What Fashion Trends Really Represent

by JR Thorpe

Unless you work in the industry or are a 14-year-old girl, you might consider the latest fashion trends pretty much meaningless. They're items that people who know nothing about you, your life, or your needs have decided are necessities — often for no reason other than that a 24-year-old designer made them. Also, 90 percent of the time, they are ugly. (I used to work in fashion. I once made up a "yellow" trend because I was bored on a Thursday.) But what do they signal? How did they become so popular? What are fashion trends actually for ?

The simple answer actually lies in two things: history and economics. (Yes, I know, but pay attention for a bit.) The fashion industry's main reason for existence is the new collections that stomp down the runway every season, but it wasn't always this way. Fashion trends aren't an innate part of human existence; the first homo sapiens didn't wear a bunch of leaves for one season and then throw them out when somebody showed up wearing a fancy berry hat. They've developed. And understanding why is actually pretty amazing.

So if you're feeling devastated that the latest trend makes you look like a potato, or mourning the fact that your last-season pumps are now Officially Uncool, give this a read. Because if we're going to follow trends, we may as well understand why trends start in the first place.

Have There Always Been Fashion Trends?

There are a few different ideas about where fashion trends started, but they seem to have been dependent on three things: disposable income, leisure time, and wanting to keep up with the Joneses.

Changing your clothes on a whim seems to have evolved in the 14th century as a kind of conspicuous consumption (a term coined by Thorstein Veblen in 1899). Fashion trends were basically designed to show how much extra money and leisure time you had — and to emulate the people at the very top of society, usually the royal court. A person who could discard an entire costume for something else after only a few weeks — or days — clearly had both funds and hours to burn. And, obviously, the royal family and their celebrities were the celebs of the day, so ordinary people followed suit. It's what's called the "trickle-down" theory of fashion trends: that people wanted to look wealthier, cooler, and more powerful than they actually were.

The trend-makers themselves were usually aware of their power. Queen Elizabeth I had an enormou s wardrobe that was designed to be shown off: hundreds of dresses, mantles, and cloaks, all made of incredible materials and worn in public to emphasize her wealth, political power, symbolism as the head of England (and her virginity). Trends also showed how much attention you were paying to her; she once mentioned off-hand that she liked feather fans, and was deluged with them for the rest of her life, while everybody around her hurriedly got five pairs.

So a trend often began with whatever the king or queen liked — and following it fast meant you were close enough to observe their tastes.

When Are We Most Likely To Care About Trends?

Once you get to a certain point in life, you often stop following trends and start working with what's good for your body. But many of us had a conformist period while young, where we bought whatever our friends or idols loved most — and threw it away when they did. And before you scoff that you didn't: even anti-trends are trends in and of themselves. Whether you lusted after a Juicy Couture tracksuit, a grunge tee or proper Doc Martens, you were following the markers of a social group you wanted to access.

And this tells us a lot about the psychology of trends and how they've evolved. Originally, changing trends demonstrated social hierarchy: the closer to the royals, the swifter you could pick up on their whims. These days, following trends does that too, but it also shows sensitivity to your community and its tastes — a willingness to fit into a "tribe". To be on the cutting edge, following the tracks laid by Vogue, Glamour and celebrity stylists, demonstrates both enviable wealth and a sharp awareness of social value.

Humans are acutely social animals, and trend-following appears most radically in our youth and early adulthood, when we're most self-conscious about our social standing. But clothing also has another function, making us look unique and demonstrate our individuality — and that's the fashion forward individual who resists trends and goes for other ideas.

What Purpose Do Trends Serve These Days?

There are actually two sociological theories about fashion trends and what they're for nowadays. One is a social status one: as fashion trends trickle down from the high echelons of society (fashion houses and celebrities), across (from other countries) or up (from urban fashion, "street style," or punks), they allow us to demonstrate our wealth and hipness through emulation. We can do that seriously fast now, thanks to massive improvements in textile technology, so the fashion world needs to move faster than ever to keep one step ahead of us plebs.

Another idea is based on conflict theory — and thinks that the rapid cycle of fashion (some fashion houses now produce eight or more collections in one year) is actually a way of maximizing profit. The onset of trends keeps us buying for fear of wearing "last year's stuff" — so more money goes to the fashion industry. Plus, focusing on trends apparently keeps our minds off the real problems in the world, like poverty and chocolate shortages.

It's a dark interpretation. And it's not entirely correct — it's possible to be a responsible world citizen, intensely involved in news and current events, and also to care about whether pastels are in this season. But it's definitely true that trends are based on fear and on waste: for the new to become king, the old must be thrown away, or you'll be "left behind" and subject to social mockery. Clothing waste is a massive ecological problem, and the trend cycle is not helping, to say the least.

So next time you feel a lust for something that's spouted as "on-trend" (sports-luxe? What IS that?), be aware of what your purchase is saying and doing. Trends can be awesome, but putting them in context emphasises that sometimes a little awareness goes a long way. (I'm still putting these Maison Margiela brogues on my wish-list, though.)

Images: HBO; Getty