What can you tell about American from its fashion sense? Well, aside from the fact that we are subject to the external influences homogenous enough to develop into a fad, not a whole lot. Unless you are prepared to peer deeply enough to penetrate into psychological trends and extrapolate greater meaning hidden behind apparently unconnected and hard to find traits, the only other fact that American’s fashion sense can tell us is that every single generation is equally subject to trendiness.
1950s: Poodle Skirt
The most iconic image of a fashion fad related to the 1950s is probably the poodle skirt. One thing the poodle skirt fad can say is that the 1950s was one of the last decades when American fashion trends were unisexual. A poodle skirt on a male would have resulted in a trip to the shrink. The poodle skirt was long and poofy, usually in a pastel color adorned with appliqués of a common motif placed below the knee. As you might have guessed, a very common appliqué motif was the poodle, but despite the name, there was no had and fast rule.
Fashion fads are most identified with women because, well, they have more options than men. Consider the difference a decade can make. The location on the poodle skirt of the 1950s where those appliqués would be located did not even exist on the miniskirt. A fad in which most of a woman’s leg was covered up gave way over the course of just a few years to a fashion fad that attempted to show nearly every single inch of those limbs. Even the most modest of miniskirts could rise a good four inches above the knees. The more daring examples of this fashion trend could expose more than half a ruler if the 12 inch line was placed on the kneecap.
1970s: Leisure Suits
The same generation that exposed eight inches of leg above a woman’s knee also revolutionized the world of men’s fashions so that by the 1970s clothing fads were becoming much more commonplace among American males. One of the most unfortunate was the leisure suit. While the traditional men’s suit had undergone substantial changes over the previous few centuries, things had remained relatively the same over most of the 20th century. The leisure suit was a shock to the system and one seems predestined to wind up as a little more than a fad. The vestiges of this fad can be seen today in many senior citizen retirement communities where they can easily be confused with exercise clothing, but the 1970s versions were intended to be worn to work. Making this decision all the more egregious is that the leisure suits were made of polyester and more often than not their bizarre placement of leg pockets and astoundingly ugly collars colored in genuinely unpleasant pastel hues.
1980s: Parachute Pants
Unless you were a break-dancer who needed the slippery quality of the material used for making parachute pants, you really had no acceptable reason for wearing them. Parachute pants could be worn by either guys or girls, but neither looked good in them. They didn’t go with any shoes except equally ugly sneakers, but that didn’t stop them from becoming iconic fashion fads of a decade overrun with fashion fads.
What is interesting is that the 1980s was really the last decade to produce a series of fashion fads that came and went. The 1980s may have been a time when clothing was popular that most definitely would be embarrassing to try on again, but it was also the last era of fashion fads that were fun, outrageous and seemed to well up organically rather than as a calculated corporate marketing scheme. The 1990s, by contrast, seem to have been a decade in which what seemed individual choice that coalesced into a movement was in reality just a big fat viral sellout. The influence of hip-hop is particularly paradoxical. While hip-hop began as an anti-authoritarian, rebellious and non-conformist subculture, it transformed into a relentlessly consumerist behemoth reaching into every facet of fashion to more strictly define convention than a room filled with old white CEOs.