The mysterious origins of fall fashion trends

The mysterious origins of fall fashion trends

(Flickr/Jin Chu)
Fall is the season for pumpkin spice lattes, Buzzfeed lists about “Hocus Pocus” and trendy outfits that hopefully won’t have to be hidden under a big puffy coat until December.
The latter phenomenon, while not as innately curious as coffee pumped with artificial pumpkin or a movie about witches starring Bette Midler, got me thinking, “Why are these fall fashion trends so popular, and who came up with them?”
Most hats are designed to keep heads warm, but the beanie is more than a utilitarian measure to ward off colds. The beanie, or “tuque” as the Canadians call it, is first and foremost a fashion accessory: a brimless cap named after either the British slang word for head (“bean”) or the type of yellow headgear worn by new students in medieval universities (“beanus”). While blue collar laborers have also worn beanies to keep their hair back while toiling away, these head-huggers are now emblematic of Taylor Swift and most commonly donned by the hipster set.
Starting in the 1950s, beanies were worn by college freshmen and fraternity brothers as a form of mild hazing. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas still oversees freshmen wearing beanies during their first week of classes, and is said to be one of the last colleges in the U.S. to continue this tradition.
These knitted vestments may be most commonly associated with stylish nerds (Seth Cohen), artistic types (Kurt Cobain) and hip seniors (Mr. Rogers), but the cardigan’s roots are actually militaristic in nature. The cardigan was named after James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army Major General who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Brudenell’s troops were outfitted in knitted military waistcoasts, nicknamed cardigans. Legend has it that the fame Brudenell and his troops acheived after the war led to the rise of the garment’s popularity.
Today, the cardigan sweater has cemented its place as a fall wardrobe must-have. The cardigan’s prevelance is due in large part to it’s gender neutrality and style versatility, as it can be dressed up over a fancy top or dressed down with a T-shirt underneath. One of my favorite ways to wear the cardigan is over a plaid collared shirt, as The Onion’s Mr. Autumn Man effectively demonstrates.
Cuffed jeans

The tight roll of the skinny jean, often called the “cuff roll,” has surged in popularity in recent years. When traipsing through Wicker Park or Logan Square on a brisk Autumn day, I always spot a young ruffian (or twelve) sporting this look, often with a lace-up leather shoe, high-top sneaker or ballet flat. The origins of the trend are murky, as rolling one’s jeans may have begun as early as when Levis became popular wading pants during the California Gold Rush.

This piece from the New York Times proclaims that “a style born on the shores of Mississippi has been reinvented for the streets of Bushwick,” although Huckleberry Finn wasn’t the only forefather of this trend. Elvis Presley, Ann Margaret, and almost every other cool kid at the jukebox in the 1960s cuffed their denims too.

Ankle boots

Boots of any kind are popular in the fall, but ankle boots are maintaining red-hot status as the most widely-worn style. This versatile shoe has remained a fashion staple since the early 19th century, with icons such as Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Anne of Green Gables rocking the “booties” long before Paris runway models or the Chicago style stars of today.

Usually worn under pants or with a skirt and tights, the ankle boot is also the only fashion boot commonly worn by both men and women.

Leather jackets

Although most often linked to subcultures like greasers, bikers, punks, goths and metalheads trying to look tough, the leather jacket was first utilized by open automobile motorists and aviators in World War I for the sole purposes of protecton and warmth. Brown leather flight jackets became a necessity in the early 1990s; and by the second world war, insulated “bomber jackets” became part of the uniform to protect fighter pilots from exposure to cold at high altitudes. The Russian Bolsheviks also began wearing these jackets at the turn of the 20th century, long before James Dean and John Travolta’s Danny Zuko made them popular again.

Buckskin, lambskin, sheepskin, antelope and cowhide are the hides most commonly used to make leather jackets. However, with the rise of veganism, faux leather jackets are flying off the shelves at retailers like Free People, TopShop, Urban Outfitters and more.


This distinctively tartan fabric is prized for its warmth, softness and nostalgic ties to the ’90s grunge era, but flannel goes back much farther than that. The origin of the word can be traced back to Wales, where flannel been made from various incarnations of wool since the 17th century. Originally, the fabric was made of short staple wool; but by the early 20th century, mixtures of silk, cotton and woven polyster had become more common.

Flannel shirts may have hit their peak with Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the 1990s, but designer Yves Saint Laurent has brought them back with a vengeance this season. Yes, what was once synonymous with American lumberjacks in the early 1990s and British cricket players through the late 1970s has become the epitome of millennial grunge chic.

Infinity scarves

The infinity scarf is a fairly recent invention, so named because the material forms an infinite loop that many people try and fail to achieve with regular scarves. The plain old scarf originated in Ancient Rome, as a way to keep warm and to keep clean by wiping sweat from one’s face. Somehow, the scarf has evolved into more of a necklace than a cloth used for a specific purpose, as evidenced by the pretty, lightweight cowl scarves that add a touch of whimsy to any outfit.

However, the person who invented said miracle scarf remains as mysterious as the concept of infinity itself. Oprah helped propel the design to popularity in the early aughts; but the designer, who has likely collected millions from this endeavor, remains virtually anonymous to the general public. Anyone care to step forward?

Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.