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How big pants came back: understanding the fashion trend cycle

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Keeping up with fashion trends can be exhausting. What's in one moment can feel out the next. Am I right? But there is some logic to it. NPR's Kai McNamee helps us make sense of it all.

KAI MCNAMEE, BYLINE: When Moe Black was a teenager, you could only wear one style of pants.

MOE BLACK: If you wore anything besides skinny jeans, you were, like, weird.

MCNAMEE: Black is now a 29-year-old fashion content creator. And as someone who grew up in the early 2000s, she lived through the peak of skinny jeans' popularity. She says her style was influenced by the culture of that time.

BLACK: I just remember a lot of the music that I listened to being the influence. I think Green Day was, like, the first CD I ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN IDIOT")

GREEN DAY: (Singing) Don't want to be an American idiot.

BLACK: I remember waking up, watching MTV, watching VH1, and watching these bands that were so, like, counterculture almost in a way. Obviously, in a post 9/11 America, a lot of these bands were anti-government, anti-war, and I felt like the way that they dressed was such a symbol of, like, what they believed.

MCNAMEE: The look was all about communicating the beliefs of a rebellious teen. That meant side-swept bangs, checkerboard Vans and, of course, jeans so tight they looked painted on. But now skinny jeans are out of style, and the loose pant cuts of the '90s are back. So what happened?

ASHLYN GREER: We've been in a heyday of skinnier pants for the last 10 years, probably. It's just - we've started to see, like, a little bit of silhouette overall start to get bigger, and it's just a natural cycle of things.

MCNAMEE: That's Ashlyn Greer. She's the founder and CEO of fashivly, a personal styling company. It's not just pant styles that come and go. Shoes, color palettes and higher aesthetics - many fashion trends have a predictable lifespan, Greer says.

GREER: It's traditionally started with designers and kind of, you know, the people that are making the clothes for us to purchase.

MCNAMEE: In its first year, the style is invented by subcultures in music or art, designers experimenting with new shapes or drawing from the archives. Take grunge, for example, the subculture rooted in the '90s alternative rock movement of the Pacific Northwest.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

MCNAMEE: In 1992, fashion designer Marc Jacobs released a collection for Perry Ellis paying homage to the scene...

GREER: Marc Jacobs took that and put that on the runway, you know, the first time that that was kind of seen in a mass way.

MCNAMEE: ...Putting plaid flannels and ripped denim on the fashion map.

GREER: And then now, all of a sudden, there's a Vogue editorial about grunge dressing. And now all these other people in mainstream culture start to adopt that.

MCNAMEE: Media and early adopters of a trend - like celebrities, influencers, your super fashionable friend - spread it to the masses. At this point, retailers scramble to produce the clothes consumers want. Then once enough people catch on to the trend, it's not cool anymore until the trend repeats and what's old feels new again.

KIMBERLY CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Novelty is both the essence of fashion and its economic engine. It's what keeps us buying clothes even when we already have more clothes than we need.

MCNAMEE: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian and journalist. She says novelty is what makes trends interesting to consumers and, as a result, profitable to clothing businesses. But Chrisman-Campbell says it takes more than novelty for trends to catch on.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: There has to be a different emotional or economic or perhaps just social factor there beyond it looks good or I want to be like X person in the media.

MCNAMEE: Jesica Wagstaff agrees. She's a fashion content creator and writes A Sunday Journal, a newsletter about fashion theory. She points to the trend of quiet luxury as an example. After HBO dropped the fourth season of "Succession," Wagstaff says people on the internet were obsessed with decoding the wealthy aesthetics of the Roy family.

JESICA WAGSTAFF: We started to see people have quiet luxury hauls from fast-fashion brands in order to emulate the overall style that we saw from people who were shopping at incredibly expensive stores.

MCNAMEE: She thinks that trend resonated with people because it signaled wealth and success at a time when people were feeling the economic impact of the pandemic. Now, let's take this all back to pants - the designers way out in front, the culture they culled for inspiration and the moment we're in that made the big pant revival possible. If you look at what designers are doing in the 2010s, you see pants were starting to loosen up in runway collections from Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garcons and others. And Moe Black thinks the social environment was also ripe for experimentation.

BLACK: My first time ever voting, I voted for Obama's reelection in 2012. You know, 2008, his whole slogan was hope and, you know, America coming together, and it was our first Black president, and they felt a lot of freedom. And I don't think that it's a coincidence that the clothing started to mimic that.

MCNAMEE: Then Chrisman-Campbell theorizes, as the reign of skinny jeans was coming to an end, pandemic lockdowns accelerated the spread of wide pants. People stuck at home opted for comfort. It's a tidy story. And of course, as Chrisman-Campbell points out, there's always more to it. It's not an exact science. But whether you're watching runway shows from your laptop or don't care about clothes much at all, it matters.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Dress is a form of communication, and I think we neglect it at our peril because we are communicating to other people whether we mean to or not.

MCNAMEE: And as Jesica Wagstaff points out, if we better understand what we're communicating...

WAGSTAFF: We can give ourselves a little bit more peace, grace and just flexibility to present ourselves in a more authentic way.

MCNAMEE: For NPR News, I'm Kai McNamee.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Amen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee