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The Fashion of Fiction
Audrey Hepburn

Do you remember what article of clothing you coveted in middle school?  Did you long for bellbottoms, Guess Jeans, or a cool pair of Doc Martins?  No matter when the decade, there is always an “it” piece or fad that defines a period of time.  But trends aren’t limited to just fashion; they also include film, songs, and literature.

The socioeconomic backdrop of the times determines these trends and can be observed in a review of the past few decades:

1950’s
America was beginning her recovery from WWII and women, once working in wartime factories, are home.  Clothing trends reflect the return to femininity.  Gender roles are strongly held with women wearing billowing skirts and wrist-length gloves.  And just as fashion is affected so is fiction.  Science Fiction and books about the unknown become popular in a culture where anxiety and paranoia are high due to the cold war and fears of nuclear weapons.  George Orwell’s, “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” are just two examples.

1960’s
The 1960’s fashion shows a rebellion against the conformist 1950s with women wearing bell-bottomed pants and brightly colored shirts.  Clothing becomes androgynous as this decade rejects the conventions of the one before it.  It is a time of change in ideas and beliefs, which is reflected in the books of the time.  Literature also exemplifies the culture’s desire to deal with racism and women’s rights.  Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” explores the dangers and evils of prejudice and racial discrimination.  While other writers such as Sylvia Plath (“The Bell Jar”) and Mary McCarthy (“The Group”) offered new insights on feminism, speaking of women’s roles extending beyond the happy wife and mother of the fifties.

1970’s
The 1970’s became an extension of the 1960’s as social change, advances in civil rights, and the increased influence of the woman’s movement continued.  Ideas considered “radical” in the sixties gained wider acceptance in the 70’s.  Fashion was also mainstreamed with non-traditional clothing becoming the craze.  Hip huggers, hot pants, platform shoes and gypsy dresses were no longer relegated to a small sect of people.  The literary exploration of race and women’s rights continued with strong voices, like Toni Morrison, emerging.  The general theme of books examined people’s feeling of spiritual alienation.  John Updike wrote characters who tried to find meaning in a society suffering from moral decay and loss of spirituality while Kurt Vonnegut examined the loneliness of contemporary society.

1980’s
The 1980’s were a time of economic growth; hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and mega-mergers spawned billionaires.  It became a time of status seekers and indulgence, which was exemplified by the ostentatious fashions.  The extravagance and materialism of the time was seen in the gaudy colors, huge shoulder pads, and excessive jewelry.  It was a time of power and avarice and the literature of the time mirrored the bravado and hubris that accompanied this power.  Popular were espionage books like those of Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum as well as legal thrillers such as Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent”.  The protagonists became more than mere men; they were powerful, unstoppable.   

1990’s
Just as the 1960’s trends reflected a rejection of the 1950’s, so did the 1990’s trends show a rejection of the 1980’s.  Simplicity replaced decadence.  Instead of self-absorption, people sought self-discovery.  Power suits were out and casual Friday outfits were in; garish clothing was swapped for neutral colors and simple styles like ripped jeans and Doc Martins.  People read books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” to improve spiritually.  Also Fiction like John Krakauer’s, “Into the Wild” and E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” portrayed characters willing to leave their material comforts seeking self-examination.

After a brief analysis of the past five decades, it is easy to see that fiction like fashion changes with the times.  But how is this information helpful to you as a writer?  Can you guess the trajectory of the current climate and write to it accordingly?  More importantly, should you try?

It is difficult when living during a certain period to fully recognize the social and economic environment and determine what will trend.  However, it is possible, by extrapolating the information available, to gain some sense of what will resonate with most people.

We know that we are living in an economically difficult time, which can cause social unrest; an unrest that can lead to social anxiety and depression, causing one to seek escape. A trend in this type of fiction has been seen in the popularity of stories about vampires and taboo sexual dalliances, which allows readers to be a part of a world unlike their own.  So a writer can make the assumptive choice to create stories that will draw a larger audience.  But should you?

If you are trying to write for popularity then you shouldn’t write in response to the current trend but rather try to anticipate the next trend.  However, it’s dangerous to try to foresee the next fad to make sales because fads change quickly but mostly because that shouldn’t be the purpose of a writer.

Instead, a writer should write the story she feels would make a difference, offer a change, give a new perspective, and enlighten.  Because just like skinny jeans, by the time you fit into them everyone is wearing parachute pants.  So when it comes to the fashion of fiction, don’t be a fiction fashion victim.  Instead be a trendsetter by being who you are and using your voice to write the stories that matter most to you.