During the 2018 Paris Fashion Week, supermodels walked down the runway with their iconic swaying hips and stern gazes. Thousands of spectators crowded the stage to praise and scrutinize different outfits, and millions more tuned in worldwide. Big names in high fashion, including France-based Lanvin, debuted new designer styles with the hopes of mass media approval. But the power of high fashion does not stay in the echo chambers of designers and the ultra-wealthy. These styles leave the runway to begin their respective journeys to low-end and accessible department stores and, at last, into the average person’s closet.
Over the past year, my wardrobe became home to joggers and high-top sneakers; this street-chic combination invaded the youth fashion scene around me overnight. I did not question where this trend came from or why it came, but after reading Vogue’s recap of Lanvin’s show, I discovered that the joggers and high-top sneakers that I had been mindlessly wearing were placed in front of me by the shepherds of high fashion. I had become a fashion sheep.
Black dresses first emerged on the 2017 runway in Lanvin’s show. Little black dresses, baggy black dresses, and layered, transparent, stretchy black dresses all made appearances. The appreciable variety of their product ensured that each spectator might see one to his or her liking; Lanvin presented a number of attractive options. Some of the brand’s creativity, however, pushed boundaries.
One dress looked as though the designer used an oversized black sheet to make a ghost costume and then tailored it with a big, off-center black paperclip. Another black dress gave its model the appearance of the evil twin of Baymax, the puffy, inflatable robot from Disney’s Big Hero 6.
A freshly colored red dress followed Baymax, but this piece looked like a frigate bird during its mating ritual, spreading its wings and inflating its bright red chest. Some called these dresses cute attempts at Halloween outfits. Designers called them fashion.
Macy’s called these styles fashion too, but instead of selling them at multi-thousand dollar prices, the Macy’s catalog offered them at much more affordable options. If you liked the 2,500 dollar off-center paperclip outfit, Macy’s supplied its attainable twin, a black, draped dress with an off-center clip for 38 dollars. The clip was even on the same side as Lanvin’s dress.
For those who wanted to dress like Baymax but save 2,400 dollars, Macy’s stocked the same inflated look with translucent, puffy sleeves. Buyers could become their favorite animated Disney characters now more easily than ever. Finally, Macy’s sold a slimmed version of the 3,200 dollar red frigate bird with wing-like “angel sleeves” for 62 dollars. It even sported sparkles, a promise that one might attract a mate better than the frigate bird.
Most fashion sheep could not afford the features from the Lanvin runway, but department stores like Macy’s brought high-fashion commodities to the masses. These stores knew they could profit by providing designer styles at accessible prices while giving designers even more power as fashion shepherds. Likewise, shepherd designers used stores like Macy’s as their own shepherd staffs to better reach and control their consumers, including me. I may have traced dresses available at Macy’s back to the runway, but were my joggers and high-tops also an example of high fashion trickle-down? I looked through more of Vogue’s fashion show recaps and found the outfit: Dyne’s Spring 2018 Menswear Look #13.
Before seeing so many styles debuted on the runway, I overlooked the influence of fashion shepherds. Along with my fellow sheep, I wore trends to express myself and look good. In everyday conversation, “trendy” often substitutes for “good-looking,” but the two terms have a subtle distinction. Trendy describes whether a piece of clothing or style has been featured on a runway while good-looking describes the subjective aesthetic properties of clothing. A tight black catsuit may be pointed to as “good-looking”, but is it trendy? Nonetheless, trends from crop-tops to harem pants and jean jackets to chokers have all featured in runways, and many now describe them as good-looking.
Novel or recycled designs may take time for us to appreciate and incorporate into our self-expression. But designers guide us into the belief that the trendy is the good-looking by using the psychological “mere-exposure effect.” The process is simple and it works. Using shepherd staff stores like Macy’s to stock and mass distribute designer styles guarantees to designers that their wares will be seen everywhere.
Whether we see trending styles in stores, on TV, or on our friends, we are more inclined to wear them—merely because we recognize them. This passive psychological manipulation is a great method of control for fashion designers.
And once we become fashion sheep, our mindlessness is contagious. When we wear trends as forms of self-expression, we influence others also to become fashion sheep. The developing mainstream of any trend creates a pressure for us to follow along to obtain approval from others. Some, however, realize that joining the mainstream defeats the purpose of self-expression as an individual act. Such individuals have attempted to reject the mainstream through the creation of counterculture.
Punk subculture evolved to be one of the most prominent battles against the mainstream in recent fashion history. “Punks” have utilized crossdressing along with ripped skirts, fishnets, heavy combat boots, and spiked leather jackets; these clothes seek to combat the limits of gendered fashion. Nevertheless, the trend that any countercultural effort seeks to oppose must still influence the effort itself. As the punk movement demonstrated, designers could even turn the countercultural effort into a new mainstream source of trends on the runway, perpetuating the cycle of trends. Regardless of which side of a trend we choose, the shepherds of fashion will ultimately guide our fashion choices.
The ghost, Baymax, and the frigate birds of the Lanvin runway targeted elite buyers with multi-thousand dollar prices, but runway designers presented these trends to us average consumers with their shepherd staff stores like Macy’s. When we browse through these options to select our outfits every day, we lean towards the clothes that we think give us control over our self-expression.
Whether we shop straight from the runway or at Macy’s, however, designers use their power of creating and disseminating trends from the runway to effectively preselect our fashion choices. When we select these trends to mindlessly follow, we give in to an illusion of self-expression. I will keep this in mind the next time I put on my joggers and high-top sneakers.