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Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 12:01 UK

The life cycle of a fashion trend


By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

For years shoulder pads were fashion suicide. But they are back on the catwalks of London Fashion Week, back in the shops and back in our wardrobes. How did this happen?

They may have defined fashion in the 1980s, but most of the 90s and noughties have been spent sniggering at pictures of yourself, your mother or Alexis Carrington wearing them.

But what was unimaginable just a few years ago has now happened - shoulder pads are back in the shops and back in our wardrobes, for the first or second time round.

Model at London Fashion Week
Back at London Fashion Week

So how did we find ourselves handing over our hard-earned money for what was considered a fashion faux pas for so long?

Be it music, food or cars, all trends have a life cycle and none more so than fashion trends. One of the first people to try and pin down our adjustable attitude to what's hot and what's not was the highly-respected fashion historian James Laver. In 1937 he drew up a timeline of how a style is viewed over the years, which became known as Laver's Law.

This states that a trend does not start to look appealing until 50 years after its time. If you wear something 10 years after it was in fashion, you look "hideous", 20 years after you look "ridiculous" and so on. Only when you hit 50 years do things start tipping towards the positive and you look "quaint".

According to Laver's Law, shoulder pads should still look ridiculous. But the fashion industry has changed considerably in the last 72 years, and clothes are designed, produced and consumed in an entirely different way. But trends still have a life cycle - it's just more condensed.

Ironic choice

"The recycling of fashion trends has been speeded up," says Andrew Groves, course director for fashion at the University of Westminster.

10 years before - indecent
Five years before - shameless
One year before - daring
In fashion - smart
One year after - dowdy
10 years after - hideous
20 years after - ridiculous
30 years after - amusing
50 years after - quaint
70 years after - charming
100 years after - romantic
150 years after - beautiful

"We now live in a fast-paced consumer society. Pictures of what's on the catwalks of London Fashion Week today will be on the internet today. Everything is absorbed quicker and we want it quicker. Looks hit the High Street much faster."

But some things remain the same, including the reason a trend goes from hot to not. What kills it off is boredom, say those in the industry. A trend starts off on a few and eventually goes mainstream, by which time the leaders - be they designers, models or trendsetters - have moved on. Eventually everyone else does too.

Then it goes through stages of being ridiculed and worn ironically - as Laver's Law charts - until it is largely forgotten. Only when it drops off the fashion radar - for both good and bad reasons - can it be rediscovered, says Mr Groves.

"It's the point when something that was viewed as old and outdated for so long starts looking refreshing," he says.

Dress like mum

And being refreshed is an essential part of the cycle. No one wants a carbon copy. The trend can't be exactly the same second or third time around, and usually isn't because a new generation of designers will have looked at it with fresh eyes.

Joan Collins: 'Shoulder pads are back'

"They don't necessarily see shoulder-pads, for instance, the way previous generations did, as part of a 'power' suit," says Times fashion editor, Lisa Armstrong. "For them it's just a really fun fashion statement that takes us away from all the soft, fragile looks of the past decade."

Welsh designer Emma Griffiths, 30, is just old enough to remember shoulder pads in the 80s, but on her mother. They've featured heavily in her last two collections for her label e.g... Her designs include skinny sleeves and fine tailoring, making a sharper silhouette than the quarter-back look sported by the likes of Sheena Easton and Joan Collins.

"I personally think you have to look back to see forward," she says. "My collections were inspired by my early, most powerful memories. I remember the way my mum dressed and how back then young girls dressed liked their mums.

"I've taken shoulder pads and reinterpreted them, rejuvenated them. First of all a few people were a bit shocked to see them again but could see I'd updated them and they worked in my designs. Women aren't stupid, they won't wear something if it doesn't look good."

Agyness Deyn and Kate Moss in big shouldered jackets
... and now on early adopters Agyness Deyn and Kate Moss

What remains the same, however much a look has been rejigged, is the need to get the public thinking about it - and thinking about it in a new way if they've worn the style in the past.

The best way of doing this is getting the right people to wear it. Actresses Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn did back in the day, and the likes of models Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn do it today.

"Someone like Katie Price could kill a look but Kate Moss creates a stampede for it," says Mr Groves.

That stampede leads to mainstream acceptance and then we are back at the start. Boredom will follow... and so on.

Of course not everything comes back. The cycle ends for trends when they have outgrown any useful purpose.

A consistent point was the new squaring of shoulders - there must be a boom in shoulder pads any minute now (Times, March 71)
Paris couture this week looked prettier than… for years. Shoulder pads are important, hips are swathed and ruched (Daily Telegraph, Jan 84)
[T]he fashion has finally taken off. A trimmings factory [said] last week… its production is running at a million shoulder pads a week (Times, Nov 85)
Hamnett… has inverted past trends so that a… sweater with positively no shoulder pads tops a swingy A-line skirt (Times, March 87)
[F]ashion's New Look is sweeping Paris. Shapely waists, whirling skirts… and positively no shoulder pads (Times, March 87)

"Take a bustle or the crinoline, they wouldn't work on the bus or in a tiny electric car," says Ms Armstrong.

"It's a serious point made frivolously, but fashion has to be relevant on some level otherwise it won't get worn. Then it's not fashion, it's just costume."

The rigidity of style rules has also changed in recent years. They're not so hard and fast anymore. Shoulder pads are just one detail in an outfit now, rather than its single defining feature.

"The rules don't exist like they did in the 1980s," says Mr Groves. "People pick and chose details to build their own style. Take skirt lengths, who can say what the 'fashionable' length is this season. They're all different, you just chose what length works for you."

But the public simply has to feel ready for a trend, even if they don't always quite realise they're ready, says Ms Armstrong. If they're not, it's over before it even really started.

"Not even Kate Moss could bring back the high-waisted jeans," she says.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Andrew Groves refers to the fast paced nature of fashion today. I wonder if Laver's Law works now if you say months rather than years?
Shelley, Cardiff

I am 27 and remember my mum wearing her shoulder padded outfits when i was a child. She would say to me, I will never throw these away, they will come back around before you know it. She was right. Now I am lucky enough to be the same size as her back in the 80s, and have the vintage collection. Well done mum.
Katherine Monks, Manchester

Odd - shoulder pads never went away from dowdy US department store clothing - they kept them all this time. Unfortunately for these now 'in-fashion' pads, the clothes they're attached to are still hideous.
Jonathan Marriott, Jacksonville, FL

Shoulder pads are fabulous; they give the illusion of slenderness and give more character and body to clothing. They were done hideously in the 80s but now are much more tasteful.
Constanza Ontaneda, Lima, Peru

On a point of pedantry, are we not talking about fashion fads, rather than trends? In my mind, a fad is passing whereas a trend has a direction and tendency to become the norm. Anyway, it makes me feel old as the music and clothing of my youth become fashionable again. Yikes!
Graeme, Cupar, Fife

I once wore simultaneously a blouse with pads, a jacket with pads which was then topped off with a raincoat with... pads.
Annie, Brussels

I was a child in the late 80s when even clothes for children had shoulder pads. I won't be joining in with this trend.
Christina, Manchester

Shoulder pads are fine and can give a decent jacket a lovely shape but they MUSTN'T be too LARGE.
Fiona, Derby

At least it is a fashion that is practical and even more comfortable when carrying suitcases or laptops with shoulder straps. Bring it on! My gran used to say, if you need something to wear, try the wardrobe. I must be getting old - she's right, I'm all set from last time.
Judy Geller, London

Since fashion is simply a method of ensuring that clothes are replaced before they are worn out we expect rotation of the few ideas that work, with the occasional new idea. Last time we had a recession we had coats based on the Army Blanket; I await next winter with anticipation.
Barry P, Havant, England

Taking an old trend and "reinterpreting" it doesn't hide the fact that it's an old idea. I thought the fashion industry was supposed to be creative and innovative.
Susan, New York City

There's a copy of a 1940s pattern book out there on the internet that makes one realise that there really isn't anything original in the world of fashion. We've seen all the techniques used to make all of this stuff before, it just gets re-assembled in a different way to make those gullible enough think they're getting something new and exciting. So shoulder pads are supposedly back. So what? That's not so bad, there's worse out there. Who's sick, twisted idea was it to bring back leggings? Come to think of it, who do we have to thank for hipster jeans? What an eyesore.
Ian, MK, UK

What a hideous thought. I was a teenager pretty much all through the 80s so wore my fair share of jackets, cardigans and - shuddering at the very thought - shirts with the's a horrible fashion and deserves to be banned!
Nichola, Kent, UK

I'm only 45 and I've seen ties go from thin to fat to thin to fat. Surely its at least partially about the clothes designers/manufacturers requirement to continue selling. They know that if they always sold the same style, people would keep wearing their clothes for years - and the shops wouldn't sell nearly as much.
Andrew Rickinson, London

"Women aren't stupid, they won't wear something if it doesn't look good." Errm... I'm afraid some of them wore shoulder pads the first time around...
Catherine, Leicester

Shouler pads - EW EW EW... NO! I'm 5'2"... wide shoulder pads are NEVER good on short people. I look like a top heavy, power dressing munchkin.
Kelly, Bristol

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