Last month I read an article in the NYT Style magazine, asking if trends were now a dead concept. The author conceded that at the latest round of fashion weeks, it wasn't so much that there was a death of trends, as it was that any possible style you'd want to wear was available. Pick a decade, there’s a runway show that highlighted it. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was attracted to this changing definition of cool: like a wave of tamagotchis clipped to Jansport backpacks, it seemed like everyone on the internet was writing about the new definition of “cool.”
Why is the death of trends so interesting to internet denizens? I think it’s not so much the death of trends as much as what trends symbolized. In a major way, trends are a product of a limited environment. In an environment limited by space (retail space, print space, mind space) the only way to seek out radical diversity is in temporal space. With the unlimited space of the digital world, endless diversity is available to you if you are just willing to search for it. Fast fashion ensures that even within limited physical spaces, the objects inside of it are fast changing in a way that is as much about time passing as blinking your eye is about time passing.
The second thing about this is that it’s divorced aesthetics from meaning. While trends have also been somewhat divorced from meaning, this connection between aesthetics and meaning has been a driving force behind various subcultures: to see someone dressed as a punk, or a goth, or a prep, gives you some inkling of what kind of person they are. These identities involve not just a style of dress, but a lifestyle and a set of values to go along with them. So yes, this means a death of the subculture as we knew it: in the 2010s, we don’t have anything quite like being punk or goth or anything like that. Again, this is about the endless opportunity the new world affords us: we are now not quite so defined by what we consume, as by what we do. To “be” seapunk or normcore or whateverpunk is simply to enjoy a pastel colored world or your particular flavor of Birkenstocks. And in retrospect, this makes obvious sense: that I am attracted to a particular style of dress doesn’t intrinsically contain a particular view on the world. This type of differentiation made sense for a world where we were all doing fundamentally the same thing: hanging out at the mall or sitting in our rooms listening to music and chatting.
So, if you factor that out, what do the ideas of subculture and trends signify in today’s world?
Subculture is a way of stating to the world who and what we are, what is important to us and what we mean by that. In the world of excess, we are shouting everywhere. Everyone is shouting. Constantly. While before we maybe did that by picking a style of dress that aligned with our values, in the new world, visual cultures like health goth or seapunk are less of this spirit than, say, our online clans of fellow music nerds or fandoms or whathaveyou. But rarely can you tell by how we dress or conduct ourselves that these are the places we find ourselves lurking.
The closest we get to a traditional subculture in the ’10s is hipsterism. But oddly, very few people will proclaim themselves a hipster in anything but an ironic voice: we adopt the pieces of it that appeal to us (I’ll take the foodie deliciousness and leave the rough hewn look, thank you very much), so none of us are real hipsters. Compared to the subcultures of yesteryear, where authenticity was king, we no longer care to be authentic to a stereotype when there’s so much else to factor in to our self conceptions. Hipsterism is more an accusation of subculturism than an actual subculture itself.
As for trends, there are two things going on in the development of trends: first, is the human thirst for variety. Here’s the thing about trends though: as they were, they were not truly about variety. The thrill of the new began when you first saw it: when I first saw that palm tree logo on Tomas Maier’s new clothing, it was enchanting and cute. And then, seemingly within months, it was everywhere and exhausting: on an Elizabeth & James skirt and top, on an MSGM blouse, on a Band of Outsiders dress, on an Opening Ceremony tank; good lord, how many palm trees do I need?! That everlasting search for variety led to a situation where only the most hungry and desperate of us actually got that pang of originality; eventually it led to a monotony of the different. So trends will remain, at their heart, not all-encompassing things, but rather, an activity for those willing to invest in the activity of trendiness. For the rest of us, we will come upon this diversity simply by falling down Wikipedia holes and discovering something clever in H&M. If there is an enterprise that will sound the death knell for trends’ stranglehold on women and fashion, it will be Pinterest.
Secondly, like subculture, is trends’ role as a signaling device. Trends were an almost content-less signaling device: it wasn’t so much the trend that was important, but your participation in it. You were hip and cool and in the know. Now, there are too many knows to really know much at all. Partially, we’ve reacted to the constant barrage of new by focusing on the old: what’s cool now is less “having the new thing,” than having your own thing. Years ago I decided to wear Repetto ballet flats, and aside from one article of curiosity, I haven’t touched another brand’s ballet flat in five years. You have your signature denim, I have my signature ballet flat. You’ve got that bag you’ve carried exclusively for years, I’ve got that lanyard I’ve kept my keys on for nearly a decade. But we’ve also reacted by a kind of fractured trendiness: instead of trends sweeping society, they sweep pockets. The fragrance world is obsessed with Regime des Fleurs. The indie gaming crowd obsesses about The Sailor's Dream. The tech crowd can't shut up about Meerkat. But are these trends or something different? The fact that they are tightly contained is one thing: these aren't the wildfires of trends past. While trends past would start in one elite group, then trickle down to the rest of society Devil-Wears-Prada style, trends present just sit in these groups like staid pond water, before circling down the drain forever. But trends used to feel insincere, while subcultures demanded authenticity. Now, trends seem so earnest and variegated that they’re almost more authentic than any modern day subculture. They may signal to others in our group, but they certainly don’t signal to the world at large.
These reversals are at the heart of this change: what was inauthentic is now authentic. What was a tool for signaling is now useless in a wider world. What was mainstream is now fractured. While participants in subcultures used to be relatively static, aside from perhaps the waxing and waning of some media properties (especially music), now subcultures are simply vehicles for passing obsessions. Subcultures used to be about our self-identity, now they are merely efficient ways to discover the latest thing that we will care about (the thing that actually defines us). They’re less subcultures, in fact, than communities of shared obsession. They are machines for finding trends. Is seapunk the subculture, or is it that group of teens on Tumblr?
So perhaps it’s not so much the death of these cultural phenomenons than their evolution. Is it fitting that trends themselves were just a particularly long lasting trend? And to those whose industry was built upon the rise and fall of trends, it will seem like death. Trends will just no longer be institutionalized as they once were. A stench of decay overwhelms many of these industries and grows stronger by the day: Olivier Theyskens complains that too many designers are starting their own brands, while millions of consumers set up shop on Etsy. The skill of trendiness is a relic, and as it is with the deterioration of any type of value, there will be carnage. But as far as revolutions go, this is probably a populist one.