Inside the Fashion Cycle

By Margaret Morganroth GulletteNovember 30, 2019

Inside the Fashion Cycle
I AM NOT SUPPOSED to say this, because a feminist cultural critic can’t sound like a bored fashionista even for a second, but I got tired of leggings. More to the point, so did the industry. All fashions are made to wane. This once-popular nether garment now gets its inevitable toss into the dustbin of fashion history, becoming merely utilitarian rather than stylish. And, once again, I get to observe a cultural moment that is stranger than it appears: the end of one major fashion cycle and the beginning of another. For me, the entire fashion cycle has meanings that vibrate in our unconscious. This moment of symbolic transition can be dangerous to your sense of self-worth as you grow older.

Relying on the history of trends that change women’s looks by driving to the opposite pole, after tight I have been expecting loose. I wanted graceful, well-made, wide-leg pants. I was right. In London two summers ago, on Regent Street, I found the seasonal version. Dark navy cotton, with pockets (finally!), cool, airy, and short enough to show an ankle. Almost everybody, tall or short, wide or skinny, walking or chair-bound, has an ankle for display. Baggy jeans and balloon-leg jeans are also coming back in, my 13-year-old granddaughter tells me. These are styles that almost all females can embrace — they are not meant only for children, yogini, dancers, the hyper-confident (skinny, curvy, young), or wealthy celebrities. I’d almost call them equal-opportunity pants, except the fashion police will say that the top has to be tight-fitting.

As it happens, I own a few wide, beautifully tailored, lined, heavy, menswear wool pants for winter, all with pockets, saved from the 1980s and 1990s. I was then, and am still, of an age and status to benefit from looking professional. This means no T-and-A show because, in the world of accomplishments, your female head is more than just another element atop a decorative body. I dashed into the high-end London store and bought the last pair. They were a little big at the waist, but I was in at the excitement of “the point of purchase” — and on Regent Street to boot! Look at me! My early adapter thrill is, of course, an intrinsic part of the whole fashion cycle.

The person “discovering” the next new style engages in a process that US commerce cannot do without. It may seem like a “unique,” “individual” experience to you as you click “Add to cart” or dive into the boutique, but new desire, consumption, new spending, new money for the industry is the whole point of major style changes. Going through the entire cycle is necessary for commerce to start the whole wily and disturbing process over again on your live body and innocent mind.

Under globalization, cheaper clothes have made it possible, and fear of unfashionability has made it necessary, for many girls and women to whirl through the cycle more often. Nowadays those in the prime targeted demographic — 16-to-34-year-olds, and to a lesser extent boys and young men of the same ages — are ripping through the cycle. When the so-called boomers were young, they were moving through the “slower shopping cycle” of the past. According to Julia Twigg, the English fashion critic, in a 2017 article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, “women over 75 in the United Kingdom in the early 21st century shop as frequently for clothes as did those aged 16-34 in 1960s.” In my case (I was in that youthful cohort in the 1960s), that required very few garments. An American in the 21st century, over 75, I still buy very few. So, for some people (and class and gender as well as age figure here), the cycle goes much more slowly and deliberately — and this matters. It makes purchasing more cautious and makes each garment prized.

That said, the life cycle of any style, at any age, in any era, moves from purchase through consumption (public display of possession) to decline (going out of fashion), and finally to the discarding of an “old” fashion. This last phase is dangerous, as I shall show. Going through the cycle is structured into everyday life in such a way that all participants experience the same phases, in the same order, time after time. We — practically the entire population of the country, including men going through their own more durable cycles — participate (or, given poverty and deprivation, dream from afar of participating) in the fashion cycle.

This might not matter to any but the excluded, except that the cycle is also an emotional experience for the deliberating and acquiring subject. Desiring and purchasing constitute the “youth” phase, emotionally speaking. As I instantly felt on Regent Street, this phase involves “falling in love,” yearning, and spending money on the object of desire. Possession involves some affective relationship with an important garment over time: gazing in the mirror, getting approving glances, washing the item or taking it to the dry cleaner (and investing more time and money in it), admiring it in the drawer or on the hanger, choosing it in the morning. Girls and women dress for themselves and for other people in their lives — but also for the imaginary social gaze (the male gaze or the female gaze) that confirms their selfhood, including such aspects as their gender identity, their age identity, their attractiveness, their fashionability.

“On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us / And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.” Nowadays, depending upon your age and other categories, it’s the selfie gaze, the Pinterest or Instagram gaze, the Bill Cunningham–like eye on the street, or the spotter from O or Vogue. These habits of affective possession are not trivial, because they are incremental and cumulative investments in identity and selfhood. It’s a kind of narcissistic cathexis, to use Freudian terminology. Each time, the habit murmurs, iteratively, something like, “My pants are me.” Events happen while you are wearing the object, and they may reinforce your possessiveness, your pride in it, and, above all, the value of yourself in it. In London, despite my advanced age, I got a lot of envious, curious, and admiring glances from women in my new wide pants. I thought for an instant that Anna Wintour might notice me.

As fashion dictates go, tight has lasted a long time. It may get a longer shelf life from publicity regarding the Catholic mother who was protecting her five sons from barely covered girlish buttocks. Complaints about leggings looking slutty when worn with short or cropped tops (nobody objects if you wear a dress over them) got feminists and others engaged in angry arguments that the gender police are at work censoring what girls “want” to wear. This foolish debate could go on, each side digging in harder and missing the real point. Meanwhile, girls who wear leggings may feel pressured to go on doing so, whether they want to or not, just to appear resistant to pressure. But move on, both sides. Leggings won’t necessarily be thrown away, because they remain useful — in yoga and dance studios and under ski pants and long jackets — but as loose takes over, it will be less and less possible to wear them pridefully. The industry pulls the strings on the marionettes.

Count on the style magazines to now begin to emphasize the demerits of leggings and forget that they had the great advantage for consumers of being cheaper than jeans and serving like a uniform — easy to put on in the morning, without hesitation. My pleasure on Regent Street was real, however brief, but it didn’t make me a fool for fashion. At a major transition point, a cultural critic can observe the fault of any style that gets accepted by the fashion press — whether it’s bustles in the 19th century, or bustiers in the twenty-aughts. Almost every major fashion change disadvantages enormous numbers of women. Leggings in particular disadvantaged anyone who felt she couldn’t wear them because of our culture’s sizeism, ageism, or ableism, or her own sense of falling short of perfection. Sadly, as always, we’re talking about millions of women. So, as leggings lose prestige, the fat-acceptance movement may rejoice, and the anti-ageist and anti-ableist movements may permit themselves a sigh of relief.

The early adapters are the ones who natively have the right shape and the money to afford the new style. Many of the rest of us — the ones who feel sure they will not look good in the major fashion of the moment — are sooner or later enticed, or teased, or somehow manipulated into buying it. Not just ads, finally, but the force of peer pressure and trendiness bring many around willy-nilly to whatever the “exciting” new style is. The disadvantage critique of fashion — many will not look good in this— is visibly true only in the kind of retrospect I am conducting.

With major fashion looks, you can never predict exactly what will come next. But history taught me the safe bet: it would be the opposite of what has just been considered the height of chic. In World War II, when natural fabric was hard to come by, and people were still recovering from the Depression, skirts were pencil-narrow and made of rayon. Some women wore slacks. Then, in 1947, although Europe was barely starting to recover from the war, Dior, a Parisian couture house, rushed to bring in long, full A-line skirts, which used yards and yards of expensive natural fabrics from his friend’s mill. It was rich people’s clothing, and feminine rather than androgynous. Dior cleaned up. Human figures, of course, had to look as if the body itself had changed. The old wartime skimpy narrow jacket had had big shoulders. The New Look demanded a tiny waist and small shoulders. At age eight, in the third grade, having both, I begged my mother for a full skirt. Ignorant of baleful fashion cycles, I spun around in it with dervish joy. As for the girls and women built for the earlier style, who for a few wartime years had felt they looked sexy, thrifty, fashionable, and patriotic all at once — well, too bad. Just a few years later, in my teens, girls wearing that narrow skirt looked low class, slutty.

Of course, not everyone falls into all the baited traps. Some women threw away their girdles and bras and garter belts after 1968, and many never gave a second glance to the push-up-bra-and-corset combination called the bustier. Some women ignored stirrup pants, the precursor to leggings, in the 1980s. Some women have a particular look they developed and have worn comfortably without too many changes for decades. Resistance (a topic for another time) is possible.

The experience of going through the cycle is a core experience of consciousness, lifelong. It often starts before the teen years. Why did I beg my mother for the New Look? We were working class and struggling. How did I get so smart, at eight years of age, about Dior’s expensive gamble? Every fashion change you adopt requires new learning, conscious and unconscious. The conscious knowledge — brand names, preferred colors (the “pink Wednesday” of Mean Girls), the right length — will always soon become obsolete. Yet there are millions who master the details, and not just once and for all but, after a punctuated interval, other details, again, many times. Men, too. There are men my age who learned to reject wide lapels, pleated pants, tight-waisted jackets — all the looks they once admired on themselves and later discarded. People who can’t master school subjects easily become “knowledgeable,” “smart shoppers,” “educated consumers.” (Praise for market learning comes in the vocabulary of academic success.)

The end of a fashion cycle can become embarrassing to those who had once benefited from wearing it new. Once big pants are considered stylish, leggings will retrospectively come to seem wrong to girls and women even in the advantaged group — the thin, the leggy, those with shapely calves and right-sized thighs and the chutzpah to carry off the near-nakedness; the ones who were considered sexy for wearing them with short skirts or tops. Anyone who defends leggings for streetwear, in this next phase, will also sound like she lacks common sense. (Chilly in winter, tight and hot in summer.) Not to mention that they were a girly-girly look, while at that exact time the whole society was getting woke about androgynous looks. Leggings: sooooo 20th century! Wearing a démodé fashion too long means you have missed out on a social cue, an aesthetic cue, a class cue. It means you look foolish, poor, or old, or all three. They’re not called “old clothes” for nothing. Class and age unite at this stereotyped intersection, at this point in the cycle, to drag us down.

Anyone who regularly discards once-prized looks learns something unconsciously, far worse than that she misses taste cues. Going through the cycle involves emotional manipulation (of us) and continuing education (for us) that will go on as long as we decide we must participate — until old age, for some. I’m not interested in the detailed content of what each individual learns in order to launch themselves into a cycle again but rather in the unconscious emotional experiences that start with wanting a particular object, then getting it, living with it, and — the phase that is never discussed — discarding it. I focus here on the relinquishing that marks the end of the cycle, every time, and time after time.       

After all the visual reinforcement and psychic involvement with the look, almost ritualistic in character, there comes the going out of fashion (the end of that cycle). The emotions and the learning that come with the end of a major cycle are my true subject. “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out…” King Lear rightly begins with those who lose. The wartime “narrow” look became impossible. You, wearing a no-longer-desirable look, appear drab, uninteresting, passé — if not poor, then cheap. Unwilling to change, or unable to change. In a word, old. Suddenly ignored, or pitied, not admired. You must get rid of the once-loved object or look, or deny it, or at least belittle it to yourself.

This nebulous, disruptive phase (discarding) had had virtually no theorizing until I pointed it out in my 1997 book, Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife, in a chapter called “The Other End of the Fashion Cycle.” But, however shadowy this crucial moment remains, it’s clear that there’s no excitement, pride, engagement, or pleasure. Where is the “you” that the cathected garment constructed? Is there a sense of having abandoned an important piece of selfhood, a whole time of life? Discarding involves some implicit rejection of the self that inhabited the ritual and this vanished part of your life. Is there any felt disappointment, dejection, reluctance, or resignation? An obscure sense of compulsion? (Some women keep and wear some of their old [sic] clothes, which may mitigate the dark internalizations of loss imposed by this end of the cycle. It has taken some nerve to wear my pleated 1980s pants betimes.) I suspect that most negative feelings are avoided by launching oneself gaily into the youth phase of the cycle once again. It may be then that some women rather desperately get Botox injections and a new wardrobe.

The question is what we learn unconsciously through the emotional manipulation of going through the cognitive/emotional cycle to its sad and disregarded end. The fashion cycle has been critiqued many times — for supporting femininity, shame, narcissism, obsolescence, wasteful consumption, abysmally low-wage work, and, now that the production process is better known, pollution. But it has never been considered as a practice through which culture constructs for us the meaning of “old” as necessary and inevitable loss. This is a modern process of socialization that happens to coincide with the era of mass-marketing of fashion, the more rapid turnover currently required by industry needs, and the rise of the new ageism, which is certainly worse for women than for men.

What I propose here is that going through market cycles with clothes taints our intuition of the meaning of the life course. The fashion cycle promotes a specific belief about what befalls the self in time. Discarding is the dangerous part because it is an unrepresented experience, an untheorized practice. Over time, the routine involves constant relearning, as well as altered emotions about such identity issues as durability versus transitoriness, investment of self versus withdrawal of self, and the most basic question about temporality: whether time can be relied upon to provide us with gain or loss. Discarding teaches us that the self can expect to lose from living in time.

Other aspects of ageism we know consciously. We are learning to be outraged that, since 1992, huge percentages of people over 40 have lost their jobs because of age discrimination. Aging-past-youth ought not to feel like a set of losses we can’t recover from. As a society beginning to understand ageism, we ought to recognize that aging is not a personal fault. But many people do blame themselves for growing older: they are ashamed, and they can’t imagine fighting back.

The obvious ways to learn to fear aging (say, from ads for plastic surgery, or pejorative uses of the word “old”), an apt student of culture can deride and reject. Going through major fashion cycles is a hidden, normalized way through which we learn that getting old is bad, that time is an enemy, and that aging is an unavoidable decline. It’s high time to raise our consciousness about this kind of learning, too.


Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s latest book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017), won a prize from the American Psychological Association for contributions to women and aging, and an Award for Independent Scholars from the Modern Language Association. She first explored the psychological effects of buying, wearing, and discarding clothes in her book Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (1997), in a chapter called “The Other End of the Fashion Cycle.” She is a Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

LARB Contributor

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, an internationally known cultural critic in age studies, describes a wide array of ageisms in her most recent book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (Rutgers University Press, 2017). Ending Ageism won both the Modern Language Association Prize for Independent Scholars and the American Psychological Association's  Florence L. Denmark Award for Contributions to Women and Aging (she is the first non-psychologist to win the Award). Gullette is the author of other prize-winning books in age studies, Agewise and Declining to Decline. She invented the name of the field, "age studies," in the early 1990s. Her essays are often cited as Notable in Best American Essays, most recently in 2018, 2016 and 2015.  One essay won the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize. Gullette publishes widely in the mainstream, feminist, and left press, as well as in literary/cultural magazines, and academic journals and edited collections in many disciplines. Gullette is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.


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