How Do Fashion Trends Start?

Just in time for New York Fashion Week, a new exhibit examines the sources of fashion trends for the past two centuries, from the bustle to camouflage.


New York Fashion Week kicks off later this week, and as the world gawks over the couture coming down the catwalks, it’s worth considering how we got here. From whalebone corsets to Spanx, tartan silk dresses to grunge-era flannels, and gold pocket watches to Baby-G watches, fashion trends throughout history have reflected social attitudes towards sex and identity, beauty and class status. Trend-ology, a new exhibit at the Museum of FIT, examines the sources of fashion trends over the last 250 years. A decade-by-decade chronology features 100 glorious ensembles from the likes of Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Chanel, Rodarte, and Christian Lacroix. Here, a few highlights of the biggest fashion trends throughout the years:


The Bustle

Before silicon injections, if you wanted a freakishly exaggerated posterior, you turned to unwieldy contraptions worn under the skirts: the pannier, the farthingale, the crinoline, and the bustle. Trend-ology features a bright yellow silk faille dress from 1770 with a pannier so large it could hide several children under its skirts. Sir Mix-A-Lot would approve. (In its time, the mustard-yellow color of this dress was also trendy, having shed its earlier associations with “heretics.”)

These devices cartoonishly exaggerated the idealized hourglass female shape while still concealing the body. As the 1854 poem “The Angel in the House” famously described, the ideal Victorian woman was demure and passive–and corsets and bustles helped keep them that way. We now complain about the pain of Spanx, our modern version of the corset, but these 19th-century contraptions were far worse. Sitting down in a crinoline could prove problematic if a woman didn’t spread her skirts properly, causing the crinoline’s hoop to fly up in her face–a phenomenon endlessly parodied by Punch magazine. (Punch also made the brilliant observation that women in bustles resembled snails wearing dresses.)


Camouflage has made a comeback of late on both the runway and on ready-to-wear racks. But the green, black, and tan design is about a century old: it started with uniforms and military trucks during World War I being hand-painted to blend in with natural environments, a tactic first employed by French military units called “camoufleurs” in 1914. Once camouflage fabric started being mass-produced during World War II, the print was quickly co-opted by the fashion world, where it was never about blending in. Its military associations lent it a powerful symbolism: in the 1970s, Vietnam Veterans Against The War often appropriated camo ironically, wearing it as a plea for peace. Couturiers used the print to make feminine cuts edgy, as seen in a Vera Maxwell camo sportswear dress from 1974 and Claude Sabbah’s 2001 “God is Camouflage in the Seventh Year Itch Dress,” exhibited in Trend-ology. The longevity of camouflage shows how that while some trends might be short-lived, others continually resurface and evolve. Tartan and plaid prints, too, have come in and out of style for over a century after being popularized in the 1800s by Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish-themed novels.


In the first decade of the 20th century, a taste for Orientalism was popularized by designers like Paul Poiret, who drew inspiration from decorative textiles exported from Turkey, China, and Japan. In the 1960s, the rise of commercial air travel renewed this fascination with international fashions. Brightly colored caftans with beaded trims by Oscar de la Renta and loud, jazzy prints by Emilio Pucci borrowed heavily from traditional textile practices of non-Western cultures, seen as exotic status symbols among a new class of jetsetters.


Madonna’s hit single “Material Girl” summed up fashion trends of the 1980s. If you had money, you flaunted it. Reagan babies had a penchant for ornate textiles, shoulder pads, and loud colors, as seen in a vibrant, teal satin cocktail dress by Christian Lacroix. Heavily branded apparel was hot in the ’90s, too, taking consumerist pride to the next level. FIT showcases logo T-shirts, Versace’s medusa emblem on suits, and a bold necklace from Karl Lagerfeld’s 1991 hip-hop collection, with CHANEL dangling on a thick gold chain, revealing how trend junkies were essentially paying to freely sponsor companies. In reaction to this in-your-face luxury, some designers, like Calvin Klein, Prada, and Helmut Lang, opted for minimalism in their collections, with nude, black, and gray as the dominant color palette.

Fast Fashion

Nowadays, with giant chain stores like Zara, H&M, and Top Shop in virtually every major city in the world, fashion trends change faster and are more global than ever. A given season’s runway styles trickle down and influence these stores’ mass-manufactured, affordable lines, sometimes with couture designers on board. Prabal Gurung for Target, Rodarte for Target, and Isabel Marant for H&M are just a few recent highbrow-lowbrow collaborations that have aimed to make couture mainstream. Trend-ology juxtaposes a “Rodarte for Target” sequined dress from 2009 against a runway piece from Rodarte’s Spring 2010 collection. The price differences reveal how inextricably tied up fashion still is with class and social status. Also showcased is the current craze for luxury accessories–the Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 bag on view currently goes for $3,000. It’s familiar to us now, but chances are, in a few decades, the trends of today will seem as absurd as the bustle.


FIT’s Trend-ology is on view at the Museum of FIT until April 30th.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.