CNN’s ‘American Style’ covers fashion from 1940 to today

Originally posted Friday, January 11, 2019 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

We as Americans almost take it for granted that our styles impact and permeate the world, from fashion to architecture. 

But that wasn’t always the case. CNN’s four-part “American Style” chronicles American political, social and economic trends through the lens of fashion, art and architecture, from Rosie the Riveter to Elvis to the Kennedys to the wrap dress to shoulder pads to grunge to social media. 

For many years, Americans looked to Europe - especially Paris - for fashion and style inspiration. It took a long time for that inferiority complex to be lifted. 

The four episodes will air over two Sundays, starting at 9 p.m. January 13 and concluding a week later.

In many ways, it’s similar to the various “decades” series CNN has aired, just with a different lens and shorter. 

CNN interviewed dozens of fashion designers (Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Dianne Van Furstenberg), celebrities (Vanessa Williams, Christie Brinkley) and historians to stitch together a fun, fast-paced look at how fashion shaped America and vice versa.

The star of the talking heads? Tim Gunn, who ran Parsons School of Design and was fashion guru of “Project Runway” for many years, shows up frequently to impart his wisdom. 

“He just has such a wealth of knowledge,” said Lizzie Fox, CNN vice president for original series. “And he’s been trained on television for so many years, he knows exactly how to create a wonderful interview bite.” 

The only episode that is focused on a single decade is the 1980s, which featured Jane Fonda, early hip hop, “Wall Street” and “Miami Vice.” “That decade was so robust in everything about fashion, politics and identity,” said Fox. “It was so much fun to do a deep dive.”

While much of the material will seem familiar to those with some knowledge of American history, a few tidbits stood out to Fox. 

In the first hour, there was a segment on fancy zoot suits in the 1940s and how there were actual riots in Los Angeles in 1943 in which whites (many servicemen) attacked minorities who dared to wear them during a time of war austerity.(Indeed, read the lyrics to the 1997 hit “Zoot Suit Riot” by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and it’s really a history lesson, not just a song to swing to.)

Fox was also fascinated by the 1973 Battle of Versaille Fashion Show, in which five American designers (Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows) squared off against five famous French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior.) The Americans ended up blowing the French away with a fresh contemporary feel, black models and Liza Minnelli. 

“I knew nothing about it!” she said. “It was such a turning point for American fashion.”

Isaac Mizrahi the well-known fashion designer and one of the “American Style” talking heads, said in an interview that he discusses how splintered fashion has become in recent decades. “It doesn’t come from one source in Paris anymore,” he said. 

Indeed, fashion ideas, he said, come from other sources, be it Beyonce or Lena Dunham or Issa Rae. 

Plus, as a judge on “Project Runway: All Stars,” he knows that particular reality show has helped inspire many new designers and given the viewer a special inside look at the creative process. And he said it’s too soon to know the long-term consequences of Instagram which has become an arbiter of fashion and style in tiny little boxes. 

Not too long ago, fashion cues came from Vogue and Cosmo, Mizrahi said, which provided a “certain unchaotic clarity to them. Instagram is chaos. It’s what’s fun about it. It’s also  what’s dangerous about it.” 


“American Style,” 9 p.m. Sundays, January 13 and January 20, 2019, CNN

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.