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  • Writer's pictureAvery Gavornik

The power of fashion - reflecting, influencing society

Updated: May 2, 2021

Think about the last time you saw someone wearing a piece of retro or vintage clothing. Whether you like it or not, that aged jean jacket is all the rage these days.

The fashion world is constantly evolving, but every season and every runway show we recognize a style that’s already seen the flashing lights.

Old trends have had a tendency to resurface after 30 years, but recently that pace has changed from 20 to even every 15 years.


Researchers believe certain trends repeat due to either generational changes or designers being inspired by what their elders were wearing. Possibly both.

Karen Robertson at UNIONBAY Sportswear says everything is a cycle.

“There’s a cycle to everything and fashion is not exempt from that,” she said. “And truthfully, there’s only so many trends out there in the world. I mean, nobody is reinventing.”

Sandra Colon at Birkenstock USA agrees.

“I think a lot, and I’ve been in fashion a long time, of it has to do many times with the younger generation,” she said. ”They go back and they latch onto something that they’ve seen from the past.”

The ‘Fashion Cycle’

A trend goes through what is called the ‘Fashion Cycle,’ which has five stages - the introduction, the rise, the peak, the decline, and the outdated.

The introduction happens when a new trend is introduced at a fashion show or storefront. The rise happens when people start wearing these clothes. The peak is when everyone is wearing the trend. The decline is when people want something new and fresh. And the outdated, well, you don’t want to be seen wearing these clothes anymore.

According to fashion theorist James Laver, since trends do recycle, there has to be a reason behind the return. Otherwise, it’s basically a costume.

When a trend is ‘in,’ it’s ‘smart’. A year prior, it’s ‘daring,’ and 20 years later it’s ‘ridiculous.’

Fifty years is how long Laver thinks it takes for a trend to make its way back in style.


Think about how long it takes the Fashion Cycle to come full circle. It takes quite some time before something is suddenly popular again. Puffy sleeves were all that in the ‘80s and can be seen on almost every female these days. Same with scarves; thank you, ‘70s!

So what about all those clothes we see on the runway that look so different from street wear? Colleen Collins, COO of Rhode, has the answer.

“That’s really to get editorial you know views of it and kind of put forth to the highest degree of what their trend or what their vision is of the collection,” Collins said. “Usually these will be about 10% of the runway collection that will be like this aspirational you know crazy art pieces that people probably wouldn’t wear on the street (the stuff that will be saleable)’s more for presentation than it is for wearability.”

2020 ushered in new fashion unexpectedly

2020 was a year filled with political and social upheaval, and it goes without saying that it looked a little different when it came to fashion.

Zoom meetings dominated the workplace, so people were showing up in hoodies and sweatpants.

People also expressed their beliefs and feelings through their clothing, whether it was for Black Lives Matter, their political stances, or a general rebellion on common workplace fashion.

It’s safe to say fashion reflects what’s going on in society. And that wasn’t more obvious than in 2020 when a global pandemic led to a major shutdown of local businesses and activities and necessitated wearing masks and social distancing - all of which played a huge part in the fashion trends that evolved.

“I think both men’s fashions and women’s fashions are very much driven towards what is happening in society and what the needs are and how people are envisioning,” says Robertson.

Designers consider everything that can be worn as an opportunity for creativity. Masks were no exception.

Americans also witnessed one of the largest and arguably most influential social movements in recent history as Black Lives Matter protests burgeoned across the country.

After the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd, citizens across the nation took to the streets to protest serious changes in our system, whether that was using their social media platforms to raise awareness, or marching the streets in their BLM shirts and masks.

If the year wasn’t crazy enough, the 2020 presidential election brought about even more unrest within the country - and more opportunities for fashion to have an impact.

People took this opportunity to express their political stances in hats, t-shirts, masks, phone cases and more.

“...So it reflects what’s going on a) politically and what movements are happening and some of that is interpreted very much like I said from a lot of underground movements coming up,” according to Colon.

It's important for designers and brands, maybe now more than ever, to bring awareness to prominent issues and to show customers how they plan to implement these changes.

Society’s impact on fashion

While fashion is both a reflection of and an influence on society, it can also be influenced by society - as the industry’s attention toward sustainability and diversity has proved.

I had the chance to attend the New York Times’ “Beyond the Runway” Virtual Event and heard from top names such as Olivier Rousteing, Creative Director of Balmain, Maria Raga, CEO of Depop, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Creative Director of Valentino, and Zerina Akers, a New York based stylist best known for her work with Beyoncé, where topics of conversation around fashion ranged from sustainability to diversity and inclusion.

The fashion industry plays a large role when it comes to societal change, and people expect companies - including top designers as well as startups - to take steps in the right direction.

Maria Raga, CEO of Depop, shared how her company is implementing change that can be seen firsthand.

“Our approach has been to establish training programs to really understand the concept of privilege,” Raga said, “and when you go through this process you don’t realize some things.”

Her company is working to really showcase the struggles and journeys of Black business owners.

“We needed to showcase more about their journey, how they got there, and create role models that will allow other people to feel included - not just showing off that there are multiple ‘types,’” says Raga.

Oliver Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, thinks it’s easy to tell who actually supports movements such as BLM and those who just follow along with the trend.

“There is a difference between Black Lives Matter for a trend and people that really believe in it,” he said. “You see the difference from different houses, how they get scared of having the finger pointed on them. You realize who believed in it during this year and who believed in it for their entire career.”

Fashion post-pandemic

So what does the future of fashion look like?

“I think it’s going to be very hard to get people in general out of comfortable clothes, whether it’s because they’re unemployed and they don’t work and they’re eating or drinking, or whether it’s that they’ve found comparable, comfortable, polished work wear that will replace what they had before,” UNIONBAY’s Robertson said.

And what about sustainability? Are companies moving toward more sustainable clothing for good?

“A good portion of the fashion industry is so moving towards sustainability and circular fashion and really ensuring what they’re designing is something that’s not so seasonal and not so, you know, trend specific and instead making sure that the quality of their clothing is much more sustainable. The entire world is moving obviously more towards sustainability and I think if designers want to stay in the business, have to as well,” says Colon.

Will joggers and sweats be a trend again in 15-20 years like the fashion cycle says it will? Only time will tell.

“As far as the fashion that will come,” Colon added, “that is always changing and you never know where it’s going to come from and you never know what the influence is.”

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