Diving Deep in the Meme Pool

A Scientific Look at the Nostalgia Epidemic

In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins changed the way we think about culture, trends, and sassy images with words on them forever. In his book The Selfish Gene, he coined the term “meme”: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” He envisioned it as a parallel for “gene” – a unit of evolution for ideas. Dawkins wanted to prove that cultural phenomena spread and reproduce the same way species do, in a kind of conceptual survival of the fittest.

Fast forward to today, when you’ve probably seen at least fifteen “memes” on your feed in the past two hours. These snapshots of Photoshopped popular culture, liked and shared and riffed on until they’ve spread like a virus, are a perfect demonstration of ideas reproducing themselves. But the media climate they thrive in is one that reflects a deep change in the way we consume images, culture, and information. Few industries have felt the impact of these hyperconnected conditions more heavily than one Dawkins first used to illustrate his theory: fashion.

Can a trend go viral the same way a meme does? According to the biologist, anything a society creates and passes on to its other members can evolve: a song, a tool, a religion, a dance craze, a style of clothing.

Simply being talked about ensures a style's survival.

Three conditions need to be in place for this evolution to occur. The first is variation: introducing something new to an existing set of elements. Think of a designer who specializes in skinny jeans; then imagine one season, she designs a pair with wide legs. The second is replication: the ability to make copies of that set of elements. The wide leg jeans sell out immediately, so next season the designer brings them back and adds a few other loose styles, which all her stockists buy in larger orders. The third is differential fitness: some examples surviving because they perform better than the competition. Two seasons after the designer introduced wide legs, she’s become known for her “It” item. Other labels have picked up on the trend, wide legs are dominating magazine editorials and #ootd posts, and the skinny jean is on its way out.

Sounds familiar? It’s a textbook case of memetics in action. Every brand has a set of DNA, and each collection represents a new generation that will express its characteristics through the prism of all the trends in play that season. The successful variations sell; the unsuccessful don’t. “Copying through communication” is how Dawkins phrased the fact that a meme must be reproduced in order to outlive its creator and survive. It describes the pattern of runway looks from Paris or New York spawning copies, but it’s just as apt an explanation of how social media is changing the way fashions and ideas spread.

Today, a stream of campaign images, sponsored posts, and branded content from designers, publications, retailers, and social media celebrities all competing for pageviews creates an echo chamber economy, where images seduce and attention is currency. Witnessing a trend’s rise, fall, backlash, and progression through the cycle of opinion is an event in itself. We watch it play by play as we scroll through our phones, picking up subconscious cues on what to wear next. Likes accumulating turns into units being moved, and simply being talked about ensures a style’s survival.

So why, in a climate of such speed and reactivity, so rooted in the present and in search of the next thing, does it seem like so many trends are looking backwards? See Saint Laurent’s mining of musical subgenres, from last season’s eighties punk to Spring 15’s foray into sixties psych rock. Or Phoebe Philo, Claire Waight Keller, and Stella McCartney’s recontextualizations of the seventies, maybe paired with one of the the crop tops, shower slides, or tracksuit pants of the revamped nineties. Why do we keep coming back to signifiers of the past?

Perhaps because nostalgia has the advantage of hindsight. It gives you a wardrobe of winners: only the styles that worked. Or perhaps it’s a reaction to our expectation of constant newness. More “inspiration” images flying past on our constantly refreshing feeds, more trends delivered with every collection and pre-collection, more brands responding to the pressure to market themselves across all channels at all times. Nostalgic fashions can be a way of saying, hang on, let’s pause to appreciate quality – something that was so good we’re still talking about it. With an archive of aesthetic high points the size of the entire internet to draw on, and the pressure to deliver sellable hits season after season, who can blame designers for turning to styles with a proven track record?

OMG – remember Birkenstocks?

Truly new ideas often shock. The ones we respond to immediately are usually those that make sense instantly, but in a way we never would have thought of. A reference to the past can be the most successful way to accomplish this: a nod that says “Hey, remember this?” already knowing that you will. OMG – remember Birkenstocks? Isabel Marant, Raf Simons, and Pharrell all did Stan Smiths! Having recognized the reference, you feel in on it. Like. Share. Add to cart. Memetic success.

But nothing goes viral on familiarity alone. A Tumblr post of Jane Birkin doesn’t get notes because we’re trying to live in a distant, better time, but for the same reason one of Kim Kardashian does: because it looks relevant now. Something in our climate of cultural references has called it up.

If we prize the innovations of designers like J.W. Anderson or Rei Kawakubo for their daring newness, revivals are more like an appreciation of tailoring: subtle refinements that prevent references from crossing over into costume. Labels with long histories stay relevant by presenting just the right new take on their signature aesthetics, not by simply reprising existing styles. They need to deliver what customers expect – a jacket, a signature handbag, a vibe, an image – but it’s a designer’s skill in putting their own stamp on the house’s codes and classics, adapting them into something absolutely indispensable for the present moment, that keeps a brand moving into the future.

One function of memetics is cultural memory: the ability for a society to pass something on to the next generation without having to reinvent it every time. When trends and subcultures exist in a flux, adapted according to the needs of their next adopters, nostalgia takes on a much more active role than simply dwelling in the past. Instead, it’s a fight for survival in the present moment: a constantly evolving answer to what happens next, and what an idea can turn into.