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The Razor's Edge
by p.l. frank

American Fads and Trends:
A Reflection of What Ails Us and How We Adjust

There is probably nothing more revealing about the status of our national culture's mental health and well-being than our fads and trends. Fads and trends reflect where our heads are at; that is, at a sociological level. A society that focuses on being carefree, wholesome, and fun-loving (or in denial) creates a craze for Hula-Hoops and Slinkys. A focus on empowerment, control and good-conquers-evil brings about Teenage Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. This year we see the hit board game "Let's Go To The Mall", or some such nonsense, in which children get credit cards and the object is to be the first to charge up the most without having your credit card purchases declined. Oofah.

Fads and trends gain acceptance and ultimately, popularity, because they in some way, fill a need we have as a society. Those needs change. They ebb and flow. Fads and trends mirror those needs and those changes. They reflect what is going on with us, what ails us, our relationships within our society, and with one another, as well as our relationship with the rest of the world. (Think "nose-rings".) In this era of self-awareness (to find out at the personal level where our heads are at) and self-help (to correct any place our heads are at that they shouldn't be) the focus is on the individual. In addition, cultural awareness has focused on the uniqueness (and differences) of individual groups. There is little attention given these days to the whole of society, the national culture, or the common bond we all share as Americans.

This movement to furtively examine our personal lives and individual cultural groups has led to a focus on what separates us. Despite the uniqueness and differences between us, however, there are many things that we share as a national culture. The most profound of which defines and shapes what we have come to know as Uniquely American---our fads and trends.

If you want to know why our society is so screwed up, take a look at what we are wearing and using. American fads and trends are very revealing. They are a reflection of what is ailing us and how we adjust to whatever is going wrong. They mirror the changes and growing pains of our national culture.

As you peruse the following lists of fads and trends see if you can find what is or was unique about the decade or time period the fads or trends thrived. Pay special attention to these questions: What are (or were) these fads and trends reflecting about our national culture? Why did these fad/trends flourish at the particular time period they did? What do these fads and trends say about our society?

For clarity sake, a "fad" will be anything temporarily "in". That is, anything popular for short periods of time. A fad can sometimes be recognized by its rapid appearance in the offices, malls and classrooms across the country, a sudden disappearance, and then a grand reappearance at garages sales, thrift stores, and flea markets.

A "trend" will be defined here as those fads that have stood the test of time (like blue jeans). A trend is a fad that has endured and tends to be around consistently, even though it's popularity might wax and wane throughout the decades.

Old Fads

New Fads

Excessive materialism/showing off that one has a lot of stuff, especially expensive, designer stuff

Thriftiness/Shopping in thrift stores/recycling/or at least giving the appearance that one is not materialistic or wasteful

Wood-paneled station wagons/Japanese cars

New cookie-cutter, look-alike cars with almost imperceptible differences between makes/pick-up trucks/4-wheel drives/mini-vans/low-riders/Range Rovers/SUVs

Mood rings/lava lamps/pet rocks/black-light posters/macrame plant hangers/smiley faces/dolls with wobbly heads in the back of car windows/"Baby on Board" signs in car windows (Did they really think the rest of us were going to change our driving habits because of this notice?)/Garfield & Bart Simpson suction-cupped to rear window/removing letters from the back of Toyota trucks

Personal home computers/Internet/Big screen and Flat TVs/dogs


Swing/Rap/hip-hop/alternative music/gothic/underground music clubs/classic rock

Shag carpeting

Disposable furniture/futons owned by people who do not live in Japan

Letting it all hang out/freedom

Political correctness/safety consciousness/rigidity & control

3-Martini lunch

Drug Hysteria

Women's lib

Gender feminism/equity feminism

Bugs Bunny/Flintstones/Rocky & Bullwinkle

South Park/Beavis & Butt-Head/Bart Simpson/Dr. Katz


Action movies/movies with sex/movies with violence/movies with old plots and new actors

Grapefruit diet (the acidity in grapefruit was thought to "burn fat")

Cabbage soup diet (calories are burned by continual running to the bathroom)

Advertisements with beautiful, but unrealistic models

Advertisements with "real" but terribly unattractive people

Blaming the mother

Blaming society

Q: What did/do these fads say about our society?
A: We are sheep.

Q: What are these fads reflecting about our national culture?
A: Americans will shell out money for just about anything

Q: Why did/do these fads flourish?
A: With all of our technology and comfort, basically, Americans have too much time on their hands

b i o
P.L. Frank enjoys writing both nonfiction social satire and funny, thought-provoking novels.  Dr. Frank has been a researcher in the field of Behavioral and Social Sciences since 1983, and has worked as a university professor and therapist. 

The writer of this article welcomes your comments: