From low-rise jeans to midriffs: Why do fashion trends repeat and who decides what’s cool?

Low rise jeans

It’s one of the oldest cliches out there — when it comes to fashion, everything old is new again. But have you ever wondered why that’s the case?

Why is it that the mullet is back in full force or that midriffs are a thing again? And who decides what the next big trend is going to be?

While millennials might be horrified by the noughties trends around us (looking at you, low-rise jeans), generations before are all too familiar with seeing styles they wore to death come back into vogue.

As it happens, this phenomenon stretches back centuries.

The Way We Wore uncovers the cultural and historical significance of fashion, revealing how the clothes we wear can give intimate and surprising insights into how the country has evolved.

Celeste Barber on the right dressed in a bright red and pink dress with a gold collar. "The way we wore' title is to her left

Fashion historian Madeleine Seys says an example is the puffed sleeves and high necklines of the late 19th century that popped back into fashion in the 1970s and again over the past few years.

“It’s created in a different way for a very different audience with different social messaging and cultural connotations, but there was something distinctly similar about that silhouette,” she said.

While some trends may be more subtle in how they reappear, Dr Seys says others are much more obvious.

“More recently, the return of early 2000s looks are really, really noticeable for me among teenagers and those in their early 20s,” she said.

“You know, crop tops, low-rise jeans, the teeny little pleated skirts – stuff I wore when I was a teenager.”

A composite of three images showing people wearing pleated skirts, the top left is from the movie Clueless in 1995
The short pleated skirt is one of the ’90s styles making a comeback. (Paramount Pictures/Getty Images: Robert Kamau/GC Images)

The 40-year cycle

The looks of the early noughties are the latest to return, but styles of the ’70s and ’80s – like mullets, scrunchies, jeans and joggers, blazers and flared jeans – have all walked their way back into mainstream fashion years after their peak popularity.

As fashion journalist Glynis Traill-Nash says, styles used to come back around almost like clockwork.

“This has been happening for decades,” she said.

“I mean, it used to be a very long cycle. It used to be a 40-year cycle.

“If you look at the 1920s, there were elements of that in the 1960s – that slimline silhouette and above-the-knee hem, that sense of freedom.”

A composite image of three pictures showing 80s fashion on the left and right compared to 1940s fashion in the middle
The big-shoulder fashions of the 1980s and 1940s shared similarities. (Getty Images/Penske Media/WWD: Donato Sardella and The Australian Women’s Weekly)

Ms Traill-Nash said the cuts of the 1930s were repeated again in the ’70s. So too were big collars and flared pants.

“Then if you look at the 1940s, it was all the big, very square-cut shoulder [styles] for women just like the ’80s,” she said.

“The ’40s and the ’80s were so synchronised.”

But thanks to the advent of social media and fast fashion, that cycle is getting shorter and shorter.

“We’re at a point now where micro trends are such a phenomenon that things come and go so quickly,” Ms Traill-Nash said.

“That is to do with fast fashion, obviously, and its ability to create new things so quickly, but also social media.

“Something will flare up on TikTok, and then everyone has to have it, and so fast fashion responds.”

Who decides what’s cool?

Social media isn’t just changing the pace at which trends come and go, it’s also shifted who decides what’s cool.

Ms Traill-Nash said global and high-end fashion houses previously set trends. Those styles would then ‘trickle down’ into mainstream designs.

Glynis, with bright pink shoulder-length hair, sits on a chair in front of fashion bodices and fabric
Glynis Traill-Nash says trends also become popular through social media. (ABC)

Today, the people setting modern trends likely have a job you’ve never heard of – it’s called fashion trend forecasting. 

Forecasters look at various factors to predict which fashion trends people will be interested in buying and wearing.

That can include what’s going on socially around the world – like a push towards sustainable fashion – and analysing data on what looks and trends have been financially successful in the past.

Another new, and important, driver is social media influencers, whose looks and styles are being adopted by their followers.

And while some of those looks might still trickle down from designers, as Ms Traill-Nash points out, it’s often more organic than that.

“You also get the bubble-up effect, which is the grassroots thing and I do think that we see that a lot more these days,” she said.

What role does nostalgia play?

The other powerful player in the mix when it comes to repeating fashion is our longing for the past, which, it seems, has never been stronger than it is now.

Dr Seys believes, in some instances, nostalgia can play a big part in what looks from the past people decide to unearth.

“As human beings, we are – some of us at least – drawn to styles [and] colours that we recognise, that we’ve liked in the past [and] that we want to revisit with that conscious knowledge,” she said.

“And then there is sometimes instance that everything old is new again, right?

“When I see 18- and 19-year-olds dressing this way, I am forced to recognise the fact that they weren’t alive when I was wearing that, or if they were, they were babies, so it is totally new to them.”

Dr Seys points out that there are two types of nostalgia: Personal nostalgia, which is linked to our own life and memories, and cultural nostalgia.

She says the fashion industry is most interested in cultural nostalgia and how it can capture the best parts of a style from the past and “package that up as something that we can buy”.

A medium shot of Madeleine, who's wearing a black singlet dress, in a library. Study chairs and tables are behind her
Dr Madeleine Seys believes nostalgia is one of a few factors behind fashion trends repeating. (ABC)

“There’s been, in the last five years or so in Australian fashion … an interest in returning to some of that kitsch Australiana-esque aesthetic from the 1980s,” Dr Seys said.

And while nostalgia linked to fashion isn’t new, she believes the global state of affairs at the moment – the COVID pandemic, international conflicts and climate change – are enhancing our desire to borrow from the past.

“On a personal level, as somebody who thinks about these topics a lot, I do believe that’s part of it,” Dr Seys said.

“In moments of cultural crisis and political crisis, as well as personal crisis, there is a real human urge to look back at and hold onto earlier moments of security and optimism, and pride – and all of those kinds of things.”

Does this happen everywhere?

It’s not just Western trends that are being replicated. In Asia, designers are resurrecting traditional fashion items that go back centuries.

Journalist Faye Bradley, based in Hong Kong, said pieces like Chinese cheongsams or qipaos, as well as Korean hanboks, Thailand’s chut thais, Indian saris and Japanese kimonos, are being reinterpreted for modern consumers.

“Designers [are blending] traditional silhouettes with modern fabrics, colours, and patterns, creating multicultural designs that maintain cultural roots while appealing to today’s tastes,” she said.

Faye Bradley (right) stands next to Vivienne Tam at the premiere of a new movie. Faye holds a Louis Vuitton bag on her left arm
Faye Bradley (right) says designers like Vivienne Tam (left) are bringing back traditional fashion trends into their work. (Supplied)

Bradley says the fresh perspective of modern designers is also key to reviving older trends, with many “striking a delicate balance between tradition and evolution”.

And, she says, consumers are getting on board.

“In regions where Western fashion has historically held sway, there’s a notable shift toward embracing and cherishing one’s cultural heritage,” Bradley said.

“I have seen some Western brands incorporate Asian-inspired elements, but it’s certainly not mainstream as far as I know.”

Do you keep items long enough that they come back into fashion? Do you like current fashions? What was the worst when you were younger? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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