not exactly a skinny jean but one which hugs the thighs, hips and bottom. And the jacket should be tailored so well that there is little room between the oxford and blazer button.

While women in the US who love J.Crew will often turn to an Empire-waist, loose and billowing dresses are less popular in Europe, especially in business attire. At least in Germany, where the trouser suit à la Angela Merkel is still worn in most offices.

Making these sorts of distinctions is always risky: I might be in Europe but I still love a wide-leg trouser (which are thankfully back in fashion this season). Yet often the differences in cut have less to do with styles and trends than with the amount of fabric used in creating a design. I loved the US brand Banana Republic before I came to Germany but once I got here, I ditched their cardigans, feeling as though I drowned in them, their breadth looking shapeless on my body.

At the same time, living in Europe, I have come to realize the differences not only between brands -- Levi’s, for one, has the same fit in the US as in Europe and none of them fit my body -- but also between countries. It’s nearly impossible for me to find shape-fitted clothing for my US size 10 body in France but in Denmark, my size is standard.

Which may explain my affinity for all brands Danish; it really is more appealing to find clothes you like that fit your body and your preference for how they are cut. It’s also been interesting to see how much my style has changed since coming to Europe permanently. I’ve ditched the shiny silver shirts (which, somehow, still find their way into nightclubs 20 years on) but form-fitted fashion is one I’ve definitely embraced.

- Courtney Tenz