Why all trends look ugly at first: inside the life cycle of a fashion must-have

Rochas show at Paris Fashion Week in September. 
A look from the Rochas show at Paris Fashion Week in September. The hues may look jarring now, but come spring many of us will want to wear it Credit:  Getty Images Europe

Fashion trends are a funny business. They can often seem ludicrous when we see them on the catwalk, the kind of things people with more money than sense would buy, but within six months we find ourselves scouring the high street for an affordable copy.

Take square-toe shoes. They looked too directional, too fashion victim-y when I first saw them at Bottega Veneta and Proenza Schouler. Now I’m trying to decide whether to splash out on the season’s It boot by Wandler or to go for a more affordable pair from & Other Stories.

So what makes us do this? Where’s the transition point, and how do we come around to the idea that something that once seemed so unappealing is actually chic?

Rihanna, pictured in May in a dress from her Fenty fashion line, is an 'Innovator' according to the Diffusion of Innovations theory Credit:  AP

Professor Carolyn Mair, a fashion psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion says the speed at which we adopt new trends comes down to several factors, the most important of which are personality, role and resources. It’s a theory known as The Diffusion of Innovations, first coined in the 1960s by Everett Rogers, though it remains relevant today. 

The so-called ‘Innovator’ sits at the start of a kind of fashion bell curve, because they are few and far-between - they might be an A-list star with an adventurous sense of style like Rihanna or Lady Gaga. “If you've got endless funds then you can buy lots of different things,” Mair explains. “Innovators are the people who are always trying new stuff, they're probably more extroverted and have a job that, if they take a fashion risk, they're certain that they're not going to lose it.”

There’s a chain of influence that follows, with each subset of people inspiring the next. The ‘Early Adopter’ is the next rung down. They might borrow a catwalk sample or seek out a vintage piece that reflects a catwalk look. “They'll pick up the idea once somebody else has trialled it, they wouldn't be the first one,” Mair says. “They are probably the social media influencers.” 

Once influencers and celebrities are pictured in magazines and on social media wearing a trend, it begins to go mainstream, and it’s at around this point that a catwalk trend filters through into stores, making it accessible to you and I. 

Square-toe shoes looked odd when we first saw them on the catwalk at Bottega Veneta in February - now they're a fashion must-have Credit: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“The ‘Early Majority’ are the people who really like fashion, they're interested in fashion, they're interested in their appearance,” Mair says of the third consumer category, which is still ahead of the curve. “They're not afraid of trying something new and they want to look current, but they want to feel safe.”

The peak of the curve, she says, is known as the ‘Late Majority’. This group are as much guided by prevailing trends as they are by what’s actually in the shops. “So when something like square-toe shoes are in fashion, they find more square-toe shoes in the shops, so it's sort of a self fulfilling prophecy.”

The final subset of people is known, perhaps a little unkindly, as the ‘Laggards’. This group is small, and as with the others, defined as much by spending power and personality as genuine interest in fashion. “They’re going to be the ones who take it up very late, if at all,” Mair says.

The cape is a longstanding trend because it has armour-like qualities Credit:  Getty Images Europe

There’s another factor though: not all trends are equal. The reception of a trend also has a lot to do with society and popular culture at that given moment, says Anabel Maldonado, founder of The Psychology of Fashion and PSYKHE. “If the adhesion is low to begin with, it can die out quickly as it only gets adopted by a small subset of the population. But if the aesthetic speaks to us enough, the connection surpasses a type of threshold and it sticks around,” she explains. 

“Skinny jeans are youthful, and as a society we value that, so we always want the option to look youthful. Capes never really went out, they’re a trend every autumn/winter. I believe that’s because they have a very powerful protective and armouresque quality, and life has gotten tough lately. Especially for millennials, we have it harder than the generation before us, we need that armour.”