When I first laid eyes on Balenciaga’s Motorcycle Bag during its zenith in the early 2000s — made immensely desirable by a Starbucks-fueled Mary-Kate Olsen almost two decades ago — its impact was colossal. Even
as a pre-teen, the space it occupied in my brain bordered on unhealthy. But as the years went on, my head had been turned to numerous other “It”- styles, each evoking a similar sense of necessity, and I had all but forgotten about the Motorcycle. Fast-forward another few years, and I found myself feverishly searching for the bag once again — this time not held back by my lack of income, but by the overwhelming realization that it could become of little interest soon enough. We see this happen all the time. Styles and trends can have a hold on us… until they don’t.
They come around, and we decide we want — or need, in some cases — to hop on board the bandwagon. We may wear them to death, or just a handful of times, or even none at all, but eventually, much of what we covet makes its way to the back of our wardrobes, eliciting deep regret at the thought over time. That is, of course, until they’re ushered back into fashion’s spotlight, once again piquing our interest. Sworn-off trends and outdated styling creep back up to the forefront of our minds with renewed appreciation. While we know it’s only natural that we as humans grow and evolve our wants and needs, our taste, the thing that influences our changing feelings about clothing, can actually be more constructed than intuitive. In fact, how we learn to interact with clothes, is not so different to how we learn to interact with people.
“To understand why we can lose interest in clothes, we need to look at why we become attached in the first place, as well as what influences our sense of aesthetic taste,” says Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, a Behavioral Psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion. “Humans operate on a reward and punishment basis,” explains Mair. “The reward, when it comes to fashion, is that we experience positive outcomes from wearing particular clothes or trends. Those positive emotions feed our subconscious feelings about the clothes themselves.”
While rewards can be external, much of the feelings can be self-imposed, with our own beliefs that we’re looking great to the world, or achieving what we’re setting out to do, giving us enough to generate those positive connections to clothes. How we learn to make these connections — and how they can change — is through our formation of taste and what Mair refers to as “signaling.” As social animals, we’re constantly striving to align ourselves with communities. Whether they’re within our proximity or not, these communities we see ourselves as part of help shape the lens with which we see the world, and, in turn, influence our taste. The shifts of influencing and being influenced by a community can ebb and flow, but the signaling never stops, and it’s important to our sense of social identity. We may not always be conscious of it, but our brains are constantly identifying and soaking up these codes and signals from our surroundings like a sponge. Think of it in the context of the “If you know, you know” effect, just as part of your brain lights up when you spot someone with the same reading material you love, we might evoke this same effect with our style — after all, before our words or bodies talk, our clothes can say a lot.
“Our clothing can allow us to belong to groups through alignment,” says Mair. “Just as the way following certain people, brands or publications on Instagram can align us, dressing in a certain way can do the same.”
When we gain the belief that we’re signaling correctly through our clothing, according to our desired community, that’s when we can form these attachments. Not so much in what they are actually doing for us, but what we project they can do. As our understanding of the world and our community alignments shift or grow, so too does this taste. And while it makes sense to see this as a linear process of “evolving” taste, the resurrection of old trends tells us otherwise. Just as we can lose our love for particular clothes when our ideas of what they do (or don’t do) for us change, we can just as simply learn to love them again.
But as recent years have tested, when we spend years filled with regret, carefully scrubbing our social media of any signs that we ever engaged with “bad” trends, how does it make sense that we could come crawling back to such styles again? According to Mair, the styles may technically be the same, they are different.
“It’s how fashion works,” she explains of fashion’s tendency to revive old trends. “We find new ways to appreciate these styles.” Clare Ferra, founder of luxury vintage retailer IRVRSBL, echoes these statements, telling us, “trends never come back the exact same way… there’s always a twist.”
On a psychological level, this means that the general feelings of positivity about particular clothing can come back after a hiatus, but the way we’re viewing these styles isn’t the same. I.e. our love for old “It”- bags may come back, but the taste we’re applying to this style isn’t the same, and we see this in the different ways we might wear old clothes and accessories in the present, as opposed to when we first acquired them.
As many of us have experienced, whether finding an old favorite at the back of your closet or being inexplicably drawn to the once-untouchables at a thrift store, our opinions of certain clothing can seemingly change overnight. One example of this process in action is the controversial return of Y2K fashion. The era of excess and impracticality has been sweeping the fashion industry at both high-end and consumer tiers. Whether it’s skinny jeans at Celine, butterfly tops at Blumarine or the fervent demand for pieces from John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier’s earlier collections, the most jarring trends of the 2000s are undeniably having an extended moment again, inviting extreme reactions on both ends of the spectrum.
There’s no getting around the business aspect of fashion, of which recycled trends are an integral part of the machine. But while trends from the past have long been recycled, the rate at which these pieces come back around is undoubtedly speeding up. Where we were adopting “vintage” clothing from our parents’ heydays, we’re suddenly being beckoned to appreciate what we had up until recently, grown to believe was just plain outdated. Though the mental process of loving or loathing these clothes is relative to our formed taste, the experience of this process in the digital era is something our brains are still trying to get around.
“It’s impossible to keep up now,” laments Mair, explaining that these responses of love and hate for clothing will naturally feel more polarizing because of how quickly things come and go from the trend cycle. “Pieces aren’t in shop windows long enough to grow on you anymore,” she says.
So, while the connection between our aesthetic taste and our fundamental need for community will always be symbiotic, what we’re seeing now is the lines getting more twisted as subcultures and micro- fashion movements continue to gain momentum over monolithic trends. And as anyone whose online in the 2020s will attest, the sheer deluge of coverage and production for even the most fleeting of micro-trends can leave us with whiplash, and a bit of confusion to say the least.
Beyond the Y2K revival, fashion will constantly spit out trends to generate a reaction. Even the most polarizing of styles will go from controversial to trendy to everywhere, filtering through all price point tiers, to being popular, to being a bit gauche before they’re back in the thrift shop bins where they may rest easy knowing they will have their time again. Whether or not we decide to jump back on the bandwagon a second, third or fourth time, is a pending matter.
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