The other other American style

How urban sport is expanding fashion’s aesthetic vocabulary beyond prep and workwear

Ana Andjelic
4 min readApr 30, 2024
Khaite, Fforme, Sandi Liang, Prabal Gurung

American style usually means one of two things:

a) Prep, Ivy League, Ralph Lauren Purple Label, New England, chinos, button-downs, boat shoes, L.L.Bean, Brooks Brothers, varsity jackets, penny loafers, tennis, rowing, yachting, horse-riding, rich people doing their leisure activities. This style rests on the social and cultural tradition of “old money” families, heritage, country clubs, and colleges that provided not just the aesthetic blueprint, but also aspiration.

Tommy Hilfiger

Or …

b) White t-shirts, blue jeans, cowboy boots, chore coats, overalls, carpenter trousers, cargo and double-knee pants, plaid, work shirts and overshirts, fireman jackets, Carhartt and Dickies, Marlboro Man, Ralph Lauren Polo, Barbour, Timberland, and manual labor. This style revolves on the social and cultural tradition of working class, hard and honest labor, individuality, ingenuity and pioneering spirit, and making things with hands. It is an aesthetics and an ideology.

But …

c) There’s another one: unlike prep and workwear, it is not inspired by the outdoors but by the urban setting. With prep and workwear, it shares practicality, comfort, casualness, and movement — but not the class connotation. Originally made by women designers for women and their increasingly dynamic urbane lives, this style — call it Urban Sport — has deep roots in American sportswear.

American sportswear is fashion with lowercase “f,” rather than the capital one, and is synonymous with confident, chic and flattering functionality. Style is linked to movement and attitude, not aesthetics, with layering, menswear elements, and modularity aimed to replace the need for frequent outfit changes throughout the day.

Rather than being made for building a railroad or lounging on a yacht, Urban Sport reflects inherently metropolitan hustle and meets the real-world needs of city life. Effortlessness and wearability are mixed with elegance and put-togetherness applicable to multiple social contexts.

The origins of the urban sport style can be traced to the post-war creations of Bonnie Cashin, Vera Maxwell, Tina Leser, and Claire McCardell, who mixed utility with style for a woman working, participating in sports, or managing a household (most likely, all three, reflecting the new seamlessness between their private and public lives).

Cashin created the layered look and modular wardrobes of coordinated separates; sport style emulates this layering and modularity, anchored in the idea of freedom — of movement, of choice, of one’s own look. This urbane-practical approach was in stark contrast with the European fashion, where fashion was meant to be worn in salons and ballrooms, not on the city streets.

Designers like Donna Karan, Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Willi Smith, Perry Ellis, Liz Claiborne, Geoffrey Beene, Stephen Burrows, Calvin Klein or Michael Kors gave movement, draping, comfort and functionality a resolutely urban bend. There’s swagger to garments; classic, unfussy, sexy and well-constructed, their clothes are flattering and put-together.

The third American style captures neither aspirational leisure of the aristocracy nor the manual labor of workers; it is feminine and metropolitan, inclusive and global. It’s as much of a uniform as prep or workwear, but unlike them, it didn’t benefit from the powerful engine of the 1990s hip hop and rap to give its cultural narrative legs and scale. It remains rooted in the big cities, and is visible on the recent runways of Prada, Ami, Hermes, Fear of God, Dries van Noten or S.S. Daley.

In contrast to prep and workwear, urban sport is less about iconography and more about actual life of actual people going on about their day. (Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces have been designed with a multitasker in mind, made to be worn together or individually, they covered all the modern life contexts.) Also unlike prep and workwear, it doesn’t appropriate class aesthetics. It is made for the urban creative crowd who treat leisure as work and work as leisure. While it bypasses the traditional class aesthetic, the urban sport style still has strong signifiers of modern aspiration: taste, creativity, ambition, in-the-know cultural sensibilities. Rather than the inheritance-enabled idleness of the leisure class, or the hard labor-striving of the working class, the metropolitan style captures the forward momentum of the creators.

The third American style is as much American’s fashion expansion of its own aesthetic vocabulary as it is rejection of its class, leisure and labor assumptions. It is defined by a wider cultural output, not a narrow economic and social legacy. It is also consumed as pop culture: constantly reinvented, constantly remixed, constantly evolving, and constantly in motion.

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Ana Andjelic

Brand Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Writer of “Sociology of Business.” Forbes most influential CMO.