Today’s thinking is inspired by old family photos and the #waywt. The two are intimately related.
When I took my first cautious steps into the fashion world, I believed myself at the mercy of nature. Somewhere up above (likely in a Parisian studio), great minds spoke with the authority of gods, and so dictated how and with what I should dress myself. Dramatic, right?
Like a ship in a storm surge, I felt completely helpless – the best hope for survival lay with merely trying to keep up with the whims of these fashion arbiters. The only issue: those European designer gods spoke in fabric. Sure, their clothes were cool, but I’m not Derek Zoolander. As a newbie to this whole “polo shirts aren’t formal” fashion thing, I needed a translator.
And so, I consulted a chorus of ever-refreshing “trend guides.” These seasonal guides, published in all the coolest magazines with opinions informed by the coolest people and coolest brands, seemed to offer the only hope of staying afloat in this volatile fashion world. Each piece distilled the cool but inaccessible runway designs into readily-understood trends, and what’s more, even furnished readers with product suggestions that would allow them to embrace these trends without, you know, Zoolander hair. Trend pieces offer fashion readers a safe harbor: if you followed this guide to the letter, you wouldn’t just dress like one of the cool kids. You would be… on trend.
And so, I did follow them. As a fashion neophyte in rough waves, trend guides were my lighthouse. They’re presented as educational, and I (seeking knowledge that could be applied to my personal coolness) lapped them up. From GQ to WSJ, I read all and followed most. I’m not just talking about the obvious – the run-of-the-mill “This Fall’s Best Colors” or “5 Key Footwear Trends.” I’m talking about the more subtle product pieces: the “Brands to Watch” lists; the “Up Your Style Editorials”; and God forbid, anything with the useless, meaningless phrase every fashion writer clings to: “dress it up or dress it down.”
Following these lights in the darkness, I bought $300 brown leather boots (the “Americana trend”), all-white canvas sneakers (the “sneaker trend”), and more grey crewneck sweatshirts than I could count (the “athleisure trend”; or maybe the “refined casual trend”), amongst others. Then, when the next deluge of trend pieces arrived at the start of a season, I bought again.
In one year, I spent over $1300 under the emasculating rationale that I was “building my wardrobe.”
(Editor’s note: I physically cringe thinking of the other uses for that money. Good thing interest rates are low.)
That should have been my wake up call, but instead, this behavior continued. For lack of better words, I chased trends. I say “chased” because within the paradigm described above, the buyer is always two steps behind, pursuing products exclusively because they’re cool. With this pursuit comes an implicit promise: if you finally “catch up” (ex. make a purchase), you will now be as cool as the object you desired. That is, until the next cool thing hits the runway.
The eventual creation of new collections (and therefore, publishing of new trend pieces) would then relegate your privileged status to off trend, and in a desire to stay relevant, you’d pick up the latest trend piece, buy the featured product, and the cycle repeats.
I’m not passing off this brief introduction about the transient nature of fashion trend cycles as original thinking – from Schumpeter to Laver, the idea of creativity ceaselessly destroying and renewing itself is well documented. Case in point: within fashion, there’s a generally-accepted 20 year cycle for a currently off trend good to regain its desired on trend status.
Which is why, in 2016, neon colorblocked windbreakers are cool again. And why girls in lightwash denim and retro adidas sneakers inadvertently dress like Rachel from “Friends.” In other words: a predictable, disappear-then-reappear mainstream trend cycle.
But that’s not what got me thinking.
After a while, I started to notice that the trends being dictated weren’t fundamentally different between years. The colors may change, the cuts may vary slightly, but all in all, we were chasing phenotypes: rather than varying the fundamental aspects of dressing well (fit, color palette, etc), mainstream trends would only vary how they were expressed.
Every Fall brought a “plaid trend” with slight variations on which neutral color would dominate the pattern. Every Spring, just like the spring before it: “floral trend.” (Groundbreaking.) What’s worse: unlike an “it” bag or a Cheese of the Month, many of the items recommended were the same between years! Four years ago, it was recommended I buy white Vans Authentics to ride the updraft of the “white sneaker trend.” Four years later, everyone from WhoWhatWear recommends eager fashionistas wear white low top canvas plimsoll sneakers to stay “on trend”. The brand may change, but broader fashion trends like the kind implied by the writers of transient, perennial trend guides are by definition not defined by individual labels.
As I was reflecting on the dishonesty of insinuating a long-popular basic item was a flash in the pan trend item that an insecure fashion buyer needed to buy again and again, I happened upon some old pictures of my Dad and his two sisters thanks to a family group text. It was astonishing: pictured in their comfortable home circa 1979, the trio wore plain neutral-colored t-shirts and white canvas plimsoll sneakers. Had they predicted fashion’s supposedly-novel embrace of the cotton t-shirt and sneakers? 37 years later, those two items are as popular as ever with little disgrace between. And here I thought white t-shirts were a trend! Thoughts collided like waves at sea.
Later that week, I would idly browse Instagram’s #waywt (“What Are You Wearing Today”) hashtag and see a young man dressed similarly to the people in that photo: side-part, white tee, indigo selvedge jeans, white Chuck Taylors. You know the look. Judging by the four-digit “likes”, this was a generally-approved style. My gut instinct was to file this memory under “confirmation bias” and move on with my day – more evidence that between 1981 and now, little had truly changed.
But then, as I zoomed out from the photo and back to the #ootd photo wall, it hit me: surrounding this one specific picture were dozens of other outfits representing a veritable mosaic of styles and fits. Girls dressed like ranchers; guys in Air Jordans and jerseys; some shadowy figures even dressed like high-fashion Blade Runners. The one unifying feature: each and every one of those photos had received a similar “like” total. Shouldn’t an outfit conforming to supposedly ubiquitous and industry-defining trends (controlling for audience and exposure) receive a dramatically higher approval rating?
I admit that indexing Instagram likes in a small sample wouldn’t support a Master’s Thesis, but still, bear with me: from the 37th straight year of the “white sneaker trend” to the modern lack of variation between years and seasons, it seems increasingly like the cyclical nature (appear, on trend, disappear, off trend, novel reintroduction, repeat) of fashion trends is fading. Dying with it is the traditional, fashion magazine and department store buyer-dictated definition of a “trend.”
Thanks to the power of the Internet (Instagram, reddit, Styleforum) to connect members of a wide-spread interest group, the diverse fashion expressions that would traditionally be assigned the label “trend” instead merely exist. There’s no exoticism to exposing a subgroup’s style as trendy because, quite frankly, it’s already been exposed. Because these interest groups and subcultures don’t ever truly disappear, what would formerly have been called a “trend” is simply – and always – present. Instead of a “sneaker trend”, it’s the 24/7 internet sneaker community, and considering it doesn’t disappear, the middle portion of the trend cycle (that decade of irrelevance) is permanently removed. With one-half of the trend cycle irrevocably missing thanks to the Instagram age - why even call them “trends”?
Simply put: because fear sells. Following those trend guides and the widely-understood but frequently-unquestioned definition of a trend, I blindly consumed the suggested products out of a bizarre combination of desire and anxiety. I desired to be cool, to stay on trend like the cool kids in the ads (or, as is increasingly the case, in the native ads). So I followed trends like the scripture, worshipping at the altar of cool – and more importantly, buying.
On the other side of that coin was something darker: the fear of what would happen if I weren’t on trend. I would like the image of nonchalant cool I worked tirelessly to cultivate, or worse. In the words of Fergie, I might appear so “two thousand and late.” Regardless, I would be excommunicated from the leagues of the cool/trendy I so desperately desired to join – and rather than risk exile, I bought. Salesmanship? Sure. Immoral? Not quite. My wasted dollars didn’t finance any doomsday lasers. I just spent a lot of money I barely had on things I didn’t need chasing an idea that didn’t truly exist.
Which is why, years later, when I would see the old photos and the equivalent Instagrams, I would feel liberated. If all of these genres and styles and subcultures flourish concurrently, none of them can ever truly “trend.” Sure, a niche like normcore or streetwear may have a season in the sun, but once the novelty-seeking public eye blinks, it won’t be relegated to 20 years of upturned noses and languish. Instead, that style will simply keep existing, both inside and out of the spotlight.
That’s not to say all of the old ways are gone: the universal traits of dressing well (fit, color palette, context, etc) will always separate the style-minded, but those are the fundamental genotypic variations we intentionally differentiated earlier. Now, because of the 24/7 fashion week on the screen in your pocket, however you personally express yourself will be, to someone, somewhere, stylish. Fashion movements are no longer defined by department store buyers or product-oriented publications – instead, they’re defined and nurtured by people with shared interests who, for the first time, are connected as one.
In essence: the traditional concept of a “trend” as an instrument to drive product sales is fundamentally flawed. Thanks to Internet fashion forums and social media, macro-level fashion trends are dead. You can express yourself however you want, and, to millions of people all over the world, you’ll be stylish.
Now that’s cool.