Harmful effects of microtrends

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Harper Rosenberg , Staff Writer

Almost every week, social media concocts a new “must-have” clothing fad, characterized by an aesthetic that will be socially compelling for a month before it falls out of fashion.

In the words of ethical fashion writer Maggie Zhou, “microtrends take what you know about trends and accelerate the process.” The life spans of trend cycles are becoming shorter than ever. This speedy system is the fault of social media platforms such as TikTok, but the microtrend cycle is also inextricable from exploitative manufacturing procedures and low quality fabrics that companies use to keep up with increased demand.

Before TikTok and Instagram influencers took over pop culture, we looked to models, celebrities, and magazines to determine trends. This group of influencers was small and our access to them was controlled. This limited our exposure to new styles and kept fashion cycles from speeding up. Nowadays, there are hundreds of thousands of “trendsetters” who can receive millions of views just using their phone. Companies then use this to their advantage and market via the masses of influencers who will promote their products for the sake of being “cool.”

For example: SHEIN, the most popular fast fashion company in the mainstream fashion industry, releases thousands of new items on their website every week. With the help of the internet, SHEIN has been able to popularize their cheap prices, variety of styles, cute designs (many of which are stolen from small designers), and size inclusivity. By having such a large number of online consumers, they can quickly collect feedback, predict consumer behavior, and release new items. “Because SHEIN is so digitally versed in data, it can pre-empt what will sell before a product is even made,” TechCrunch reporter Rita Lao said. Using their new wide-range access to data from consumers, companies like SHEIN increase profit and publish new styles even faster.

Celebrity influences on pop culture shed light on the increased, but short-lasting, obsession with certain pieces of clothing. For example, HBO’s teen drama “Euphoria” had a chokehold on microtrends when its second season released at the start of 2022. One of the show’s main characters, Maddy Perez, wore a black cut-out dress in an episode. As a result, there was an 890 percent increase in internet searches for the item. But, once the new season was out for a few months and all of its hype faded, the dress and other popular designs from the show were no longer in fashion.

Another example of a mainstream microtrend travesty was House of Sunny’s green Hockney dress. Model Kendall Jenner popularized the piece when she posted a photo of her wearing the dress on her Instagram page that has over 250 million followers. The piece cost $128 on House of Sunny’s website and caught attention for its flattering fit, swirling graphics, and ethical manufacturing process. I still adore this piece and was very tempted to buy it at the time, but I could not pay for a $128 dress at the age of 14. However, within a week of Jenner’s post, Amazon sold dupes of the dress for $36. With a cheaper option available, thousands of influencers and internet users bought the duplicate from Amazon, Aliexpress, or SHEIN. Everyone posted photos of themselves wearing the dress until — as expected — the novelty had worn off and the dress was shoved into thousands of closets, never to be worn again. Despite the dress’s beauty and uniqueness, few people would wear it in public now because everyone would know that they were part of a mindless, old trend. 

Revisiting previous trends is not new to mainstream fashion, but the practice has increased with the rise of microtrends. In early 2021, the “fairy grunge” aesthetic took hold of social media and a glossy green corset lined with gold fabric rose to fame. All over TikTok and Instagram, influencers flaunted their new Amazon-purchased corset adorned with (now-socially-unacceptable) elf ears and pleated skirts. The aesthetic went from cool to uncool within a matter of weeks, and by December 2021, consumers had tossed their fairy grunge pieces in the trash and began to focus on “twee.” This trend drew inspiration from actress Zooey Deschanel and revived pieces that were popular in the early 2010s, such as penny collars and polka dotted skirts. Like “fairy grunge,” “twee” barely lasted a month and is now taboo and unhip. 

But how can a trend from a few months ago already be unfashionable? In the past, trends have lasted for decades, if not centuries — why has that changed? A main driver behind microtrends, in addition to mass production and advertisements, is human psychology. Behavioral psychologist Carolyn Mair and author of “The Psychology of Fashion” explains how “the desire to buy trend after trend isn’t about attention span — it’s about habituation. When we experience something for the first time, it excites us and gives us pleasure, but with repetition over time, the pleasure dissipates because we habituate to the experience.” After we become accustomed to one aesthetic, we move onto the next to feel that retail-induced high once again. Although this psychology has long existed in humans, quick and cheap fast fashion allows us to achieve this excited state more constantly than ever.

Consumer culture has normalized tossing out clothes that people never even wore. On TikTok, there is a trend where users display clothes that they regret buying, most of which are microtrends. For example, user @mir.kat, with 12.9k followers, received 242.5k likes showing clothes that she wishes she never bought, captioning, “POV: you were influenced to buy all the microtrends last summer and now you’re disgusted.” Thousands of similar videos have popped up within the last two years, exemplifying how an item can become uncool just weeks after it was a part of mainstream aesthetics. 

“We follow trends because we want to belong. When we follow a trend, we show our belonging to others who follow that trend and dissociate ourselves from those who do not,” Mair said. It has become part of our culture that members of certain aesthetics and pieces feel a sense of cohesion due to their common tastes. However, we need to ask ourselves, “do you love this item or do you want it because you think it’s trendy?” After recognizing that I used to buy items solely because they aligned with the trends of the time, I have learned to think more carefully about each purchase I make. One of my favorite quotes comes from fashion icon Iris Apfel: “I buy things because I fall in love with them.” Keep these words in mind the next time you want to expand your wardrobe.

Microtrends’ significance is demonstrated via statistics which show that the fashion industry causes 10% of carbon emissions and 85% of textiles are thrown into landfills every year. These fast fashion clothes are made in sweatshops, often by children, for long hours and low wages. At a school like Horace Mann where many students are privileged, fast fashion may not be a necessary purchase. Thousands of TikToks made by wealthy, thin influencers demonstrate huge SHEIN hauls worth over $1,000. Unnecessary mass consumption of fast fashion from privileged people contributes to the harm of microtrends and the speeding up of trend cycles.