August 29, 2022

Follow the fashion: Why style helps us understand culture

Brenna Bily

Strategy Intern

If you are confused by the current state of fashion, you’re not crazy. Walk through any H&M and you’ll feel like you’re walking through a vortex: from the ‘70s to the ‘00s, to the ‘90s, with nods to 1940’s era grandmas and ‘80s maximalism in there, as well. But trust me when I say there’s way more at play here than the fashion cycle.

To a degree, this is perfectly normal. In fashion history, old trends tend to cycle back every 20-30 years. Take for example the resurgence of 1970’s groovy, flower-child aesthetic in the early 2000s, and the 90s coming back into fashion in the late 2010s. The stacking we are seeing today is less indicative of fashion itself and more the result of our fast-paced technological age, as well as our current sociopolitical culture.

As strategists, we can observe cultural trends through any lens, from the culinary scene to dating apps and much more. Today, we’ll dive into three of the most prominent fashion trends of the moment to enrich how we interpret this time in culture, particularly among Gen Z and young Millennials.

1. The fluidity of femininity

Fashion trend: Feminine touch
Insight: Feminine as nonbinary

The feminine aesthetic has always been associated with the female gender but at its core brings light, softness, and elegance – which any person can embody. For generations the LGBTQ+ community has used fashion to challenge the gender binary, but only recently has ungendered feminine fashion gone mainstream. Gen Z can’t stop shopping gender-neutral clothing lines, and cisgender, heterosexual men of this generation are likely to wear painted nails and loads of jewelry. Major celebrities like Harry Styles and Kid Cudi are fan-appointed leaders of the trend, while activists like Alok Vaid-Menon are raising awareness and educating the public on what we stand to lose by not embracing the trans and nonbinary community. (Spoiler: the answer is joy, love, and more.)

This trend challenges the cultural ideas that men are masculine and women are feminine – and that femininity equals weakness or inferiority. It demonstrates the ancient philosophy that all humans have divine masculine and feminine energies in them. The driving force behind this trend feels joyful rather than angsty, signaling that liberation is here today even if the systems around us haven’t caught up just yet.

This trend will yield all-new shopping experiences where clothing’s silhouette, color, or texture no longer needs to signal the wearer’s sexual orientation or expression. Let’s be clear – ungendered or gender-fluid clothing is not inherently gender-neutral. When Harry Styles wears a Gucci gown, he is wearing clothing intended for women, and the way he does so is playful, bold, and (dare I say) brashly masculine. Dropping gendered labels for fashion doesn’t make it bland. It should mean the opposite: the new ultimate form of self-expression.

Many brands already have plans in place to shift their supply chain to support gender-neutral shopping experiences and sizing. We expect this to continue, and that a number of brands will fall behind and scramble to catch up to the market. If a brand is selling gendered products and doesn't have a roadmap for getting themselves to a genderless shopping experience, it should do so ASAP.

2. Y2K fashion of your dreams

Fashion trend: Y2K & 70s fashion
Insight: Cultural parallels throughout decades

Juicy Couture tracksuits, butterfly hair clips, low-rise jeans, pleated skirts, chunky sneakers, and so much more. Y2K fashion is back, and as Paris Hilton would say, “That’s hot.” The 2000s are heavily influenced by the ‘70s – mostly via mainstream flower child aesthetics like daisy bead curtains, extreme bell bottoms, and peace signs. By commodifying the era and wearing it like a costume, the 2000s fashion scene was appropriately superficial and yet also desperately sincere.

The ’00s echo the ‘70s as the US was in a similar situation. Both decades include the fallout of questionable international warfare, recession, and – on a lighter note – chart-dominating pop-dance music.

The 2000s was a time of excess – in part because consumerism was equated with patriotism post-9/11. And when designers hear excess is on the table, they deliver with glitter, loud logos, and patterns that would make Pucci dizzy.

Today, you see less of the 2000’s excess and more of its sexual liberation (once again, echoing the ‘70s and free love). Women feel free to dress to feel sexy again. And, it seems this time it’s for themselves instead of for men – a rebellion against the wave of #GirlBoss feminism demanding women become men to deserve respect. Unlike the 2000’s iteration of the 70’s trend, the 2020s exemplify a desire for freedom – whether it’s freeing the nipple, freeing the oppressed, or freeing yourself to wear white after Labor Day. Freedom in fashion is synonymous with ease. And at this point, for Gen Z and young millennials early in their careers, ease is synonymous with cheap.

While the ‘20s iteration of ‘70s fashion is arguably less consumeristic than the ‘00s, we’re definitely not free from the clutches of consumerism. Gen Zers lobbying for green initiatives flock to fast-fashion sites like SHEIN in the millions to buy of-the-moment items like threadbare ribbed knits and crocheted tops. They may be unaware that machines cannot make crochet materials, or that the $3 tie-front cardigan is the result of a supply chain exploiting children and adults with relentless hours, bad working conditions, and poor pay. But they also might be aware and choose not to care because #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. Moreover, H&M is now being sued because its sustainability initiatives – intended to combat its apt reputation as a fast fashion giant – have been exposed as misleading greenwashing.

This reveals the tension between desiring liberation from the system and expressing it via excess – thus lining the system-riggers’ pockets. The commune-raised hippies of the ‘70s would have a lot to say on this, I’m sure, but for now, we see how the speed of culture is influencing the speed of fashion. It’s never been faster, and with demand ever-increasing to keep up with culture, fast fashion has never been more questionable. 

3. Maximalist dopamine fashion

Fashion trend: Maximalist fashion
Insight: Sociopolitical decade parallels

If you aren’t familiar with the term maximalism, just think of it as the antithesis of minimalism. More is more – when it comes to patterns, colors, accessories, and more. There are many subsets of maximalism, including #ClownCore (TikTok trend featuring balloony clothing, polka dots, and more), dopamine dressing (another TikTok trend of people wearing bright colors for a mood boost), and camp (the 2019 Met Gala theme).

When the world went into lockdown two years ago, we lived in our sweatpants … and it got old. When we were allowed to re-emerge into the world, there was no desire to re-use office-approved neutrals from 2019 styles. Fashion had changed, and so had we. Enter maximalism.

When loud clothing trends, it’s often in reaction to what’s happening in society – whether the buyer realizes this or not. Maximalist fashion won’t allow the wearer to remain invisible and often takes up literal space. Thus, maximalism’s focus is on self-empowerment and expression. When the world takes control away, panic induces and we hyper-fixate on what we can control. Dopamine dressing gives us a sense of control in our daily routine, lifts our own moods, and equips us to influence the environments we enter by literally bringing more boldness with us wherever we go.

These trends all revolve around self-expression. The fashion cycle historically demonstrates how not only the passage of time impacts fashion trends, but also sociocultural events. We have never historically experienced a collective trauma on this global scale like we have the pandemic. Throw in the racial and political turmoil of the last two years in the U.S., and you’ve got a recipe for a fashion chaos edit. My colleague Anna Wilhelm will take this analysis a step further to break down what this means for trends generally and how it impacts other design-driven sectors. Check out her take here.

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