Thinking through fashion: How understanding trends is the key to sustainable shopping

Looking to update your winter wardrobe AND cut your carbon footprint? Time to delve deep…

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It finally happened: the last dredges of summer have slipped away, Michaelmas term looms, and every single item of clothing you bought these past few months isn’t quite as transitional as it seemed in July. With the beginning of the new season, it’s easy to fall into the idea that your wardrobe requires a total renovation if you are to survive the winter months with your stylistic dignity intact, but now – after a year in which fashion was finally held accountable for its enormous carbon footprint – the notion of a new winter wardrobe starts to feel antiquated, not to mention impractical on a student budget.

According to CBS, the fashion industry accounts for more than 8% of global climate impact. Reducing clothing waste doesn’t mean you have to stop buying clothes, but it should mean that you put a lot more thought into what you are buying and how it will accentuate, rather than replace, the clothing you already own. Understanding what is happening in fashion right now is crucial not only to your winter wardrobe, but to the planet.

Luckily, this summer’s biggest trend marks a rare occurrence in fashion: a style which really is, practically and stylistically, transitional. Look back on the last two years, and you’ll start to see the trend emerge: think Villanelle’s pink taffeta Molly Goddard dress in Killing Eve, the lacey puff-sleeved tops flogged in every Instagram boutique, or the two viral dresses of the year, the fuschia Kitri Lenora piece and, of course, The Zara Dress. Variously described as the Batsheva look (after the Batsheva Hays dresses which began the trend and sparked debate via two viral think-pieces on The Cut), the milkmaid style, or the prairie girl trend, this was a fashion so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible as an entire trend in itself. But if you’ve recently bought a milkmaid top, a midi skirt, a high-collared dress, or anything with puffed sleeves or a square neckline, then you’ve bought into the prairie girl trend.

Milkmaid sleeves or autocrat-in-disguise sleeves?

In pop culture this summer, the prairie girl trend was everywhere, from the £15 green milkmaid top from Missguided that Lucie wore during a row on Love Island, to Kylie Jenner’s Instagram of herself in a $529 Duygu Ay Collection dress on her 22nd birthday. It didn’t matter whether it was coming from Batsheva or Boohoo, whether it was being worn by a fictional trained assassin or a Kardashian: the trend was more than its component parts of puffed sleeves, voluminous skirts, pie-crust collars and square necklines. In the words of Batsheva Hays herself, prairie girl dressing combined ‘elements symbolic of restraint and repression (high collars, voluminous sleeves and skirts)’ with ‘a modern inflection’.

This was not a straightforward backlash against the bodycon, a battle between modest dressing and whatever precariously slut-shaming term lifestyle columns were coming up with for bandeau tops and three-quarter-length leggings. Collarbones, waists, décolletage and legs were not strictly covered up, nor were they necessarily always on display: even the Batsheva dresses could be cinched in at the waist, or worn over bare legs. This is women’s fashion which prioritises choice and creativity, which allows women to play with silhouettes and shape, and which has its own sense of humour and irony. Hays writes about her dresses as ‘rejecting antiquated notions of womanhood’, and, whether or not you want to take fashion seriously, the key to understanding the way so many people are dressing right now (and will dress this coming winter) is about rejecting, deconstructing, and playing with what has come before.

While not prairie-infused, the chunky Dad trainer and the comically mini bag are both symptoms of this general movement towards fashion as self-reference, fashion with a sense of humour, fashion which takes things to hyperfeminine and hypermasculine extremes, fashion which celebrates camp at the Met Gala. The reason prairie dressing, for all its lace and florals, is ultimately an inherently transitional trend is because its spirit exists in the way fashion exists as a whole right now.

Perhaps obviously, then, after a summer in which Old Town Road was Number 1 for nineteen weeks, the winter analogue of the prairie girl trend blowing through on a western wind. Look at the Versace Resort 2020 show, where models wore milkmaid blouses with cowboy boots, bright pink stetsons, and studded leather jackets with puffed-up sleeves, juxtaposing practicality with excess, sensible dressing with self-referential humour. Prairie girl sensibilities remain, now combined with harder, tougher looks: Batsheva-style dresses and milkmaid tops are easily transitioned into winter via cowboy boots and faux leather studded belts, as seen at Molly Goddard’s SS20 show, where voluminous white dresses were worn with sturdy black boots. A sensitivity to shape and silhouette, a knowing sense of humour, characterises these trends: in Kylie Jenner’s Duygu Ay Collection piece, we saw ruffles and puff sleeves combined with a figure-hugging corset worn on the outside of the dress, while Versace juxtaposes bare legs with long, dark coats and gives us bras worn over shirts.

This is a trend so transitional that it shows no signs of dying out, with style icons forever emerging: Lil Nas X, the new face of country music, wore a silver and gauze outfit to the VMAs which was part Batsheva, part Pride and Prejudice, while the trailer for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women remake featured a toned-down, sensibly layered version of prairie dressing as modelled by the March girls.

Rather than polarising, the multitudes contained within fashion at the moment are providing us with absolute sartorial freedom, one which does not come at the cost of either warmth or individuality.

Look at your wardrobe: think about ways to extend, to deconstruct, to play, to layer. Think about what cowboy boots could do for your lace-y crop-tops, how a turtleneck could transform your summer dress, and when you buy, do it slowly and thoughtfully. Scour Depop, and the charity shops on Mill Lane and at the Grafton, sign up for CUSU Womcam's buy & sell Facebook page, and actively reduce your fast-fashion shopping habits.

Cover image source: BBC iPlayer.