The Fading of Fads

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On August 22, in The New York Times Ruth La Ferla asks,  “In Fashion, Are Trends Passe?” La Ferla interviews fashion industry insiders, who observe:

Trends, they are not what they used to be, said Garance Doré, the blogger and street-style photographer. Until some time in the 1970s, Ms. Doré pointed out, fashion tended to follow a single, clear direction, handed down to the faithful with the ringing authority of Moses on the mount.

 Robert Burke, a consultant for luxury brands and once the fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, amplified the point.

 As little as a decade ago, he said, we would gather at the Ritz in Paris to come up with trend stories, which would then be translated into shop windows and advertising. Forty or 50 of us held the keys to that secret information.

 Now that anyone with a passion for style and access to a television or computer screen can draw her own conclusions, the trend story is passé, Mr. Burke said.

Fashion trends are just no longer trendy.

Perhaps Ms. La Ferla was listening in on a conversation I had last week with Jenny Lantz; we were both presenting papers at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Denver. She researches fashion trend forecasters and how companies make use of their services.  After our presentations we chatted about what is truly “out” at a time when fashion retailers must cycle so many looks through stores  quickly, hoping to get young women repeatedly into stores for “the latest.” In a time when there are so many looks available, what is truly out? Jenny said that when she asks that of the retailers she interviews, they often have difficulty coming up with answers.

As the New York Times article points out, the answer to the “what’s trendy” question depends upon whether one is looking through a fashion magazine or simply looking out the window of one’s office. The fashion magazines push specific looks by the designing elites and so whatever they design supposedly represents the new trends.  But what about at the level of the street, where the looks one sees reflect what people buy?  That’s when I find myself asking, “What exactly, is not in style?”

I think that we have come to a point in western cultural fashion history when it is a challenge to dress in a way that is noticeably out of style.

How did this state of affairs come to be?

If one looks through a fashion magazine from the 1950s, the idea of what was “in” and how trends were determined was quite clear. Paris was the center of fashion. Ellen Melinkoff notes in What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Womens Clothing, 1950 to 1980:

We waited each year for the announcement from Paris regarding next year’s hemline. Newspapers and magazines played along, giving front-page coverage to the long-anticipated, dreaded measurement….The newsworthiness of this event heightened our impression that we were powerless to rebel. Paris would tell us what was fashionable.

But Paris’s grip on determining fashion trends was loosening. Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool argues that even in the conformist 50s, clothing manufacturers were itching for change that would shake up the slow progression of fashion trends. Their wish was granted in the 1960s when the Baby Boomer teens caused a “youthquake” in the world of fashion. U.S. teenagers had disposable income and they did not want to spend it  so they could look just like their parents.

From that point onward different routes for fashion trends developed. There was the traditional top-down route where elite fashion designers set the mode. But there was also the “bubble-up” route where streetstyles (and eventually the designers themselves) were influenced by what youth (often associated with subcultures, like punk rockers) were wearing. And those who research the “social diffusion” of trends note that it is lateral influence – what our friends are wearing – that has the biggest impact on our daily decisions of what to wear (something any middle-school girl could tell you).

I think there is another element for why trends have become less trendy. According to Sharon Zukin in Point of Purchase, Americans increasingly have used shopping guidebooks to become expert consumers. In the realm of style, this has meant innumerable guides on “dressing your best.” With the dress for social success guides, not being a “fashion victim” by blindly following the latest trends is emphasized. Instead, a sign of good fashion sense has been to develop one’s own personal style and dress in a way that flatters one’s body – after all, not everyone looks good in skinny jeans or with a wide belt cinched around the waist.

And finally, as I hinted at above, I think that trends are fundamentally decentered because the dynamics of fast fashion push so many trends simultaneously. Pussy bows, asymmetrical hemlines, full-skirt revamps of 50s looks, the 60s mod-style A-lines, capris, full-legged trousers, skinny jeans – are all in.

Which brings me back to my initial question – what is currently out of style?  Can anything truly be considered outmoded right now? And if so, how ridiculous or far back in time do we have to go? (Armor? Actually, I think I’ve seen a version of that in the fashion mags.)  I am curious to know what you consider to be out – please send ideas and photos if you have them!

Nancy L. Fischer

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4 Comments

Filed under Fashion Trends

4 responses to “The Fading of Fads

  1. Nancy, I think you are so right – fashion trends these days *are* decentralized. I’ve been wondering about this subject a lot lately. I even feel a distinct shift from what it was like just a few years ago to what fashion is like today. I agree with your point on the overarching trend of wearing clothes that flatter – and personally I’m totally on board with that! haha As far as outmoded clothing styles, it is getting harder and harder to pin down because it seems that every time someone declares something is out, someone else sets out to prove them wrong. Usually it’s not quite the same – maybe just hinting at that former ‘outmoded’ trend – but still distinct. And I LOVE what you said about the armor! Anyway, great information provided in this post, thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Thanks for your comment! I think you’re right that the shift has happened in the last few years. I suppose there is some possibility that we just cannot see the forest for the trees right now in terms of a clear trend for the 2010s. I remember thinking there were no new looks for the 2000s, but when I reflect, the “bandage dress” and something I call the “origami dress” (dresses with asymmetrical folds in the bodice as decoration) were new looks. Still, they weren’t trends that defined the decade like the New Look defined the 1950s. And, to touch on the other point about what goes out of fashion, I still see versions of bandage dresses and origami dresses today.

  3. You’ve combine the 36,000 ft view with a street-wise savvy. Now here’s what I wonder: Is men’s fashion as elastic as women’s? Are the borders of “what’s hot” and “what’s not” as porous? Another provocative post — thanks!

  4. Great question! I think that at this moment men would also have to try to look out of style (at least in the sense of looking out of date). I think of men’s fashion being more nuanced in how it changes over time. It’s often just subtle styling differences like collar size or tie width (if we’re talking business attire) that differentiates one decade from the next. And in terms of fast fashion for men, well, it’s either retro hipster looks which ironically recall the past or sports wear (like t-shirts, shorts, etc) which is also hard to look outmoded in. Historically, the fashion industry has made men’s clothing with the idea that they’ll be unwilling to part with an item of clothing until its worn out, and so the push for new looks is less pressing.
    Any afficionados of men’s fashion have other thoughts on this?

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