9 American Style Icons That Have Shaped How Fashionista Editors View Clothes - Fashionista
From Michelle Obama to Patti Smith, our staffers share which American figures have left the biggest impact on our style.

There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.

There's much talk on this website of people whose personal style we admire — recently speaking, Zendaya, Diane Kruger, Solange Knowles and Harry Styles come to mind — and in many cases, our admiration for those individuals extends far beyond the clothes they wear. It's about how they wear what they do, and how that, in turn, impacts how we feel about ourselves. To help celebrate the Fourth of July, we asked nine Fashionista staffers to speak on their own personal style icons, and while the subjects of the resulting mini-essays are certainly wide-ranging, spanning from Michelle Obama to Patti Smith and an American Girl doll to Michael Jordan, they all come from the heart. Be sure to carve out some time to read them all, below.

Tyler McCall, Deputy Editor

Samantha Parkington, the American Girl doll

As an adult woman, I've found plenty of celebrities and style stars to look up to when it comes to sartorial inspiration. But there's just one style icon I come back to again and again: Samantha Parkington, the American Girl doll. I don't think I realized until a recent trip home just how much of Samantha's style has inspired my own throughout the years, but it's there in my attraction to anything bedecked in bows (especially my hair, when it's long enough) and in my obsession with girlie dresses. 

Sure, she was a precocious nine-year-old orphan being raised by her well-to-do grandmother in turn-of-the-century New York, but there was so much about her tiny wardrobe to love. (Before they revamped her entire wardrobe — wyd, Mattel?!) I mean, she had a fur muff and a cape! How chic is that?! I'm hardly rushing to dress in Edwardian fashion (even though I would have killed for a matching outfit growing up), but there's no denying her influence when I slip on a pair of tights and patent-leather Mary Janes. Samantha's style is the thread that ties together just about every style icon I've found since then. 

Dhani Mau, West Coast Editor

Sofia Coppola

I'll be honest: at this particular moment in time, I have some conflicting feelings about Sofia Coppola and her (perhaps, somewhat excusable) whitewashing of her latest film project, "The Beguiled" (which I nevertheless enjoyed). But that doesn’t change the fact that of all the people whose personal style I've admired and sought to emulate over the years, from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as a kid and teen to Solange Knowles circa "A Seat at the Table," Sofia Coppola has had the longest and most consistent impact.

Whenever a new photo of the typically private, New York-born former Chanel intern comes out — whether she's on a Cannes red carpet or pushing a stroller through Soho — I literally study it as if I'm trying to figure out how to be that. That being incredibly chic despite appearing to put forth no effort at all. From her perfect hair to her ankle-strap shoes, her looks are simple but considered, stylish but not trendy. Her clothes, and beauty look, reflect her position as someone who works behind the scenes — a writer/director who needn't draw attention to herself the way that the movie stars she casts in her films might be expected to. And yet you can still tell that she's interested in fashion. I've always found this dichotomy relatable — wanting to come across as smart and cool without downplaying my love of clothes or desire to look nice, and Coppola does that perfectly.

So perfectly, and consistently that, years ago, I started actually asking myself, before making a significant purchase or putting an outfit together: Would Sofia Coppola ever wear this? I still ask myself this often, with some exceptions, and I feel confident that the items that have gone through that filter are the ones I'll keep and wear the longest.

Last year, dear reader, I met my style icon at a random event for her hairdresser, who is also bizarrely responsible for the coifs of Grace Coddington and Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I also idolize. I ended up interviewing the three of them simultaneously because they were standing together (I'm amazed I was even able to speak); I'm very soft-spoken and at one point Lebowitz (who isn't) asked Coppola, "Can you hear anything she's saying?!"

"Yes," Coppola responded. "I'm soft-spoken, too, so we can hear each other." I'm definitely attaching too much significance to a casual interaction, but I feel like we had a moment, and it sort of confirmed the affinity for her that I'd always felt.

Maura Brannigan, Senior Editor

Michael Jordan

As a kid growing up in the '90s in the Chicagoland area, Michael Jordan was king. My childhood was as filled with beach days and trips to the zoo — you know, normal kids stuff — as it was with nights parked in front of our TV watching Michael lead the Chicago Bulls to those six NBA championships. 

I idolized Michael — everyone I know did — and my parents took full advantage of this, using his character to instill in my brother and me the life lessons that still guide so many of our decisions. My parents were the ones who taught me about dedication and resilience and, of course, putting in the goddamn work, but often, they did so by asking me something like, "Well, what would Michael do in this instance?" My answers, usually: He'd be the first to show up to practice and the last to leave; he'd suit up in full uniform for games even when he was sick — cut to the Flu Game — or injured, to support his team; he was self-aware enough turned his weaknesses into strengths; he wept openly after championships, because it should mean that much.

What are style icons if not living embodiments of your aspirations, their sartorial choices reflecting everything you want to be — and, if you buy the right clothes, everything you can be? I had a number of different Michael jerseys, my favorite a solid red away jersey that was always a little too big until it wasn't. I loved the "Repeat 3-Peat" T-shirt from their 1998 win, which was sold all over the place that year, and later, when the internet was a thing, I spent hours trying to find an affordable version of the Dream Team's iconic Reebok warmups from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Michael was the first person I remember whose clothing made any sort of tangible impact on how I, in turn, view clothes; in many ways, I am who I am today because of him. When I wore that red jersey, I felt invincible, like the very best version of myself, which on the court, Michael always was. It's how I still view personal style today.

Stephanie Saltzman, Beauty Editor

Michelle Obama

Where does one even begin when waxing poetic about Michelle Obama? Even if we're confining the discussion solely to her impact on modern American fashion, there's a whole hell of a lot to say. Throughout her tenure as First Lady, Obama made it a priority to support American labels. But in addition to wearing established brands like Narciso Rodriguez and Michael Kors, she often chose to highlight then-lesser-known designers, like Jason Wu, whose dresses she wore for both of her husband's inaugural balls. I still get choked up thinking back to how beamingly happy and confident she looked on inauguration night in 2009 in that frothy one-shouldered white Jason Wu gown. She'd also wear female designers and designers of color, like Tracy Reese, playing a crucial role in catapulting their careers. She had a hand in helping the likes of Christian Siriano, Joseph Altuzarra, Tanya Taylor, Brandon Maxwell and Chris Benz bolster their emerging brands and hosted the first-ever Fashion Education Workshop at the White House to benefit aspiring young designers.

She'd also incorporate accessible brands that the American public could relate to (and even afford!) themselves. She'd wear a J.Crew cardigan, and it would promptly sell out. She also tended to be adventurous with her fashion, often wearing the unexpected. Custom Gucci? Check. Power-clashing Self-Portrait? Of course. A Thom Browne coat on Inauguration Day? Sure. Absolutely flawless Brandon Maxwell? You bet.

Obama's fashion choices during her husband's presidency were also sometimes inadvertently controversial. Let's not forget the absurd "scandal" of her perfectly logical warm-weather wardrobe choices, like shorts and sleeveless tops. Though it's doubtful Obama ever intended to start any sort of public discourse by baring a perfectly reasonable, modest expanse of skin, she stood by her sartorial choices and held fast in her convictions that women — even those serving in the public sector — should be allowed to wear clothing that makes them comfortable. Radical.

To me, Obama will always be the FLOTUS who represented the very best of what America — and American fashion — could be. I revere her and respect her for so many reasons, and her personal style is one of them. It's not a trivial one, either. Obama's fashion choices often served as a form of subversive diplomacy and even activism. Not only did she set trends and make American fashion a stronger, better, more inclusive industry but she did so with subtlety that didn't distract from the many crucial causes and projects she was so focused on during her time as First Lady. And that impact is a lasting one. She's even passed along her style philosophy, it seems, to her daughters, who have become American fashion influencers in their own rights. I mean, Malia's head-to-toe Alexander Wang outfit? Iconic.

Maria Bobila, Associate Editor

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen

Like everyone else on the Fashionista team, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's style has played a major role in how I view clothes, especially when I was just starting college. After attending private school — and therefore, wearing a uniform — for the majority of my life, I was left to my own devices as a young biology major when it came to getting dressed every day. I enjoyed the process of exploring my own personal style and all of the shopping that was involved, too, but I couldn't have figured out my sartorial tastes without a little inspiration, and Mary-Kate and Ashley were exactly that and more.

Thanks to fan sites and The Fashion Spot, I would save images on my laptop (a Dell, lol) to keep track of their outfits from public appearances, magazine shoots and, of course, paparazzi shots as they divided their time between sunny LA and the boho-chic-inducing NYU campus. It was certainly a stan-level of admiration, but I learned so much about style, taste, shopping and fashion because of them. I started visiting my local vintage and thrift shops regularly; I valued the importance of tailoring and good fit; I discovered fashion brands like Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Balenciaga. Sure, I made one too many purchases because of them — leather leggings, scarves, vintage T-shirts, headbands, a pair of white wayfarer sunglasses, loads of jewelry, the list seriously goes on — but these ladies have a billion-dollar business behind their image, so yes, they have quite the impact.

Honestly, I wouldn't be where I am right now without them, like typing this little essay here and spending almost every day writing about fashion. Witnessing the Olsens' own interests in clothes sparked some passion within myself, too. (In case you're wondering, I did indeed switch out of my biology major.) I may not fangirl over MK&A as much as I used to, but how I view (and love) clothes will always go back to them.

Whitney Bauck, Assistant Editor

Patti Smith

I have three pictures of Patti Smith hanging in my room: one of her wearing a white dress while holding two doves, taken by her artistic partner and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe in 1979; one of her in a black bra and dirty translucent shirt in front of a flaming backdrop, taken by Annie Leibovitz in 1978; and another where she sits nude with her knees to her chest, also by Mapplethorpe and taken in 1976.

I've chosen to surround myself with images of Patti because her life as an artist who rewrote the rules but also stayed incredibly open toward things as they are reminds me of the way I want to move through the world. I don't think of her primarily as a fashion icon, likely due to the fact that Smith doesn't really participate in the fashion system. She's never been a trend follower, and she always looks a bit disheveled, even when she's wearing a designer piece by Yohji Yamamoto or Ann Demeulemeester. And yet it's clear that she also cares very deeply about clothing and accessories, which she sees as talismanic and potentially rife with meaning, even as she rejects mainstream beauty standards and feminine ideals.

It's Smith's attitude toward style that I ultimately identify with, more than the specifics of her boxy blazers, unkempt hair and mismatching layered jewelry. What makes her remarkable as an artist is her ability to be both the in-your-face, rule-breaking "godmother of punk" and the gracious, tender-spirited poet behind "Just Kids" at the same time. And what's remarkable about her style is that it somehow allows for both, too; there's an intimidating carelessness to her wild hair and ill-fitting clothing, but it doesn't crowd out the gentleness of her gaze or delicacy of her shoulders in a simple white dress. If I can outfit myself in a manner that's half as truthful to my inner reality, I'll consider myself the best-dressed in the room.

Liza Sokol, Audience Development Manager

Britney Spears

There's a reason I love Wendy's Baconators so much that I got a tattoo of one: they're completely unpretentious. No organically farmed lettuce, triple-aged maple bacon or artisanal herb aioli — just the classic good stuff. That's why Britney Spears is my style icon, as well. Her look is completely attainable, but still deliciously iconic. The "Dump Him" T-shirt? The various incarnations of bejeweled bodysuits? Literally everything she's worn on stage? The tight bandage dresses? The shoeless, ripped Von Dutch denim looks that permeated 2007? It's an aesthetic left to its own devices that has marked a peak in American pop culture that nobody has or will ever replicate. 

She's markedly always a little late to trends — mermaid hair at the 2015 Teen Choice Awards — or extends them past their prime — she'll probably wear a choker on her deathbed — but that's why I love her, because it's so goddamn relatable without a single fuck given. She makes an absurd amount of money just from breathing and she's still rocking the same turtleneck and espadrille wedges from 10 years ago. Britney Spears is Every Woman, and what could be more iconic than that?

Chloe Hall, Social Media Manager

Diana Ross

There's nothing more worth aspiring to than being the most glamorous person in every room. Ipso facto, no one person is more worth aspiring to be than Diana Ross. When I was a little girl and told my mom that I wanted to be a fashion designer, she put "Mahogany" on the top of our required viewing list. No one would mistake Ross — or her character, Tracy Chambers — for a minimalist, and that's what I loved about her. In an era of normcore, minimalism and athleisure as uninspiring as desk salads, I choose the woman in the floor-length purple dress and the PETA nightmare to match. 

Ross's style always struck me as bold and truly herself. I imagine her fulfilling even the most mundane of errands — as if Ross has stepped foot in a post office since the '60s, but stay with me — dressed head-to-toe in sequins wearing spider lashes. She can pull off a jumpsuit and gown like no one else, her hair a million different ways, but always out there. Black girl magic, truly. She's an inspiration for me to own my personal style no matter what I'm doing — the reason I wear gold hoops the size of hula-hoops to the office even if they might give me a migraine. (Just a personal theory.)

This is to say nothing of the way she's paved the way for black women before and after me to do the same. I'd be a fraud if I didn’t mention Beyoncé's turn as her in "Dreamgirls," which is probably my version of that book "Harry Potter" people keep talking about. Ross is as evident in Beyoncé's glamour as she is in Rihanna's boundary-pushing fashions and North West's swaggering fur coat. Ross taught me it's not just okay to stand out, but she made it cool. 

Fawnia Soo Hoo, Contributing Editor

Russell Wong

Back in the day, growing up as a second generation Chinese American kid in a very non-diverse, non-woke Midwestern suburb, I didn't have much exposure to Asian American icons — much less Asian American fashion icons. Keep in mind, this was before of "Fresh Off the Boat" star Constance Wu was glamming it up in Singapore filming "Crazy Rich Asians" or Lucy Liu nailed the red carpet tour during the "Charlie's Angels" big screen reboot. Back then mainstream representation was pretty much all non-sexualized martial arts guys, yellowface or offensive stereotyping. (See: Long Duk Dong, which haunted us for decades and still does.)

But then came Mario Van Peebles's "Scarface"-inspired early '90s epic "New Jack City," featuring Chinese-American actor Russell Wong in a non-traditionally cast supporting role. (To me, he's essentially the OG Asian American actor paving the way for the likes of John Cho, Steven Yeun, Ross Butler and the also-hot guy replacing Ross Butler on "Riverdale.") Wearing a very cool black leather motorcycle jacket during a pivotal action scene, Wong's character Park (it's just "Park" in the credits) helped fellow hardened police detectives, played by a pre-"SVU" Ice T and Judd Nelson, take down Wesley Snipes's drug lord Nino Brown.

Seeing him on-screen became a culturally defining moment for me as an Asian American, who at that point in life, was trying to play down the "Asian" part. A black leather motorcycle jacket itself is so quintessentially American and pretty badass — iconic images of James Dean and Marlon Brando come to mind — and worn by an against-stereotype and non-traditionally cast movie actor of Asian descent created an especially meaningful and impactful moment. (Also, his dreaminess is totally an early '90s fuck you to Steve Harvey.) It's as if that piece of outerwear helped complete his character that I imagined to be a strong, badass dude who is completely confident in who he is. Decades later, Wong still has an impression of the jacket, too.

"It did feel and look like something a plainclothes cop would wear," he explained via email (ahhhh). "That did help put me into the character."

The moment basically planted a seed in my head that I really could be fully American without sacrificing or ignoring my Chinese culture — leading me to enthusiastically explore and fully embrace my Asian American-ness going into a diverse college environment and full-blown adulthood. I recently saw "New Jack City" at a Wesley Snipes retrospective at BAM and — aside from seriously outdated tech (the ginormous cell phones!) and some questionable moments I know to be inadmissible thanks to "Law & Order" reruns (you need a warrant, Ice T!) — the movie really holds up. The socio-economic issues explored in 1991 are still more than relevant in 2017 (sigh) and Wong in that leather moto-jacket is an American classic. Plus, he's still super DILF-y.

Homepage photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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