From Seventies flares to jeggings, flatforms and monokinis – just why do women fall for ridiculous fashion fads
19:10 GMT, 2 August 2012
Jeggings, high-rise jeans, hotpants, flatform heels, monokinis. Where do bad fashions come from And where do they go
Fads appear in shops and on the pages of fashion magazines seemingly from nowhere. Yet within a matter of weeks – no matter how unflattering or ridiculous-looking – new styles spread through the population like a virus infesting our wardrobes.
Take the fashion for sky high heels currently doing the rounds. They’re agony to wear, near impossible to walk in and more often that not they look (objectively speaking) ridiculous – and yet British women cannot get enough.
Victoria Beckham and Coleen Rooney are avid fans of the sky high heels look
Research has found that we wear the highest heels in Europe, teetering around in heels of up to 6 inches, compared to the average French woman who steps out in heels of 2.4 inches. So why do we do it
Because we see celebs such as Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham (who has suffered bunions as a result of her punishing footwear) wear them – and we follow their lead.
But just as quickly as they arrive, faddy fashions disappear into obscurity, unwanted even by the charity shops.
The same kind of natural selection also occurs in fad ideas that don’t have a ‘product’ at all – styles of facial or pubic hair, dance moves, ways of wearing hats, even the gestures and phrases we use.
In actual fact, comparing fads to viruses is not so crazy.
Fashion behaves like a living thing, desperately trying to secure a niche, furiously adapting from one generation to the next in order to avoid extinction.
We see Cheryl wearing huge heels and copy her
We are in effect little more than hosts, collectively offering each new viral idea a welcoming home, at least until we gain immunity, get sick of it and cast the idea of wearing jeggings, for example, out of our minds forever.
The fashions that succeed in their quest for survival – the likes of Chanel Number 5 (worn by Marilyn Monroe through to Madonna), the Hermes’ Kelly bag (carried the likes of Grace Kelly and Victoria Beckham), Salvatore Ferragamo’s Vera pump (beloved by Margaret Thatcher and Alexa Chung) become classics only because they cleverly adapt with the times, evolving as the social environment evolves, until they become icons – part of the cultural landscape.
Of course when we buy into a trend, it’s not really the physical thing we’re buying into. The jeggings, the actual trousers, are just a front.
It’s the idea of wearing the jeggings that infects shoppers and rings the cash registers – an idea we inherit, often subconsciously, from our idols and influences, that signs us up to a new movement.
So what’s the lifecycle of a trend Whether it be the craze for blue eye shadow, the spread of shocking red hair, the re-invention of wax jackets or the rise of patterned tights, the first hosts of any trend are the ‘innovators’ – fashion prospectors who search out the new in the most obscure regions of our busy style ecosystem.
These people are mostly young and rich, comfortable in their social circles and prepared to take risks – they purposely expose themselves to viral ideas, regardless of whether they could ultimately be deemed fashion victims or hipsters.
But innovators are also restless souls – young designers, fashion students, artists, musicians, edgy creatives – constantly re-inventing themselves, adopting anything that takes their fancy. As fast as they settle on one new trend, they tire of it and move on to the next. In doing so, they put in valuable scouting work for the fashionistas that follow behind.
Innovators are closely followed by a different kind of host, the ‘early adopters’ – friends and acolytes who are, in many ways, much more conscious of being judged by their fashion choices than the people they follow. Led by celebrities and London’s media set, they are either unqualified or too busy to search out the new, so instead survive by copying the styles of others who have led the way.
Being an early adopter is not a cheap strategy. In the early days of their lifecycle, key fashion trends are often found only in the collections of expensive designers. In retail, the high price of keeping ahead of the Jones’ is known as the ‘early adopter tax’.
New trends can often completely misfire
and many spread no further than the exclusive early adopter set. Most of
us are born with a natural immunity to the most challenging styles
It’s risky too. New trends can often completely misfire and many spread no further than the exclusive early adopter set. Most of us are born with a natural immunity to the most challenging styles – giant platform shoes or Alexander McQueen’s ‘bumsters’ for example.
Using our earlier virus analogy, the larger social environment is sometimes just not ripe for infection.
Any styles that are able to cross what marketers call ‘the chasm’ can reap the rewards of the high street. There, waiting to gobble up the new mass-produced knitwear, sandals and man bags are ‘the early majority’ – the fashion-conscious portion of the populous.
With disposable income, but irreplaceable pride, these characters tend to need endorsement that a trend is valid from trusted magazines and celebrities before buying, reassured that they will go out at night in their new item without crashing and burning.
However, the early majority cannot hesitate. They can only enjoy their latest purchases until the ‘late majority’, the next mass of hosts, overcome their natural nervousness of a new trend and take the plunge.
This fourth group wouldn’t dare chance a new look until it is firmly established. Denim hotpants first brought back from the style brink by Kate Moss in 2009 are now firmly on the radar of the mainstream.
It’s not only about clothes either, nails painted different colours, big hair – all are OK, as long as everyone’s doing it. The late majority has to do what everyone else is doing, or they end up in the worst possible place – the minority.
At the point at which the late majority get out their credit cards, the spread of the viral trend is at its greatest extent – the epidemic has peaked.
Kate Moss made hot pants cool again
The trend has quite literally gone from Prada to Primark and the only way from here is down. When the late majority sports the trend, the early majority starts to leave the offending items in their wardrobes for longer and longer periods. Early adopters have already bagged theirs up for Oxfam.
In the end, there is only one portion of society yet to infect – ‘the laggards’: these are the oldest, most risk averse, and most poorly connected of all. The devotion of this group to the ‘traditional’ means that they will only succumb to a bout of fashion flu once it is so well established it has literally become part of the scenery.
Which explains why, years after everyone else, the laggards are still walking around in drainpipe jeans, baseball jackets and hush puppies until some twitchy young thing walks past, deems it ‘so out it’s in’, and the whole cycle kicks off again.
Everyone knows that fashions come around.
As my father-in-law says hopefully when trying to justify the most ancient contents of his wardrobe, ‘I’m just keeping them for when they come back in’. He’s got a point. In recent times, we’ve lived through a sixties revival, a seventies revival, and now, with neons, houndstooth, midriff-baring tops, disco pants and even legwarmers appearing again on the high street, the eighties are back.
These retro trends are broader than just fashion – they’re cultural resurgences that stray into art, politics, TV, film, literature and music.
What explains such comebacks Perhaps Britain’s current social environment is imitating the eighties – an increasing focus on people surviving on benefits, an angry population, greedy businessmen – and the same sartorial trends have evolved as a result.
Perhaps the latest entrants to Britain’s creative ‘establishments’ – fortysomething TV and music producers and top fashion designers – are being publicly nostalgic, imposing Glee for Fame, Lady Gaga for Madonna, and the return of jumpsuits.
Perhaps the younger creatives are subconsciously feeding off the compilation tapes, VHS collections and dressing-up boxes that coloured their lives as they grew up.
Maybe today’s teenagers have discovered that the only true way to horrify the older generation is to go out in the clothes that they wore at 16.
Or perhaps we’re fast running out of ideas Whatever the reason for the revival, when one retro trend re-surfaces, a whole batch of dated fashions seem to come back at the same time. We become infected with the idea of the whole era.
Ultimately the wheels of the fashion industry are driven onwards by the changing interpretation of what is ‘cool’. For this reason, the young science of ‘neuromarketing’ is busy running ‘cool-experiments’ to discover what happens in our brains when we make that decision.
In this regard, we all fall into one of two groups of people. The brains of one group behave as we expect – they light up whenever they encounter something that is widely considered ‘in’. But the second group is more intriguing.
Lady Gaga is notorious foe her eccentric outfit choices and rocket high heels
Their brains burst into activity in response to the ‘uncool’, those fashion items that are so last year. For this group, it’s by being aware of what not to wear that they stay ahead of the game.
Interestingly researchers found that the reaction to the cool was the same whether it was an individual product, an entire brand name, or even a celebrity.
As far as the brain is concerned, all three can be treated in the same way, which does explain why a pair of platform heels on the right celebrity can send thousands straight out to the shops on Saturday.
However, what really shocked the psychologists was the part of the brain that lights up on these occasions. You might expect that our decision to buy a new pair of jeans would be motivated by an indeterminable brain-stem urge, but that isn’t the case.
Time and again when volunteers are scanned while falling in love with an item on the rack, it’s a very special, smart part at the front of the brain that goes electric.
The ‘medial prefrontal cortex’ is the centre of the brain that organises your self-identity – the place where you form the view you have of yourself. The fact that it’s active when you pick a fashion item indicates that you make that choice because you consider it a good match to your own personality. Although this sounds sensible enough, in reality it’s a bit worrying. In a world in which we are merely the hosts of viral ideas, it is the ideas that appear to define us, rather than the other way around.
This perhaps explains why fashions are so important to us.
Without them working on our behalf, helping us to send out the desired messages about our personalities, we’d find it hard expressing who we are, even to ourselves. And because they are markers of our identities, it all means that the sagging jeans of boys in the hood, the rah-rah skirts of teenage girls and the power heels of the boardroom are as much items of uniform as a chef’s hat.
They all help us to get a bearing on each other in the wild, ever-changing world of renegade ideas we call contemporary culture.
On the Origin of Tepees- Why some ideas spread while others go extint by Jonnie Hughes is published by Oneworld, priced 10.99.