Traditional American Clothing, or The Lack Thereof

by Dan Moeller

In book 3 of the JET Language Course there is a dialogue on the International Festival (国際フェア). Kim Sonho – a favorite language workbook character and close friend to Nancy Nagai – provides some photos from last year’s festival. He describes how all the JETs in the area gather for the International Festival. They introduce their country, cook traditional food, put on folk costumes, and take pictures with the area residents. At this point, I begin thinking “いいな!” An interesting foreign cultural event like that would be impossible on my small island; me being the only JET, and, as for foreign cultures, this place is relatively homogeneous.

I stare at Sonho’s black and white photographs of various ethnic costumes and feel a revitalization of my anthropological background. There’s a kimono, a Korean chima chogori, what looks like a Dutch dress, something possibly Chinese, and another unidentifiable dress. (Don’t mistake my ignorance for disinterest, on the contrary…)

Hailing from the U.S. of A. – my mottled ancestry tracing back to five European countries – I wonder what I would wear to such an event. When I try to think of traditional American clothing the only things that come to mind are jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat. Other than that, I feel like I wouldn’t be representing America as a collective whole. American jeans have only become popular in the last 60 years, and nearly every country in the world knows and wears jeans. So, can jeans be considered traditionally American? Probably not. Moreover, they are plain, not festive, and don’t represent anything but current casual or working styles in America.

Very representative of America, but not very traditional (all photos courtesy WikiCommons)

A lot of Americans wear basketball shoes, too, but does that represent America? The same goes for Uggs, Northface, Gap, Aeropostale, and anything from Wal-mart or anything NASCAR. I bet a lot of Americans sport the Snuggie (blanket/shirt infomercial extraordinaire) in the safety of their own homes as well, but I’m not sure any of those represent “America.”

Another problem which I’m sure you’ve picked up on is that none of these popular clothing items sound “traditional.” Granted, America is a snot-nosed toddler compared to the historical giants of the world. China has written documents tracing back at least three thousand years; that just blows us out of the water. Although the U.S. has been scrapping with our global parents, relatives, and neighbors for over 200 years we still haven’t pieced together any semblance of “traditional clothing.” Oh, we have old clothes, but what we don’t have is a nation proud of those moth-eaten relics.

America actually has a lot of historical clothing. Civil War fatigues are honorable to certain groups, but most Americans share my current mind frame: “Who would follow such a specific section of American history so closely? Don’t they have a life?” (the word otaku comes to mind). Besides, I heard the dirtier and oilier the Civil War fatigues get, the more realistic they seem. I don’t want any part of that. Have you seen the Family Guy episode To Love and Die in Dixiewhere small-town southerners participate in a Civil War reenactment? It wouldn’t be too much of a leap to say Family Guy represents a good portion of America, especially when they make it tradition to make fun of our past.

A Civil War reenactment

So, old war clothes are out of the question. We also have some European vestiges like knickerbockers and Puritan attire, but they’re not “American”; they only temporarily represented our fashion sense. Hmm…America was once ruled by tribes of Native Americans and their traditional clothing is beautiful! But we can’t use moccasins and beaded deer skins to represent America, especially considering the shameful things we did to these early inhabitants. So, where does this leave us?

Chief Little Crow; very festive, but, again, not representative of America

As a nation, the U.S. tends to compartmentalize each fashion to its respective era. Anything old is out of style and thus embarrassing to wear (granted, fashion designers love to recycle). When the 1960s ended, we threw away our Austin Powers clothes. When the 70s ended, we threw out our Saturday Night Fever get-ups. When the 80s ended, we stopped wearing neon fitness wear and Thriller jackets, and stopped emulating Madonna. When the 90s ended, we realized The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Zack Morris didn’t represent us anymore. If we conjure up an MC Hammer costume in this day and age, it’s pretty obvious we’re attending either a Halloween party or an 80s party.

I wore a hakama to my wedding celebration dinner in Japan and, although I don’t exactly have an authoritative voice on the goings-on in Japan, it seemed quite normal – even impressive for a foreigner. Granted, I’m sure some younger Japanese may dread wearing zori to the local festival, or may think wearing a kimono to a wedding is boring or out-dated, but could you imagine a normal American getting married looking like a pilgrim or a Civil War general? Could you imagine a large section of Japan cynically ridiculing people that master the craft of tying a kimono or those that perfect the application of geisha makeup?

A surprising amount of culture has been preserved and remains respectable in Japan. This pride in culture and ethnicity is prevalent in many other cultures as well. As for the U.S., we have a very young country which is very fast to drop any sort of burdensome cultural ties. Our pride lies within the here and now. The past is something only to be recalled for nostalgia, history lessons, or funny parties. It is a presence that generally slows us down and, with each passing year, needs to be shed like a fox’s winter coat. I’m not ashamed that we don’t have a homogeneous culture like Japan. I’m not upset that we don’t have traditional American attire to wear to the International Festival, but it leaves a little to be desired, doesn’t it?

6 comments

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  • Randy

    Although not universally worn, I would submit that western wear, i.e. cowboy boots and hats represent uniquely American dress.

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  • ramones1986

    Maybe the New England states should revive the Puritan dress, or the Midwest and their prairie folk costumes.