The Perception of American Identity

Michael A. Hartmann

The Perception of American Identity

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The Perception of American Identity

Whether you have recently moved to America or live out of the country, your perception of the culture in this country may be subject to what you have been exposed to.   These sources may have come from photographs, movies, music, news, or tourist visiting your country.  Unlike traditional countries in the Middle East, parts of Africa and Asia who have preserved customary culture for centuries, the United States seems to redefine its identity with the onset of each new decade.  To countless foreigners, American fashion, music, and automobiles stereotype the identity of Americans as a whole. We can examine each decade from the 1950s until now and form a relationship between perceived American identity and fashion, musical and automotive trends in the United States.

The end of World War II brought thousands of soldiers back to America to pick up their lives and start new families in new homes with new jobs. With energy never before experienced, American industry swelled to meet peacetime needs. Americans began buying goods not available during the war, which created corporate expansion and jobs.  Growth was all over the place.  In the 1950s, you may have seen in the movies that hot rods cars were the choice of Americans.  After all, the war over, the U.S. was now a leading world power. Films such as “Rebel without a Cause” were influential in the decades fashion trends. The movie portrayed men as sleek and tough dressed in leather and jeans. Women were portrayed as delicate yet full of life and donned poodle skirts, ponytails, and other plush styles.  The decade of the 50s gave birth to Rock and Roll.  The feel-good innocence of a lot of the 50s music reflects on the post World War II optimism in America. The young people of the time, an emerging force called teenagers, hadn’t struggled through the war years. They were looking for something more exciting. They discovered that energy in Rock and Roll.  If you were exposed to these images and sounds, you might have labeled the American identity as being a proud, powerful, exciting and appealing society. If this is the case, you would have been right.

The decade of the 1960s is remembered for its fashion excess, sexual liberation, psychedelic music, and classy European style compact cars. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ was probably the most drastic decade of the century, from the point of view of changing people’s viewpoint on their own lives.  Youth found its identity and developed a world of its own in which to live.  Women looked forward to an era of equality and liberation. Men enjoyed the more liberal outlook on life.  Miniskirts or hot pants, often worn with go-go boots, were revealing legs, body wear was revealing curves, and women’s hair was either very short or long and lanky. Men’s hair became longer and wider along with beards and moustaches.  The sexual revolution was in full force.  Muscle cars and lustrous compact cars were sold to these wild young Americans.  If you were exposed to the things in the 1960s era, you may have assumed that the American identity was that of wild and uncontrolled maniacs.  Most people that lived in that era would have to agree.

The fashion influence of the 60s was mainstreamed in the 70s, as men sported shoulder length hair and non-traditional clothing became the frenzy, including bellbottom pants, hip huggers, colorful patches, hot pants, platform shoes, earth shoes, clogs, T-shirts, and gypsy dresses.  Knits and denims were the materials of choice.  Leisure suits for men became commonplace and women were fashionable in everything from ankle-length grandmother dresses to hot pants and micro-miniskirts.  Rock music took off in different directions.  Some listened to the pop rock style, while others preferred the new dark and sullen metal style music.  Disco was the rage towards the end of the decade that also defined how Americans dressed.  Automobiles seemed to have lost their luster and resembled the unconventional casual fashion trends.  The American economy was dwindling as well.  You may have seen the identity of the American culture to be unspectacular and listless, unless you are a big disco fan.  However, an electrifying comeback was about to surface.

The 1980s almost immediately took America by storm.  Like the 1950s, people in this country focused on glamour, rock and roll, and fast cars.  This decade captured the essence of the 1950s; however, the 80s was penetrating the culture at a much deeper and faster pace.  The cold war was at its height and Americans were out to convince the world that we were the strongest and most wealthy superpower in the world.  There were no exceptions.  Americans thought they were the best in everything.  Fashion trends came rapidly and were constantly changing.  What was in style one day was out of style the next.  Unlike the 1970s, women focused on looking as attractive and appealing as possible. Men spent as much time preparing their hair and clothes as women did.  Musically, upbeat songs, rap and heavy metal replaced the lengthy psychedelic tunes of the 70s.  Music was all about power, fun and glamour, just like the fashion trends.  Cars were preferred fast and loud.  The nation’s youth made it a priority to install the loudest audio system in their cars and homes.  The identity of American culture in the 1980s could be branded as loud, proud, and in charge.

In the 1990’s the United States played the role of world policeman, however at home, scandal seemed everywhere.  Violence and sex scandals dominated the media.  America’s President Clinton kept the scandal going as several women charged him of sexual misbehavior.  For youth, the fashion of the decade began with Grunge on one hand and preppie on the other. Hip Hop style was popular.  Boys’ jeans have grown bigger and bigger, worn low on the hips and girls are wearing bellbottoms and poor boy tops reminiscent of the 70s. Khaki pants and polo shirts or denim shirts were the work-place customs.  The art of tattooing made a huge comeback in the 1990s, especially amongst women. For many women, getting tattooed represented a strong step in defiance against the concept that such was not ladylike. Rebelling against the rules of proper behavior was a strong statement of self-expression and created a whole new fashion look as women found new place to conceal or reveal their new statement.  Body piercing became prevalent in the 1990s.  There appears to be no definite reason why this preference of adolescent revolution occurred at this time.  This was the decade that Americans felt they could do whatever they felt like.  Automobiles began to take on the “unibody” look where manufactures designed similar cars and slapped a different name on them.  Grunge music swept away the glamorous music of the 80’s and depicted youth in rebellion or being against the social stigma that was present in the country.  There was no apparent direction that American culture was heading.  You may have looked at these issues and determined that the identity of Americans was that of selfish and defiant people.

Finally, we come to the 21st century.  America is still acting as the police in the world but is becoming increasing unpopular in the view of the rest of the world.  Music has yet to cast any significant changes from the 90s.  Automobiles are designed with the European look in this emerging global economy.  You may have the same outlook to the American identity as in the 1990s.  Americans are struggling for their own identity this decade and as the decade progresses; we will have to wait to see what happens.

As you can see, with each passing decade America’s culture and identity changes and often recycles from previous years.  Music, fashion, and the automotive trends speak volumes about the perception of American identity.  Before you completely judge Americans as a whole, I suggest that you take the time to consider the social issues of the country and not judge Americans on our political actions around the world.

Works Cited

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1999. [Use the “Reference” style for all items in your bibliography.]

Fiske, John. “Popular Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 321 – 335.

Harrison, Claire. “Hypertext Links: Whither Thou Goest, and Why.” First Monday. 7 Oct. 2002. 10 Feb. 2003 <http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_10/harrison/>.

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©2018 Michael A. Hartmann

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