The Dress Code: Why Do We Fall for Impractical Fashion Trends?

Impractical fashion trends including visible thong, low-rise jeans, platform shoes and corsets
Image created using Canva Pro License.

Dear Dismantlers, This might sound like an obvious question, but why do people keep falling for fashion trends that are so impractical? I see low-rise jeans coming back and get heart palpitations. I spent the 2000s tripping over my flares and holding my waistband everytime I moved so my thong wouldn’t fall out. Why do people put themselves through this? 

This is a great question! We won’t be able to give you a simple answer.  However, what we can do is put your question in the context of a longer history of fashion, which can hopefully point you in some productive directions.

First, let’s define “impractical.” Based on your example, it sounds like impractical fashion means clothing that impedes movement, reveals certain body parts or undergarments (Ahoy there, is that a new pod of whale tails approaching off the port bow?) and/or doesn’t protect the wearer from the elements in a meaningful way. 

If that’s correct, we need to ask: what does that leave in the practical column? And more importantly, what kinds of people are the remaining styles associated with?  

Historically, putting practicality in fashion on a special pedestal started with Europe’s Enlightenment.  Long before that time, Euro-men had gotten really into clothes that showed off the contours of their body. This happened for a slew of material, social, and philosophical reasons, not all of them concerned with functionality. By the time of the Enlightenment, tailoring was seen as a marker of Euro-masculine superiority over…pretty much everyone else. Kantian philosophers discussed the masculine use of tailoring to contrast European men with, among others, “Oriental” societies and all women. Men in tailored coats and breeches displayed “good taste” and self-control. Everyone else was irrational, lazy, frivolous, self-indulgent, or any other value European men disparaged.

Jump ahead to the 19th century, and we find this logic playing out again in the separate spheres ideology: in which bourgeois men’s “natural” sphere was the world of physical labor and commerce, while the feminine sphere was the home (as if that realm wasn’t also maintained by constant physical labor). Again, speaking strictly about Euro-American dominant styles, this is when you see the clothes we love to romanticize in period dramas: women in luscious silks and frills, men in slick black suits. In this scenario, it’s obvious who is practical and who isn’t, right?

Except here’s a little secret they don’t show in those period dramas: 19th century Euro-masculine clothes could be constricting and impractical, too. We all know the stereotype of the corseted upper-class woman who couldn’t get dressed without her maid. But upper-class men also needed help getting dressed. Those crisp white shirts usually buttoned in the back, for example. And don’t get me started on all the labor required to keep them white and crisp. It didn’t matter, though. Representing the idea of practicality was more important than being practical.   

Moving forward, it’s common to associate the 1920s with fashion’s entry into modern life. Corsets and curves were out! Straighter lines and freedom of movement were in!  This story fits neatly with the “form follows function” ethos of early 20th century industrial capitalism, in which “modern” came to mean rational and reproducible. But history and fashion are never this simple. 1920s feminine fashion included plenty of curves and whimsical flourishes. The dominant look we all know—the shorter hemline, straight-waisted silhouette and bobbed hair—was indeed very popular. Was it more practical than the fashion of previous decades? 

That’s debatable. 

The famous flapper look was adopting and appropriating a masculine ideal. That small-breasted, slim-hipped style was only available to a small subset of feminine bodies. Fashion historian Valerie Steele famously pointed out that around this time, the corset began to be replaced by a new fashion philosophy: instead of changing our clothes to be fashionable, we needed to reshape and control our actual bodies for fashion. Steele talks about the introduction of an “internal corset,” but the idea extends to other body parts as well. And that’s not just impractical — for most of us it’s impossible. Especially if we aren’t wealthy and Western European. 

What I’m getting at with this whirlwind tour of “Western” fashion is that calling a trend impractical can reinforce the logic that practicality is the sole domain of white masculinity. When we think of “impractical” styles, most examples are associated with femininity. When masculine styles come up, it’s usually those favored by folks at the margins of dominant masculinity: queer folks, poor folks, and men of color (recall the ongoing moral panic over sagging pants). 

Put another way, this distinction implies that some activities are more meaningful than others. And within this logic, activities have less meaning the further away you get from middle class ideals of capitalist productivity. If you ask us (oh hey, you did!) that’s a really boring way to think about functionality. One of the great things about fashion all over the world is that the work it does is nuanced and complex. It can be simultaneously personal and social, material and psychological, playful and political. 

Additionally, “comfortable” and “practical” are relative concepts that depend on when and where you were raised, as well as on personal proclivity. Some people feel best able to meet the demands of their day in a caftan, others need to feel supported by textiles with more structure to them. 

The early 00s return is bringing back a lot of styles that could be seen as impractical, like ankle snapping platforms and peripheral vision-blocking bucket hats. But it’s not just revival styles that require constant tugging and shifting. Even the pandemic-era favorite and ultimate comfort staple, stretchy leggings, can present an array of problems, from waists that suddenly roll-in on themselves to pant legs that slither down until the crotch has settled near your knees. 

And to your example of hip-hugging denim: are any jeans that practical? They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter. If they’re blended with stretch materials, as most are now, they wear out in a season, and if they’re all cotton they don’t hold their shape. Maybe if you were riding a horse a hundred and fifty years ago, they were useful against abrasion. Now, though? They’re mostly practical because they’re common. 

Valuing clothes for practicality is a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly, humans have always created body coverings in relation to weather and activity, so there is a practical element to getting dressed. However, appreciating adornment for its own sake is one thing that unites our species across time and place. We say celebrating that is the most practical thing we can do. 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.