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Not So Fast There! The Surprisingly Long Life of Fashion Trends

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Are you finally ready to try skinny jeans but wondering if the trend has already passed you by? After all, no less a wit than Oscar Wilde declared "Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal," in an 1885 newspaper essay called "The Philosophy of Dress." The famous dandy -- who three years earlier was reported by a Charleston, S.C, paper to have worn a "mouse-colored velveteen shooting jacket" and a "salmon-colored silk neck handkerchief" -- went on to say, "Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!"

But do we really? It's true that prestige designers present their main Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer collections every six months (with resort and pre-fall in between). And fast-fashion retailers can make twice-a-year style updates seem behind the times: Last year, Slate reported that Zara can get new styles in twice a week. Yet, even as new looks come in, the old looks don't always move out as quickly as we might think.

"The lifespan of trends is just not within a six-month period," says Sheila Aimette, vice president of U.S. content for WGSN, a trend-forecasting company. "Things start slowly on the designer end and it takes several seasons for it to take off."

Red Godfrey, vice president of the fashion office at Nordstrom, says trends can last a particularly long time in certain categories, such as denim, where consumers take a while to adjust to new silhouettes and then want to stick with them. She thinks skinny jeans could have a 10-year run. Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says a great name for a style helps: "'Skinny jean' is genius from a marketing point of view -- who wouldn't want to look skinny? It sounds like you wear the jeans, you are!" Actress Katie Holmes was sneered at for wearing baggy, rolled-up (or "pegged") jeans in 2008, but today, the renamed "boyfriend jeans" share space with the skinnies in the denim department.

The footwear category can be similarly slow-moving. Godfrey says the trend for oxford-style flat shoes started on the street with "young girls going to vintage stores and getting old men's brogues, and then before you knew it you've got so many variants for women with prettier colors and detailing." She says, "We're three years into the trend and there's still an excitement about a new sole." The flat, laced shoe might seem like an abrupt change from the ultra-high-heels and platforms taken to the extreme by fashionistas such as Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga and Daphne Guinness, but FIT's Steele points out that the vertiginous shoe has actually been in favor for 10 years, at times co-existing with micro-trends such as ballet slippers. "The longevity of a trend has to do with it appealing to multiple categories of people," she says. It's not all about denim and shoes, either. Godfrey calls the peplum a "fantastic example" of a trend that spread to all customers at all pricepoints. "You can have a Lanvin dress at $3,500, Topshop at $59.99. It was featured in an enormous number of brands and different fabrications."

Aimette of WGSN says that thanks to tweaks in fabrics, color and styling, "A trend can be for someone who is 70 years old or 17." Judith Boyd, a 70-year-old retired nurse in Denver, Colo., is living proof. Boyd, who has a fashion blog called Style Crone and is working on a line of headwraps called HeadPeace by Style Crone, recently paired a vintage kimono jacket with a pair of cropped, skinny jeans she got several years ago at a Buffalo Exchange used-clothing store. "If I look in the mirror and I like it that's my criterion," she says, adding that the length of the jeans shows off her shoes.

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Boyd has the right attitude, according to Samira Nasr, fashion director of Elle magazine. "It comes down to personal style," she says. "It doesn't really matter as long as a woman feels good and feels like that is her." But some women -- and men -- enjoy being the first in their crowd to have a new look, so how can you tell when it's time to move on? FIT's Steele says to look for the extremes: "When you reach the maximum of whatever it is, the height of your mini or the height of your heel, the pendulum will swing and it will move to something else." Trend-setting celebrities are always influential. Stylist Cher Coulter, whose celebrity clients include Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Kate Bosworth, Nicole Richie and Elizabeth Olsen, is tired of typical red-carpet fashion. "Anything to move away from a tight dress!" she exclaims, enthusing over cropped tops and trousers or, for those who don't want to show midriff, cropped tops over long dresses. "I love that feeling of layers."

Nordstrom's Godfrey says that colored and then patterned pants have been a hot item for over two years. That means the simultaneous trend for monochromatic looks may become more appealing as a palette cleanser of sorts. In other words, for fall, black is the new black.

To get inspired about how to make some of the older trends look fresh, take a look at this slideshow of fashion bloggers wearing peplums, skinny jeans, wedge sneakers, boyfriend jeans, high/low hemlines (aka mullets), and oxford shoes.

As for Oscar Wilde, his mouse-colored velveteen shooting jacket, true to his prediction, was not eternal, but the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design has the one surviving piece from his wardrobe -- a white shirt -- on display in its "Artist/ Rebel/ Dandy: Men of Fashion" exhibit, which runs through August 13.

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