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What makes a fashion trend trendy?

Tuesday - 4/1/2014, 7:00am  ET

Fashion's trends emerge from a variety of sources, including film, art and socio-political movements. (AP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Now is the time when wool sweaters are rotated out of drawers and replaced by lighter clothes for the warmer months ahead. And if a yellow shirt, scarf or handbag makes its way into your closet this spring, you have Far East imports of the 18th century to thank.

"In the early 18th century in Europe, you would've never wanted to be seen in yellow," says Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "Yellow was actually a color used by the church to mark out heretics, and so it carried this intense social stigma. If you were wearing it, it meant something really socially degrading."

But as Eastern textile imports flooded into Europe during the mid-1700s, traditional fashions slowly changed, and the color yellow became more common. That's because in China, yellow was a hue associated with royalty; it was the color of the emperor.

"This color went from being incredibly [avoided] in European culture to then becoming a symbol of exotic power. And as a result, it became very on-trend throughout Europe and in the U.S. by the end of the 18th century," McClendon says.

And yellow has been trendy ever since.

These days, the word "trend" is used to describe the popularity of pretty much everything -- from tweets to news stories, hairstyles, street art, playlists and clothing. It's a term McClendon says "has become so ubiquitous in contemporary culture."

Because of its ubiquity, the Museum at FIT decided to pick apart the word "trend," and examine how it has been applied to fashion throughout history with its exhibit Trend-ology.

What is a Trend?

According to Arielle Elia, assistant curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum at FIT, the word "trend" was first used in the financial industry to describe shifts in the markets.

Since its origin, the word expanded beyond finances and is now applied to a number of subjects.

"We joke anything [can trend] -- from a can of Coke to your high-heel shoes," Elia says.

But really, Elia says, a trend, in the fashion sense, is something that continues to evolve.

"It can go somewhere, it can start and then it can sort of transition to a lot of different markets to a lot of different consumers, while still being rooted in where it originated," she says.

Elia gives the example of a motorcycle jacket. It can be a traditional leather jacket, but it can vary with different colors or details. The style of the jacket might even take on a different fabric, length or cut.

A fad, on the other hand, becomes popular but does not progress beyond its initial purpose.

Trends reappear in different geographical locations over different periods in time. For example, the unisex style was big in the 1970s. It's currently seeing a resurgence with hipster apparel. Skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors and beanies are all clothing items currently popular among both men and women.

"You kind of have this sharing of a wardrobe that's coming back once again, but always in a different way to properly represent the decade and the culture of what's going on in that moment," Elia says.

Camouflage is also an example of an ever-evolving trend.

"They're constantly resurfacing, but they're always resurfacing in a different way," Elia says.

Where Do Trends Come From?

There is no single source for a trend.

Trends emerge and evolve depending on a variety of factors, including film, art, street style and socio-political movements.

"Probably the best example of [a trend coming from a socio-political movement] would be the hippie subculture, which had a huge impact on fashion in the mid-20th century," Elia says.

Similarly, the rise of "sports and leisure" in France in the 1920s sparked the frenzy for knitwear, made popular by Jean Patou and Chanel.

"If you look at the lifestyle of what was going on in France during that time, there were a lot more people doing sports during that time, and they needed something that was a little more comfortable," Elia says.

Trend-ology looks at other key moments in the history of fashion's highlights, from the Hollywood glamour of the 1930s to the street styles of today.

The silks, rhinestones and form-fitting dresses of the 1930s were not just the highlight of the silver screen -- they quickly became the feature of department stores.

Elia says that was the first time designers and department stores worked to offer the looks of film to the general public.

"There was actually a cinema shop inside Macy's, and what they would do is they would preview the film before it came out and they would actually design a fashion collection based off the costumes in ‘Queen Christina,' or in whatever Hollywood film was coming out," she says.

This practice is still common. Just recently, Banana Republic offered an "Anna Karenina"-inspired collection after the release of the film. The clothing chain also offered a "Mad Men" collection inspired by the popular TV series.

"They take little snippets from the costumes and then they put it into a fashion collection," Elia says.

In the 1960s, a major industrial and technological advance greatly impacted fashion: air travel.

"That was a hugely important moment in fashion history, because there was this innovation outside of the fashion industry itself. All of the sudden, as we get into the 1960s, air travel becomes much more commercially accessible and viable for the everyday person," says FIT's McClendon.

"We saw for the first time en masse, magazines being able to send huge crews and photographers and models to far-off exotic locations that really hadn't been accessible to the magazines before at this scale."

Travel revolutionized fashion editorials by providing exotic backdrops for photo shoots. It also inspired new looks for the racks, from tropical comfort to jetsetter chic, which is still evident in many of Gucci's collections.

"Fashion itself kind of became more fantastical," McClendon says.

The Trends of Today

Today's trends are influenced by two major factors: the Internet and fast fashion. McClendon says the Internet and social media have opened up the fashion landscape to people of influence beyond designers, magazine editors and trend forecasters.

"We see bloggers, street style from all corners of the world, beginning to play into our daily understanding of fashion and fashion evolution. There's just a much larger pool to draw from and a lot of references to bring in to what you're thinking about when you're making these purchases and causing these trends to develop," McClendon says.

And the ability to deliver these trends to the masses is much easier now with the rise of fast fashion.

McClendon says a store such as Zara can take an image or concept for a look, pull it together and then get the article of clothing or the accessory out to the shelves in about two weeks.

"That's an incredible turnaround to speed up the trend cycle, compared to past decades and past centuries," she says.

Speed, combined with cheap prices and the 24-hour accessibility of online shopping, makes it easy for today's consumer to capitalize on emerging trends.

"We see fashion … becoming a form of entertainment, becoming a pastime in its own right," McClendon days. "You can buy a shirt for the same amount [as] your lunch. And as a result, it becomes something that's a hobby more than anything else."

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