From Power to Passivity: the changing role of trends in the modern era

The last century has seen an evolution from fashion trends displaying ideological allegiances, to a consumable contextless aesthetic. Mia Separovic explores why

Fashion is political. And so are trends.Clothing has always been used as a social and political weapon, with our choices of adornment inherently speaking to what’s important to us. To intend on saying nothing with your clothing – dressing “neutrally” (if possible) – is still a declaration that you wish to make no statement. Therefore, fashion cannot be a neutral, nor apolitical choice. Historically, fashion trends have acted as tools for rebellion. The popularity and extremity of the punk subculture in the 1970s indicated a shift in the minds of the (often poor) youth of London, disillusioned with a world that seemed to leave them behind. They did not just dress in black and spike their hair, they mutilated themselves with facial piercings and other invasive bodily accessories. Participation required assimilating the trend with one’s identity and embodying its ethos. Compared to the few weeks of cosplay trends have become, one could hardly call these rejections of societal norms trivial, much less unethical. 

How does the current trend cycle do harm? The lifespan of a trend has decreased significantly – where they used to last years, they now last months. The ‘clean girl’ aesthetic of 2023, which dominated online discourse for approximately a year, was recently replaced by the ‘mob wife aesthetic’ . Online commentary suggests people have grown tired of many trends before they’ve even hit the high street. Engaging with such a fast-paced trend cycle can only be made fiscally possible, for the average person, through fast fashion consumption.  Since the emergence of fast fashion companies in the 1990s, our clothing choices are no longer mere declarations of political leanings, or membership to a certain cultural subgroup. Fast fashion production cannot exist ethically, causing endless harm to the environment and people at the source. The current pace of the trend cycle is dependent on the speed in which these companies can churn out their next designs. For Zara, this is approximately 500 every week. Therefore, the destruction embedded in one’s clothing choices unfortunately does reflect on the buyer, no matter how normalised it has become. One might blame fast fashion purchases on their income (and many do), but the shorter lifespan of these garments increases buying frequency, eventually amassing the same cost as a well-made, more expensive item. Whilst the buyer may be unable to afford the more expensive item, fast fashion can hardly be seen as a viable substitute. The rise of the Y2K trend in recent years also articulates how second-hand shopping can be a viable means of trend engagement, with trends often informed by aesthetics gone by. The options for trend engagement outside of fast fashion do exist, just not enough.

But regardless, if one can’t afford to participate in a trend or have the latest design (through ethical means), when did participation become a birthright? The current trend cycle has exposed a bizarre Western entitlement to participation. Fast fashion has deluded consumers that regardless of income, they’re entitled to participate in every trend or own (a variation of) any garment. If you can’t afford real, vintage fur, you can get a cheap “dupe” (questionable) off the rack at Zara, and you should. If every consumer is entitled to participation, and the trend cycle remains as fast as it is, it can only be sustained through unethical sources. 

The theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, renowned media and cultural analysist, go a long way to explaining the vapidity and pace of the current trend cycle. To follow his school of thought, stable “meaning” in modern society is impossible, and thus the descent into meaninglessness that has come to define our aesthetic trends is inevitable. Fashion acts as a seductive dreamworld, placing hedonistic enjoyment before ‘pure’ and ‘universal’ morals. This explains the cognitive dissonance, and ultimately disassociation process we undergo when engaging with fast fashion sources, despite knowing the unethical practices and considering ourselves ethical people. Under fashion’s spell, we supposedly abandon rationality for seductive experiences – the seductive experience in question being the achievement of the latest aesthetic trend. The difference between the meaningful trends of the past and what we see today is our proximity to our perceived adversary. Perhaps the current trend cycle is a byproduct of Western technological advancement and subsequent bystander effect. Perhaps our ability to physically see worldwide suffering through a screen has overwhelmed us to the point of throwing in the proverbial towel, believing that the issues we can make change on are as untouchable as the ones we can’t. Meanwhile we neglect the issues within our reach. With the death of the high street, there is a clear correlation between our personal actions and change, yet our passivity persists. Where we may have once put our money where our mouths are and attempted to save shops from closure, we complain of its demise and continue our Pavlovian pressing of the “order” button on our online carts.

As we grow increasingly aware of injustices occurring on a global scale, we lose the ability to correlate our adornment with meaning and protest. Punks once dressed in direct opposition to yuppies, who were associated with Thatcherism. The zoot suit was a bold declaration of sophistication and refinement against racist stereotyping. In 2024, where global injustice is visible to all who own a smartphone, it is impossible to pick one cause to advocate, and thus one style to weaponize or make a statement of. If our efforts feel useless, we may as well surrender to present hedonism. Where fashion was once a physical declaration of what needs changing, it is now a means of cognitive escape from that very change. Take the current crisis in Gaza. While we boycott and protest, it feels as if the Government does little to take the action we desire. While many may wear a Palestinian flag or pin in London to show solidarity, that can hardly be compared to the impact the boiler suit would have made in the 1930s. Where we used to engage with trends as a means of rebellion, we now retreat into the numbness of fast-fatiguing aesthetics to distract us from the power we feel robbed of. This mindset was perhaps solidified with COVID-19 and lockdown, in which inaction was the best act of resistance to the virus – staying inside, and doing nothing. I believe we continue to engage with fast fashion and vapid (often times appropriating) trends because we have lost sight of our personal power. We know participation is immoral, but our personal choices feel pointless. The delicious retreat to passivity and ever-new aesthetic options acts as a deck chair in the sun on the sinking Titanic. A polyester mob wife-esque fur coat and a soleless Mango ballet flat offers a cheap hit of dopamine, which for many, feels like all they have left. To change this, and thus end the harm it causes, we must reignite the power within ourselves. The power of the masses can’t be activated without empowering the individual – each of us a single yet essential cog in the machine of change.  

Article by Mia Separovic


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