Describing someone as “trendy” has become a back-handed compliment. On the smiling surface, you are conveying that someone is aware and a participant in a dynamic, glamorous and worldly industry. But on the shadowy, snarky underbelly, it could also be an insinuation that the person may be a bit shallow or vain, have little sense of self or, at worst, is a fashion “victim.” And as things go these days, no one wants to be a victim.
So what do we want out of fashion? There are certainly people out there who want to always be at the very tip of the fashion arrow, which is commendable, entertaining and a potentially expensive discipline. But for the rest of us who do not have that sort of attention, passion, discipline or dollars for fashion in its most intensive state, it serves a milder utility.
The segments of the fashion market can determine how invested — whether time, logistics or money — you want to be. From high designer to mass market, companies at all price points keenly keep tabs on trends from top to bottom and bottom to top in order to keep society not only clothed but current and on-trend. Over the last 20 years, fashion has become less of a hobby and passion for the elite and more of a cultural norm. In this way, participating in fashion is as easy as walking into a store, clicking a mouse or just looking at the people around us.
We know the term “high-low” as a hemline, but it started as a philosophy. American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour disseminated the idea by styling a pair of inexpensive, generic jeans with an intricate couture jacket from Christian Lacroix for a cover in the late 1980s. The notion of putting a $50 item with a $10,000 one brought to surface an unintended perspective in fashion, namely the idea that style is both constrained and unconstrained by money. You don’t have to be all designer all the time, or if you want to have just one fashion piece alongside an otherwise nonchalant, proletariat ensemble, both are participating in fashion and therefore legitimate.
Although trends give a tactile way for people to grasp onto fashion, feeling pretty and modern is the sum for which all the trendy parts are added. Of course, trends are not always geared toward an idealized or even flattering image. Sometimes they serve as a barometer of culture or a reflection of a current mood in society. But even in the times of shapeless ankle-length dresses or clunky masculine shoes, people do feel a sense of engagement which translates into a beauty on a more esoteric level.
In my opinion, the absolute most basic utility of fashion is to find contrast. Fashion is an accessible way to see properties or qualities in relation to each other as shape, silhouette and fabric are always set in opposition. In being able to appreciate and create contrast, we are able to appreciate differences and therefore have a wider grasp of the world and in the best-case scenario, life. It is not necessarily the bubble sleeve next to the sinewy pencil skirt that we respond to, but more of the difference in ideas that have come together and created something entirely different. It is for this contrast that we live, because the other way would be crude, dull and frankly unfashionable.