Fashion-savvy New Yorkers lined up to storm HM when its collaboration with chic French designer Isabel Marant debuted earlier this month. Coveted items included suede fringed booties, an oversized slate blazer and skinny sequined pants.
The collection is as trendy as it gets today — a high-end designer teaming up with with a low-end mass retailer to make their clothes available at affordable prices. And with limited goods offered, a frenzy ensued.
But style crazes come and go almost as fast as fashionistas racing to the racks at HM. “Trend-ology,” an upcoming free exhibit at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, looks at how fashion trends emerged over the past 250 years.
In the late 18th century, for instance, members of the royal court across Europe had a very different trend: a vibrant yellow dress.
“In the 1700s, yellow was a color in Europe that was associated with heretics,” says Emma McClendon, who co-curated the FIT exhibit, along with Ariele Elia. “You never wanted to be seen in yellow.”
In the 1700s, yellow was a color associated with heretics in Europe; but with an increase in exports from China, the color was “recoded” and it became trendy.
But an increase in exports from China, including brightly colored fabrics, “re-coded” the color. “In China, yellow was a very auspicious color associated with the emperor,” McClendon says. The way yellow was viewed in Europe eventually changed, and it became of the moment.
It’s quirks of fashion history like this that are explored in “Trend-ology,” opening Dec. 3 and running through April 30.
“The thing we now think of today as a trend has been around in fashion going back many centuries,” says McClendon, noting that the word “trend” first appeared as a financial term. The exhibit features about 100 pieces, and tells about the trends behind each one.
“Very often people will identify a trend, but they don’t really go deeper to ask the question, where did it originate, what’s influencing this, or looking at the surrounding culture,” says Elia.
A trend can be defined five ways: silhouette (say, the peplum), print (leopard!), color, material and embellishment.
The “Speedy 30″ bag from Louis Vuitton as designed by Takashi Murakami is an example of a high-low artistic collaboration.
Another example of a colorful trend displayed in the exhibit is a floor-length electric-blue dress from 1878 with ruffles and white buttons up the front. The invention of synthetic dye — which didn’t run or fade — in the late 19th century created such vibrant apparel. “This is what high fashion looked like,” McClendon says.
An early, and highly successful, high-low collaboration was the unexpected alchemy between luxury French luggage house Louis Vuitton and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. The result was 2003’s “Speedy 30” handbag featuring rainbow “LV” monograms designed by Murakami, known for blending high and low art. The cartoonlike creation elevated the bag into a hip, modern “It” bag by rebranding its recognizable — but old-fashioned — look.
The most marked change in trends over the years is in how much the cycle has sped up. Advances in communication, production and transportation — plus the instantaneous see-everything-now world of the Internet — have resulted in fast-fashion stores with weekly shipments of new clothes, like Zara.
“If you go back to the 1950s, trends would last for at least six months, if not a year,” says Elia.
And going back to the mid-19th century, if you were an American buying French couture, you couldn’t wear your made-to-measure dress as soon as you got it home: it wasn’t in style yet.
Off-white minidress with a black-and-orange wool jersey long sleeve is an example of a trend from the 1960s that has stuck around.
“Sometimes it would take up to a year for some of the [French] fashion to even hit the U.S.,” says Elia. “The women would hold back their newly created garments because the trend hadn’t emerged yet.”
Trends have always reacted to each other. The conspicuous luxury and jewelry-encrusted, shoulder-padded ’80s gave way to the sleek minimalism of the ’90s, where reductionist designers like Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang were stars.
The relatively subdued everyday frocks of the ’30s and early ’40s sprung into the exaggeratedly feminine New Look created by Dior in 1947, where a nipped-in waist was accentuated by a wide, full skirt and shoulders. Soon, affordable versions became available for housewives.
“You can think of trends like physics,” says McClendon. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
A trend that has stuck around since it was invented in the mid-1960s by British designer Mary Quant is the minidress and miniskirt. Quant had said she was inspired by tap dancers’ costumes and the simplicity of beatniks’ minimalist style.
It’s impossible to put a finger on exactly where trends come from, say McClendon and Elia. “Our primary goal for this exhibition was to put front and center that there isn’t an easy answer to that question,” McClendon explains.
While trends still trickle down from celebrities, McClendon and Elia believe trends today come more from the street — the looks spread by street-style photographers who throw fashionable subjects up on websites or Instagram. Or fashionistas who put themselves online, hoping their twist on the latest look gets noticed.
“You have everyday people garnering a huge following posting what they’re wearing,” says McClendon. “It becomes a much more global environment where everyday people matter almost as much as celebrities.”