Where Did Fashion Trends Actually Come From?

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: an SS17 fashion trend report. Image source

We thought that 52 micro-seasons per year sounded like breakneck speed, but little did we know that fast fashion retailers could (and would) get even faster than this. Where the likes of Zara and H&M may have once been getting one new stock drop — or “micro-season” — per week, the likes of Boohoo and other Internet giants are now beating out that fast fashion industry norm. Instead of working to a four or six-week production cycle, the fastest these guys can take a design from inception to the shop floor is a staggering two weeks. Which means making more clothes, more often. But where are they finding the inspiration for all of those clothes? The international runways of course, which are also moving faster than ever now and, as Raf Simons puts it, becoming starved for creative incubation time in the process. If the creativity is slowly dying then and the planet along with it, we believe it is now a critical time to rethink trend culture. And in order to do so, we need to revisit the very roots thereof.

Where exactly did this modern voracity for trend culture really develop? The answer is actually not with fast fashion conglomerates, most of whom have only been around for the past few decades. H&M, for example, was established in 1947, followed by Zara in 1974 and Boohoo in 2006. But according to Fashionista, trend culture really developed in fashion as early as the 1800s. Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to rely on raising sheep for wool that could be spun into yarn and then weaved into cloth. The concept of 52 micro-seasons simply wasn’t an option. Fast-forward to the introduction of textile machines, factories and ready-made clothing in a post Industrial Revolution world. And suddenly the scale of manufacturing was vastly increased. Still, things moved at a much slower pace and were far more localised back then.

There was also integrity to the clothes in those days that came partly from circumstance — that is, not being able to automate the process so much — but also from aspiration. It was seen as desirable to own something custom and unique back then. Which feels worlds apart from where most consumers are at today. What radically changed this fact, though, was actually the shifting values brought about by war. In particular it was World War II that really changed things, after which there was an increase in standardised production for all clothing. By its very nature, war is known to underscore the value of functionality, so in this context middle-class consumers became all of a sudden more receptive to the idea of purchasing mass-produced clothing. And things slowly began to move more quickly.

Still, communications were far more limited in the 1950s than they are today, so the spread of information was not nearly as rapid. In keeping with this, the spread of fashion trends was also far more modest. And without quite so much pressure placed upon their shoulders, international designers had the “incubation time” that they now so desperately lack. This meant that not only did their designs represent the very best of the best, but the fashion houses were also able to maintain a fairly distinct sense of self. Dior was renowned for its feminine tailoring, for instance, while Coco Chanel concerned herself with freeing women from their corsets and introducing a touch of masculinity. But season-to-season, things didn’t have to change quite so dramatically as they do today.  

Many factors are to blame for this contemporary hunger for new trends. Part of it comes down to overstimulation from all sides, as the Internet has allowed us to welcome instant gratification as the new norm. Another major (and perhaps even more worrying) reason for this, though, is the cost factor. It was during the 1960s that clothing became cheaper and young people started embracing a faster trend cycle as a way to rebel from the sartorial traditions of older generations. In turn, retailers opened more textile mills and pushed into the developing world as a way to respond to this demand. The problem now, however, is that the cycle seems to have flipped and it’s the fast fashion brands pushing people to consume, rather than the other way around. As European and US companies began saving millions of dollars by outsourcing labour, they also realised just how much more money could be made simply by making more clothes.

But do we actually want all of these new garments? Pieces whose very ‘trendy’ nature means that they will be totally tired within a matter of months? Perhaps we do. But then separating wants from needs has always been part of the human experience. For previous generations, reassessing wants (like wanting the luxury of tailor-made clothing, for example) often came as a result of war. Today our experience of war is vastly different. But whether or not we perceive it in this way, it is now our planet that war is being waged war against. Our proclivity to buy into the onslaught of new clothing trends served up to us each season does very little to help that fact. And while it mightn’t feel quite so personal as having loved ones in battle, the threat is no less real or pressing. So, armed with a better understanding of how trend culture first began and later morphed into the beast that it is today, perhaps we can all reassess our own wants and needs in order to build better wardrobes and more responsible fashion businesses for the future.

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