They shared the glassy eyes, the stilted smile and the artificially shiny blond hair, but Paris Hilton's wax figure at Madame Tussauds in New York was wearing an outfit that might have made the real celebrity practically melt with shame: The dummy was dressed in a velour tracksuit, a belly-baring, body-hugging artifact of the early aughts.
Even when her wax lookalike debuted in 2005, Hilton's once-trendy tracksuit had begun its mutation into the comfort wear of the attraction's tourists and a uniform of the masses.
Every 10 years or so, it seems, a handful of new looks endure long enough to be so broadly adopted that they become an era-defining staple. Those that don't devolve into wretched cliché may transform into a kind of social glue.
But why do some looks become the uniforms of a generation and others fade into fads? (That today's trendy attire can become tomorrow's thrift-store stock is one of fashion's most perplexing puzzles) That answer – the holy grail for buyers, designers and fashion forecasters-- is a messy mashup of psychology, economics and backstage manipulations.
Consider the case of Uggs, the shapeless sheepskin boots that were first spotted on '70s-era Australian surfers who wore them for post-water warmth. Nearly a quarter-century after their American introduction, floppy, cozy, easy Uggs became an essential part of fashionably casual wardrobes. Local teenage girls still wear them with denim miniskirts and tank tops as a self-imposed high school uniform.
Celebrities wore Uggs on screen and off because they were versatile, the kind of item that was so ugly, it was cute. Meg Rottman, an L.A. publicist who has sent Uggs to influential stylists, designers and style-savvy stars, points out that the boots allow their wearers to mix something casual with something formal. It also helped that the warm and furry boots caught on with wardrobe stylists and trendsetters who had already embraced the 2003 trend for mini skirts in winter. Now it seems that Uggs, and their imitators, are everywhere.
L.A. men have uniforms, too. Urban Bohemia of the mid-2000s copped the look of '50s suburbia when droves of young men added the ironically formal stingy-brim fedora and porkpie hats to their dingy V-neck T-shirts, skinny jeans and chunky sneakers. Indeed, hat styles of the 1950s took off as 2004 dawned, when celebrities from Brad Pitt to Justin Timberlake and Kobe Bryant tossed aside baseball caps and showed men how to wear a fedora with a retro swagger. Today, the hat is part of the L.A. man's casual uniform.
"It's more of a 1950s, West Coast look," says L.A. fashion stylist Albert Mendonca. Vintage styles such as the short-brim fedora, embroidered-front guayabera shirt and the denim jeans du jour were the fashion partner to the reemergence of Mid-Century modern decor and classic convertibles, he adds.
Uniforms may be easy to wear, but when they get tedious to see, chances are that their days are numbered. Mendonca, for one, is starting to be annoyed by the hipster uniform.
"When a guy stepped out of my elevator yesterday wearing that look, I wanted to send a text to a friend of mine: When is this look going to go away?"
To some extent, trends (like a mutating virus) feed on adaptability. If an item or ensemble is comfortable to wear, can be easily copied or modified, and fits a range of body types and social situations, then it's likely to fill store racks to overflowing. The proof is in the enduring appeal of leggings, Louis Vuitton monogram bags, black pant suits and embroidered Indian tunics. Becoming a fashion classic -- such as the trench coat, safari jacket or leopard-print scarf--is the happily-ever-after conclusion to trend stories.
When a new style is impractical, taboo, awkward or unsexy, then it's likely to remain a fad, or a subculture's signature--unless, that is, its rebel appeal attracts new fans who diffuse the original meaning. Cases in point: earrings on men, pants on women, tattoos on everyone. Eyes become accustomed to seeing bra straps peek from skimpy tank tops, excess flesh spilling over hip-hugger jeans and towering fetish shoes adorning office workers, not sex workers. With enough exposure, the styles, and their inconveniences and oddities, melt into the mainstream.
When the transition from new idea to popular style happens in a matter of months, the look is usually considered a short-term fad. Real change evolves more slowly to define an era. It's not always easy for casual observers to distinguish fads from trends, except in hindsight or with the foresight that comes from hyper-vigilant observation, says trend analyst Vilislava Petrova, with WGSN, an international fashion trend research and analysis service.
Indeed, most observers agree only on the endpoint: "When everyone has it, it's no longer special," says Rob Spira, a partner in Launch Collective, a New York fashion marketing and management company.
There is one other factor that seems to be a common denominator: According to sociologist Henrik Vejlgaard, author of "Anatomy of a Trend," many of us need to see someone else who wears the new look in a convincing way.
It certainly helps if that someone else is one of the cool kids, a person who shows us how to make a uniform of ballet flats, tunic tops and jeggings.
The cool kids, of course, are frequently celebrities. Ugg sent Oprah a pair of boots in 2000; she in turn ordered 350 pairs for herself and her staff. A few years later she featured pink and blue Uggs on her show and a national trend was born.
In 1996, the founders of Juicy Couture sent Madonna a velour tracksuit embroidered with Madge, her nickname. Seen wearing it, Madonna helped make the tracksuit, and Juicy Couture, into a success.
Before Hilton and Madonna made tracksuits into a phenomenon, baggier versions had been the uniform of disparate groups--retirees and hip hop stars. Juicy Couture's reworked classic added sex appeal, comfort, and with $200-plus price tags, status.
And today? Well, even resale clothing stores are wary about taking them.
"Their desirability has dropped dramatically," says Lisa Adkins, manager of the La Brea Avenue Buffalo Exchange resale store, which will buy limited numbers of tracksuits, which fetch $16 to $22.
Christos Garkinos is on the front lines of fashion's cycles. As co-owner of the upscale resale boutique, Decades 2.1, he witnesses the points at which trendsetters unload their fading fashions, and he differentiates between innovative women with innate flair, such as Selma Blair and Winona Ryder, and the people with what he calls an 'ewe mentality': "They just go along with what other people think."
Garkinos and his team pair their encyclopedic knowledge of fashion with a sartorial eye to guide them as they parse the fashion cycle. They watch which celebrities and fashion darlings can help make a look work, or kill it.
"I knew the big shoulders trend was over when Jenny McCarthy was wearing it on the red carpet," Garkinos says. "She's beautiful, but she's not exactly a fashion icon. When someone tries to make a look work, and it doesn't, it's the ewe mentality."
Even still, he accepted for resale a Balmain jacket originally priced at $14,000 that exemplified the big shoulder trend partly because the designer is collectible. And Garkinos understands the perishability of fashion, and how, phoenix-like, trends can rise from the dead.
"In four years," he says, "someone is going to wear that jacket and make it look cool again."