The phenomenon of fashion trends

How they circulate and why they can be harmful

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A small sweatshop filled with workers and fabrics.
PHOTO: Rio Lecatompessy / Unsplash

By: Yasmin Hassan, Staff Writer

We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag” RuPaul

What are fashion trends?
From cultural appropriation to fast fashion, the phenomenon of fashion trends has always been widely disputed. The funny thing about fashion is that its cyclical by nature. One minute, we can’t stand pencil skirts, kitten heels become a dead art, and the semi-ironic heart print vanishes. Then, a few years later, they’re popping all over your socials again. Fashion trends come in the form of fads, real trends, and classic trends, with the main differences between each being duration and influence. Remember Sillybandz or the Livestrong bracelets of the 2000s? Yup, both fads that didn’t last long. Your favourite celebrities perpetuate these trends, and social media has a significant role in inflating them as well, such as bringing “sexy” back; but are they really? I beg to differ!

Controversy with influential brands
If you’re somewhat aware of stuff that circulates online, you’ve probably heard of the controversies of brands like Balenciaga with their questionable design choices. People obviously weren’t thrilled with the fashion house’s campaign, showcasing “kids holding teddy bears in leather bondage gear.” Influential brands release marketing campaigns for their new lines of clothing, with concepts and storylines to accompany them. These fashion concepts — even when problematic — serve as inspiration for other brands, trickling down and expanding its impact and access to a larger audience, creating trends. This points to how controversial matters intertwined with fashion houses’ designs overshadow the brand’s previous creative contributions and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths (honestly, in this case, its deserved). Another example would be Zara’s widely negatively received ad campaign — the set included rubble, ripped plaster, and mannequins resembling corpses — which critics said resembled the ongoing genocide in Palestine. It doesn’t help that one of Zara’s head designers had made anti-Palestinian comments back in 2021, but wasn’t fired. Controversial fashion trends like these are a strange and upsetting but not uncommon phenomenon. 

Whose culture? 
Moving on, what about cultural appropriation? Multiple cultures have been used and abused by people who don’t care to learn or appreciate the culture itself but rather “cosplay” as a stereotype or characteristic. Stella McCartney used traditional ankara prints, a common type of fabric used throughout Africa, in one of her spring collections, which was shown at Paris Fashion Week 2017. It’s one thing to support creatives and designers who have a stake in the cultural significance of the prints, but it’s completely another thing to slap a design onto a dress and put it on a white woman to strut the runway, as McCartney did. It takes away the power, significance, and history of these prints that so many resonate deeply with. 

While Black people continue to get scrutinized for wearing their hair naturally, while white folks are applauded for being creative and innovative. Cornrows historically served as a symbol of resistance; enslaved people would hide rice seeds in their hair to have a source of food. Identity is another facet of cornrows as they could identify those who originated from the same tribes or regions based on their hair. 

Then there’s Coachella’s infamous adornment, the Indigenous headdress that somehow always seems to find its way onto some white man’s head. Or the popularization of traditional qipaos worn incorrectly? What about the “Chola makeup” trend that seems to never leave the grip of pop culture? These aren’t just “styles” or “aesthetics,” they have a rooted cultural or historical significance, and watering this down for white consumption while systemically discriminating Black, Indigenous, or Latinx folks for presenting themselves the same way is hypocritical to say the least. 

Fashion trends can be a form of creative expression, but can also be potentially extremely harmful when misused and misguided.

Appropriation and appreciation might sound similar, but one of them strips and ignores the cultural and historical roots, further marginalizing them, while the other looks to uplift and empower them and their contributions.

The “Old Money Aesthetic” 
My favourite trend to discuss is the “Old Money” aesthetic. Thanks to social media and the mysterious ways it works, the aesthetic has had its appeal in media and fashion. I’ve never heard of “quiet luxury” or a “Ralph Lauren man” up until recently. Sure, put on a white tennis skirt and a sweater vest; put on those loose khaki dress pants and that silk button-up, the dainty and minimalist gold jewelry, with your “quiet luxury” watch to match. But where do you get that from? You grew up in the suburbs, not a private estate in Monaco. 

I’m all for buying timeless pieces that last a long time both in quality and wearability. But perpetuating the division between “new money,” “old money,” and no money. However, this trend threatens to reinforce class divides and only further promotes an exclusionary attitude that the fashion and beauty industry has always had, creating an unachievable benchmark for “beauty” in an economic period where most people wouldn’t be able to afford high-quality garments at full price. It’s one thing to say something looks “classy,” but the nature of trends and aesthetics use buzzwords and names like “old money” to re-label the desired feeling people want to hear, revolutionizing old styles by slapping a fad name on it. 

Fast fashion is slow to leave
Fast fashion doesn’t slide here, either. The ever-changing turnover of trends and fads is extremely harmful to the environment. Through overproduction, waste, and pollution, this phenomenon of overconsumption through trends only contributes to environmental degradation. Social media influencers and celebrities are responsible for influencing and popularizing trends, both positive and negative. And as much as I’d like to say they have an ethical responsibility for promoting sustainable, culturally respectful brands, and mindful consumption, most people are after a cheque first. Apart from the environment, there are tons of ethical issues concerning labour exploitation in the garment industry. Poor working conditions and downright disrespectfully low wages for garment workers all stem back to the fast fashion industry, struggling to keep up with trends changing. 

So, what now?
Fashion trends can be a form of creative expression, but can also be potentially extremely harmful when misused and misguided. We can put all the blame on influencers and celebs, but at the end of the day, we consume. It is also up to us to have a mindful approach to consumption, remembering to be aware of cultural sensitivity, ethical production, and the sustainability of a brand/garment. On the bright side, there are a few sustainable fashion brands that will last you longer than anything from Forever21 or Shein. Consider doing a bit of research on the brands before buying, take aid in organizations like Good on You which rank fashion brands on sustainability, labour, and other metrics. Also consider following and supporting movements like the Clean Clothes Campaign which advocates for better wages for garment workers, getting them what they rightfully deserve.

Is the grass always greener?
As for what causes the phenomenon of trends and aesthetics, only one question comes to my mind: why do people always want what they can’t or don’t have? Humans are naturally curious and sometimes assume that whatever is out of reach is better, idealizing and romanticizing aspects of life that seem so “foreign” or “exotic” to their minds. While striving for what you don’t have can drive personal innovation and growth, it can also lead you down a path of constant dissatisfaction if individual contentment and gratitude aren’t taken as a factor. 

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