Major fashion trend cycles, and how they keep coming back

Note: I’m going to try to go through all the various fashion styles, in separate blog posts for clarity and convenience. Once I’m done, I will try to write a better version of this analysis. Try to see this post as the first draft of a bigger thesis that might take years to complete.

If you are as interested as I am in fashion history, you might have noticed that some fashion trends, or even entire movements, seem to come back in a cyclical manner.

In fact, some analysts call it the “20 year rule”, a general concept that a trend popular right now will be brought back by a designer (or several) in two decades from now. There’s an aspect of nostalgia and lack of new ideas in this, of course, but it is often proven true.

James Laver (1899-1975) went a tad further and created an entire chart of the population’s opinions and attitudes toward reinterpretations of old fashion (link to Wikipedia). We could sum it up this way: the older and more historical it is, the more beautiful and romantic it seems, while recent trends (from the last two decades) are considered “out”. On the other side of the spectrum, if you are too far ahead of your time, you’re the alien from outer-space (no offence, really).

Let’s start with the eternal classics:

Sportswear worn as streetwear

This is probably the most common and recognizable fashion trend for young people these days, but did you know that sportswear was already fashionable in the 1910s (in other words, the Titanic era)? Yes, one hundred years ago, clothing manufacturers saw the potential of advertising an athletic lifestyle, featuring sport celebrities, to sell their products.

Afterwards, the trend came back regularly, depending mostly on the popular sports celebrities of their time; but also on popular sports and activities, such as yoga pants and leggings being popular these days because they are associated with a healthy lifestyle, with or without celebrity endorsement.

Trend cycle: regular, unpredictable, based on external factors.

Greek classism

This fashion trend became a classic as well. In the 1910s, Mariano Fortuny created elaborate evening gowns inspired by the goddesses of Greek mythology. The trend came back during the 1940s and was such a hit at red carpet events that it has never really disappeared ever since. If you check couture runway shows and black tie events, you are likely to see draped dresses inspired by these original styles.

After all, which woman wouldn’t want to look like a goddess?

Trend cycle: regular, now accepted as a classic style, unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Now, let’s continue with the cyclical trends:

Sexual Revolutions

After World War I, the so-called “Lost Generation” came back home believing there would be no other war (I feel like inserting a little “lol” here, but would be cruel), and they started partying, creating, inventing, and changing society as a whole. Overall, it was a great era, but the Roaring Twenties were a decade of rebellion for young people who left the tea parties of their elders behind to hang out in clubs with their own generation. So was born the Flapper girl, with her short skirt, short hair, alluring makeup, and mary-jane shoes appropriate for the new dance styles of the jazz era.

Fast-forward 40 years, the Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960s, and they also rejected the traditional values of their parents, in favour of Rock & Roll, Motown, Woodstock, and sexual freedom. Honestly, the “peace & love” generation caused many social revolutions that we take for granted today. Their sexual revolution, just like the Flappers, came equipped with shorter skirts, elaborate hair and makeup, and mary-jane shoes that were perfect for dancing the new trendy dances.

Trend cycle: 40 years, although Millenials have been rather calm in terms of major fashion trends. What might define the Millenial generation the most for historians is digital technology and everyone doing their own thing fashion-wise; but, right now, it’s very hard to look at things from a distance, so we’ll have to wait.

À la Garçonne

At the same time as the Flapper style, a boyish style emerged for women. Socially, women were emancipating, suffragettes were defending women’s rights to be treated as men, and some of them believed that, in order to be treated like a man, you must look like one. The desire to do sports fueled the trend, and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel embraced it completely.

However, it would take until the 1970s for the wearing of pants to be completely accepted by societies around the world. A note-worthy example in popular culture of the 1970s’ androgynous style might be Diane Keaton’s character in Annie Hall.

Trend cycle: 50 years.

Romantic feminity

Although I have found examples of early 20th century clothing inspired by early 19th century attire, considered more romantic, these individual styles were not connected to a specific movement, except perhaps Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. The first major trend came with the robe de style of the 1920s, offering an alternative to the sexy Flapper and the boyish Garçonne. The robe de style was clearly inspired by the dresses of the Rococo era, with small panniers and floral designs.

Romanticism would make a comeback in the late 1930s, but would be pushed aside quickly by the restrictions and rationing of World War II.

After the Second World War, society was ripe for excess and romance. The “New Look” created by Christian Dior offered large skirts inspired by the 1860s, and borrowed a few ideas from the Rococo era as well, like the Balmain dress below.

In the 1970s, Laura Ashley started a new trend, in contradiction with the disco era, inspired by the Victorian era. (These were worn with Doc Marten’s boots though, it was the 1970s.)

In the late 1990s, but mostly in the 2000s, Japanese lolita fashion became a worldwide fashion trend (thanks to the internet), borrowing aesthetics from the Victorian and Rococo eras, and offering a romantic and exaggeratedly feminine alternative to regular fashion.

Trend cycle: 20-30 years, at most… Romance is always popular, the only things that really change are the styles and the lifestyles associated with these trends.

Power suits

Although the power suit and big shoulder pads are associated with the 1980s, the trend originated during World War II. As wartime women took on masculine roles while men were fighting abroad, their fashion styles became much more masculine.

As I said, big shoulders and big sleeves came back in the 1980s, but as a symbol of business power and success. Popular television shows, such as Dynasty and Dallas, offered prime examples of 1980s fashions, and were quickly copied by their fans.

Trend cycle: 40 years.

Rebellion, Punks and Hipsters

Last but not least, this is the cycle that surprised me the most because I imagined them as separate things.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Baby Boomers were young and rebellious; and movies like The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, had an impact on fashion. Girls sighed at the sight of Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Brando, and boys wanted to look like them. The Greaser style was born.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Punks created a similar fashion style, but with a completely different philosophy. They borrowed the leather jacket and denim pants of the Greasers, but added new hairstyles to the look.

Today, the punk style still endures, and well, but the philosophy behind it has become more political than ever. After all, we are in a good era for political activism.

Skinheads, Grunge and Hipsters all derive from these styles, to a certain extent.

Trend cycle: 20-30 years, but fueled by political activism.

The future

Ok, now what? Do you want to bet about the future? Just a warning: I don’t bet money, it will have to be a friendly bet.

The way I see it, the time is ripe for gender rights issues and non-binary genders; so, I think the next big trend for the early 2020s will be the return of the À la Garçonne style, and gender-neutral clothing. However, I don’t know who will take the plunge first: men or women?

Then, I predict a return to romance in the late 2020s, but quickly followed by a return of the masculine big shoulders and big sleeves. In fact, we might see big Victorian sleeves make a comeback as a romantic style (it often does), it’s not a contradiction.

What are your bets?

I also want to conclude this blog with a warning to young aspiring designers, stylists and crafters: you have ZERO obligation to follow any trend. Be yourself, do your own thing, and create the next big thing. It’s people like you who create trends, never forget that. Just be yourself.

I wish you a very good day. 🙂

All images are from Wikipedia.


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