You're locked in a prison of trends
Do you even want to escape it? A major new masterpiece of contemplation by Blackbird Spyplane
Looking through our dossier of reader-submitted “Personal Spyplane” questions the other day, we found a powerful query:
“Do you think it’s actually possible to escape trend cycles?” — @cammilne
The idea that trend cycles form a prison is widespread. You see it in “starter packs” and other IG memes mocking ppl whose identities seem fully coterminous with flash-in-the-pan consumer choices … You see it in the disgust for fast-fashion’s hypertrophied output, and for the wasteful churn of the fashion industry period …
More subtly, it’s there in our admiration for elders who get off slapping, sui generis fits: Looking at swaggy old ppl, we glimpse a seemingly trend-transcending state where someone 1) no longer cares about what looks “cool” at any given moment, and yet 2) looks mad cool despite not caring. They appear to have somehow stopped playing the game and yet also won it… This is a state that many of us in the jawns-rocking community aspire to, in ways large and small.
But is escape the most useful metaphor here? And if so, is it actually achievable, or is it a crazy-making, paradoxical fantasy? If it is achievable, is it desirable?
Today we’ll definitively answer these profound questions, and more, in a major Spyplane society-explaining epic, because we are great at newsletters. Along the way we will bestow upon you, the “beautiful & blessed” members of Spy Nation, a clearer sense of what’s happening when you find yourself feeling enthralled, sickened, energized, inspired, embarrassed, fatigued, fascinated, sauced-up, empowered and enslaved all at once by the endlessly re-configuring coordinates of trends, which don’t merely swirl seductively and perniciously around us but actively determine how fire & popping (or lame & corny) we appear to others.
Trends are the aggregate effect of individual tastes coming temporarily into alignment. People with great taste can help spark trends (cool ones), and so can people with horrible taste (wack ones). Marketers and other people with vested financial interests in selling different kinds of things at different times do their best to spark trends, too. Many trends start off cool and then become wack, because a substantial part of the value of any trend lies in its relationship to novelty and edge, which by definition diminishes as time passes and/or more people join the wave. This is why it’s broadly seen as dope to be early to a cool trend and corny to be late.
For our money, it’s most dope not to be early to trends per se but to establish a flexible but firm framework of personal taste that you can use to sort out your relationship to the trends you encounter — not trying to escape them so much as determine which trends suit you and which ones don’t, which ones have fun & interesting lessons you’d be smart to absorb and which ones you can comfortably leave to others / admire / deride from afar. The alternative is letting the forces of “trend gravity” yo-yo you around & dictate your taste willy-nilly, and that is no way to live.
There are three imperfect, porous categories of trends: Macro, Micro and Nano. Peep this quickly sketched Trend Matrix, with some evocative jawns tossed in to illustrate the dynamics at play …
1. Macro Trends
These are developments in style that people with basic cultural awareness can perceive. Some macro trends emerge as dialectical reactions to what’s come before, or they’re driven by pendulum swings, e.g., Formal vs. Informal dressing, Tailored vs. Unstructured, Maximal vs. Minimalist, etc. Extremely wide pants in the ‘90s give way to extremely skinny pants from the mid-2000s through the late-2010s, which create the conditions for the current, ongoing return of jumbo trou, etc..
Other macro trends feel more stochastic and isolated: e.g., exposed midriffs were “suddenly” everywhere in the early 2000s; today people “suddenly” covet PVC shoes, not only from Crocs tha OGs, but from Merrell, Yeezy, Bottega Veneta and Prada. Stochastic trends might recur over time (e.g., the vogue for tie-dye in the ‘60s returns in the late 2010s), but if there’s a dialectics or pendulum effect at work here, it’s more nuanced and harder to map.
2. Micro Trends
These are vogues that matter mostly to smaller groups of initiates. Do your t-shirt sleeves hit above or below your elbows? Is your wardrobe heavy on real-tree camo prints? Sneakerhead and “streetwear” culture contain such massive coteries of initiates that they blur the line between micro and macro — and yet, whereas a “normie” looks at Sambas and sees regs Adidas, the “plugged-in micro-trend observer” sees the sneaker of summer 2022 and then checks if they’re the Wales Bonner joints.
Micro trends can blow up & become macro trends, or they can get sliced even thinner: Whereas a “normie” sees banal Y2K-looking dad shoes, the “plugged-in micro-trend observer” sees ill Mizuno Wave Rider 10s and gives the wearer props for choosing them over the harder-to-get yet instantly-torched JJJJound Asics. Which brings us to…
3. Nano Trends
Some micro trends are so thin-sliced they’re legible only to a relative sliver of obsessives. The classic case is collector communities, passionately invested in tiny differences that are probably straight-up invisible to anyone outside the tight confines of that community.
A “normie” might notice that you’re wearing a Rolex, in other words, but only a Heavy-in-the-Game Nano-Brained Watch Freak will peep that it’s 1) a Daytona with 2) a tritium dial, and 3) painted indices, where 4) the leftmost subdial is aligned perfectly with the 9 o’clock marker. For nano-brained obsessives, such minute variations can “justify” spending mad $$$$ on one jawn vs. another: Depending on prevailing trends, a tiny difference in dial gloss might mean the difference between looking “entry level” to fellow initiates vs. earning “high level intra-community bragging rights.”
As the New Balance / Vans meme above illustrates, deep investment in and conversance with micro trends can seem like the province of un-chadly lames — nerd s**t, virgin s**t. Here at BBSP we respect obsessive collectors with extravagant knowledge of unlikely rabbitholes, which you’d have to be a d*ckhead to truly hate on. BUT not all objects of obsession are created equal, and what can feel particularly corny and cringe about contemporary sneakerhead culture (and whiplash-trend-hugging behavior generally) is that it “has so little chill,” often expresses itself as pedantry, and changes its fetish objects so quickly — reflecting a jittery mania, orchestrated from on high by corporate marketers & the thirst-lord “influencers” they put on flow team…
It can feel a lot like an astroturfed community, that is, as opposed to a more-“grassroots” expression of taste, because the machinations of consumer-culture puppetmasters register too baldly in the hypebeast puppet dangling from the strings, who comes off as simpy and fiendish in a way that is at glaring cross-purposes … with swag !!
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That brings us to a CRUCIAL POINT. We might assume that macro trends are for civilians, and that micro & nano trends are for Mach 3+ jawns-rockers. But this pat distinction doesn’t actually hold…
Not only because micro- & nano-trend followers can be Mach -5 suckers (as in the lost-in-the-sauce sneakerhead example), but also because all kinds of “normies” with no fluency in capital-F Fashion adhere to micro-trends, too. Imagine a coach bus full of German tourists traveling to take iPad pictures of Mount Rushmore. This is as stereotypically swagless a group as you’ll find, and yet they’re beholden to trends that — while indecipherable to you and me — doubtless command different levels of esteem in their cohort: “O d*mn, this fraulein’s wearing heather-blue OGNX (?) leggings with some brand-new Giessweins (??), but this pimp Gunther is stunting in cargo capri shorts and patinaed Hanwags (???) with the wild knee socks — go off, king.”
Meanwhile, no truly Mach 3+ outfit-assembler proceeds with zero knowledge of, or concern for, macro trends. To the degree that they want their taste to be legible to more than just a tiny tranche of likeminded people — and, to the inverse degree that they want to come off as distinct from normie herd-followers — they need a sense of “what the herds are up to” so they can decide where it feels fun & smart to align with convention, and where it’s doper to do some considered counter-programming. This decision also helps you to not look like a clone of your jawnz-enthusiast peers.
Because there’s a crucial 3rd axis that’s implicit in the above graph: AUDIENCE. When it comes down to it, who do you want to get dressed for ??
Different contexts imply different audiences. You might reasonably get dressed with co-workers in mind. Off-hours, you might dress to attract local hotties, smokeshows and dimes, whom you’ve noticed get hornier for people who wear x, y and z. Walk into a college bar in some “flyover bumf**k” locale and you might just see an undifferentiated mass of non-fitted “townies,” but there is absolutely a person in there whom the resident hotties, smokeshows and dimes think “dresses way cuter than anyone else.” Different trends will exert different influences in each context…
Since you are reading Blackbird Spyplane, let’s focus on the context of getting dressed for fellow Mach 3+ outfit rockers. Anyone who puts on clothes is engaging in a mode of creative expression, but you do it more consciously than most. We can tease out illuminating parallels with other creative modes, namely: In any art form, there are reigning conventions, there are tweaks an artist can make to those conventions, and there are avant-garde deconstructions & rejections of those conventions.
When you think about it that way, “trend cycles” don’t seem de facto insidious, because (for example) any halfway gifted comedian knows that what constitutes “funny” changes based on shifting trends in the art form. Trends, in this light, can be healthy byproducts of creative ambition, artistic exploration, etc.
Yes, there are stand-up GOATS with beautiful, specific, durable styles (punchline-focused minimalists like Don Rickles and Mitch Hedberg; social-critic-confessors like Pryor and Carlin; brilliant experimentalists like Maria Bamford and Kate Berlant; etc.) but, as a comedian, communing with such styles at any given historical moment will make people laugh harder or softer — and sell more or fewer tickets — depending on which topics, tones, deliveries, attitudes and perspectives feel fresh and surprising, and which ones feel tired and WASHED.
This dynamic has its corollary in painting (is the current vogue for figuration or abstraction?), dance (ornamental or quotidian movement?), music, novels, films, photography and, of course, CLOTHES-ROCKING.
A comic can decide, in crafting her act, whether she’s aiming at 1. the comedians in the back of the club (i.e. gunning for respectful cognoscenti nods), 2. the bachelorette party up front (i.e. gunning for rowdy normie laughter), OR — if the comic is really gifted — 3. both at the same d*mn time.
Achieving #3 is a very sick move that requires (among other talents & skills) a virtuosic awareness of trends: Signaling to the cognoscenti that you know what’s up without bewildering people who are “less up on the latest developments in the form” — and, as a result, bombing miserably. Put another way, it’s about how much of a balance you want to strike between “impressing the homies” and “scaring the hoes” — in the enlightened gender-agnostic metaphorical sense, of course.
As a “jawnz artist,” you might care more or less about catering to “the hoes” — some people want to dress at the most extreme IYKYK levels because they enjoy signaling ultra-rarefied knowledge to a tiny niche audience of kindred spirits.
Following this approach to its logical extreme, though, at a certain point you slice, dice and re-combine your advanced signifiers and trend-awareness so thinly that, statistically speaking, no one is capable of perceiving the dopeness of what you are wearing besides you. If trend cycles are a prison, you have in this scenario burrowed deep down below the prison, taking such a circuitous path that you wind up carving out your own solitary-confinement unit where nobody can find you. This may be a place where you feel happy and at home, in which case you have in a sense managed to “escape” not only from “gen pop” but also from the outside world, sequestering yourself within your own precisely arranged edifice of hyper-specific idiosyncrasies.
But this kind of escape — into an unlit subterranean swag-hovel of the mind — is of course a paradoxical and qualified one. And there’s still the inescapable question of audience: as long as other people see you, you might read as “timelessly cool” or you might read as “stuck in time.” You might read as “breathtakingly advanced” … or “clownishly avant-garde” … or simply incoherent.
Blackbird Spyplane, you might say, isn’t the coolest thing just not to care what other people think? This is a very appealing cliché — one that teachers, parents, and kindvibed camp counselors start impressing upon us at a young age. A related cliché is that the smartest thing is to lock in “timelessly cool” style. But both of these clichés will always break down, because they rest upon the same unsupportable contradiction: “Coolness” is not some stable condition that exists safely fixed in an abstract realm, but rather a historically contingent, endlessly negotiable social construct whose meaning depends, to an irreducible degree, on an interplay with ever-shifting cultural conventions and trends.
This is because clothes are, like other creative forms, a language that we use to communicate within the cultural “marketplace” — and you could call us “Jawncques Derrida” the way we guarantee you it’s impossible to escape language. You can speak beautifully, you can speak in the latest slang or in an archaic tongue, you can speak gibberish, but you can’t opt out of speaking. Even if you try a “vow of silence” (i.e. dress as blankly and normied-out as possible) you’re still communicating, because anti-trends are still, again, trends: You can’t not signify, and shifting trends change what your signifiers mean, whether you like it or not.
Put another way, trends exist regardless of our intentions, shaping and re-shaping how we appear to others. So, yes, there are certain trend cycles that it is dope, swaggy & good for your emotional health & wallet to get outside of: I apologize that I keep using them as a punching bag, but anyone who rocks JJJJounds in 2022 is giving off heavy “trend prisoner” vibes, because they are cool shoes that at this point signify too artlessly & mechanistically as “cool shoes.” (If this stings at all for you, it does for me, too: among my own sneakerhead proclivities, I own the gray JJJJound 992s!)
And yet, there’s no such thing as a total trend escaper — just someone who shows more wit, sophistication, judgement and agency when it comes to their engagement with trends. The septuagenarian man rocking baggy brown corduroys with a faded-yellow windbreaker and hiking sandals at the grocery looks fantastic today, but there’s an old lady across the store wearing a very different outfit that you’re not checking for who will look better tomorrow.
There are canonized jawns: clothes that (as of 2022) enjoy “classic” status, remaining in circulation over decades and retaining some baseline level of sauce the way an oven retains a pilot light even when IT’S NOT COOKIN’. So you could say, “F**k it, I’ll just wear suits [or polo shirts, oxford-cloth button-downs, denim workshirts, cardigans, or some other canonical jawn] day in, day out, till I die.” But you have to acknowledge that this is not the same thing as stepping out of time and “escaping” from trend cycles, because A) conservatism is itself a trend subject to ups and downs and B) every variable detail of that garment — volume, lapel width, color, material — will read as more or less pleasing & fresh at any given moment, depending on trends!!
AND in your devotion to the chimera of “timelessness,” you will risk looking boringly reactionary — rather than ingenious and alive. Our position is: Shout out to ingenuity & life. When it comes to trends, there is no escape from the shackles. We are born into them. But some shackles 🩸DRIP HARDER🩸 than others.
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