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Why We Keep Buying Trendy Clothes We Hate

Looking at you, bell sleeves and cold-shoulder tops.

Woman with truly enormous bell sleeves
The bell-est of all bell sleeves.
Photo: Timur Emek/Getty Images

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Recently, I found myself browsing the new arrivals section of J.Crew’s website. Honestly, I do that a lot, but this time I found myself eyeing a tiered, bell-sleeved top in green, black, or red. I narrowed it down to my favorite color — black, obviously — entered my 30 percent off coupon code, and hovered my mouse over the “complete purchase” button. Until I remembered something: I hate these shirts.

I had reached the same conclusion several times over the last few months — once after ordering a similar bell-sleeved top from Old Navy, and another time in a J.Crew changing room after trying on a bell-sleeved sweatshirt that I saw on one of my favorite bloggers. I was disappointed because I wanted to love both, but ultimately I decided bell sleeves are for pirates, and no version of them looks good on me. So how in the world did I end up with a third version in my cart? And, frankly, how do all of us end up getting sucked into trends we’ve already passed judgment on, particularly when — and I think I speak for a lot of 20-somethings here — we are trying to create cohesive, timeless wardrobes that bring us joy?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that these trends are fucking everywhere. Think about it: An item pops up (on the runway or elsewhere), we collectively shake our heads, and then we wear the thing like six months later after seeing it in every store window, on every Instagrammer, and all over the internet. This time it was bell sleeves, but before that it was cold-shoulder tops. Before cold-shoulder tops, it was furry shoes. Before furry shoes, it was culottes. The list goes on.

My hypothesis: We are all sort of victim to the the illusory truth effect — the psychological theory that repeated exposure to a particular piece of information makes you more likely to believe it, whether or not it’s true. And increasingly, social media platforms surface the content you’re most likely to engage with or have expressed interest in. So, in my case (and probably in your case, too), I see the same trend enough times — depicted by the brands and people I follow via Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest — that I start to believe it looks good after all. Even after proving time and time again that it has no business in my wardrobe.

Not to mention the fact that we’re all being sold aspirational lifestyles, not just products. So if you see enough praise of Meghan Markle’s pants (not that I needed convincing with this one), or use Emily Schuman’s gift guide as your personal bible (also guilty), you are hoping to accomplish their level of taste, and you’re willing to take the plunge and ignore the price point or the fact that this would never register as a “must have” otherwise. Eva Chen is (knowingly or not) amazing at this. A jacket with crow-wings for sleeves? Gotta have it. Full-body snowsuit? Suddenly on my Christmas list. The things are just an entry point into an aesthetic or culture (or desire to be like an idol), and accessing that aesthetic or culture sometimes means overlooking how absurd the things themselves are.

As for the shirt, it’s still sitting in my shopping cart. Because, who knows. Maybe third time’s the charm.