Trend Ender is an irregular feature created to identify, illustrate and investigate the origins of current fashion trends, assess when they’re fabulous and when they fail, and attempt to predict their demise.
Trend: Neon. The more accurate technical term for this trend is daylight fluorescence – these are colours that under regular white light appear to have a luminous quality. Fluorescence refers to the property of a substance that makes invisible UV light visible, thus creating a glowing effect. But perhaps since fluorescent is tricky to spell, fashion editors prefer the word neon.
Where it came from: Daylight fluorescence is amazing – a truly modern form of colour. In the 1930s, Robert Switzer discovered naturally occurring fluorescent compounds that could be used to create paint. Fluorescence was adapted for military use during WW2. After the war, Switzer and his brother established a company called Day-Glo, providing high-visibility materials for industrial safety and inks for commercial use. Day-Glo also used fluorescent technology to create consumer paint products that were used by kids… and Andy Warhol. Switzer is remembered for being a very safety and environmentally conscious industrialist. Considering the original glow-in-the-dark commercial product was radium, and the horrific story of the Radium Girls (which includes a deadly manicure anecdote), this is understandable.
When fluorescent ink came into use in the 1950s, graphic designers immediately understood that they could use it to establish visual hierarchy in packaging and advertising. In the 1960s and 1970s, fluorescent ink was lavishly applied for psychedelic effects. That counterculture palette, ironically and iconically, also announced the anti-hippie backlash on the cover of Never Mind the Bollocks… here’s the Sex Pistols. Punk morphed into New Wave and kept the loud graphics. It was New Wave album art which inspired the MTV aesthetic.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that fashion began to successfully incorporate these cutting-edge colours beyond plastic accessories and screen prints, and the reason why it took so long is technological – dying fabrics fluorescent is difficult, even to this day, especially for cotton. Fluorescents in clothing weren’t driven by fashion media, but by pop culture. Hit TV show Miami Vice, based on the two-word concept “MTV Cops” was incredibly influential in establishing a fashion aesthetic that was made for colour television. Footwear brand LA Gear cashed in on the trend. But it was Will Smith in head-to-toe highlighter as the Fresh Prince that exemplifies the hyperactive spectrum of early 1990s.
Grunge turned the lights out for mainstream fluorescents, and when LA Gear filed for bankruptcy, rather than destroying their inventory they dumped it. Fluorescents were discounted, stuck with fluorescent sale stickers under fluorescent lamps. Flourescents went underground… only coming out at night, embraced by party people.
It was rave culture that inspired designers like Jeremy Scott, who introduced the acidic aesthetic to high fashion at the turn of the century. But it took another decade before the early 1990s was ripe enough to be considered nostalgic, so fluorescents could go mainstream again.
When it works: A judiciously chosen “pop of colour” is an effective visual trick for grabbing attention – that’s just good PR. Over the past few years, accessory brands like Zatchels, high street retailers like American Apparel, fashion designers like Christoper Kane, and street style photographers like Scott Schuman, have all savvily employed fluorescents to raise their profile.
When it’s wack: The problem is… everyone noticed. And now, everyone else is using this this tactic too. There’s a peculiar paradox about high-visibility garments – when they become common, they have the exact opposite effect that they’re supposed to.
How it will end: Much like a glowstick, fluorescents shine for only a brief time until they turn into trash. However, they will definitely be back – probably when some smart scientist out there figures out how to effectively dye cotton fluorescent. Then, neon will become so much more ubiquitous, you’ll long for the dull days of 2012.