It was a hot day as I stepped into the air conditioned mall. It is 1995 or maybe 1996; my mall has slightly opaque sky lights so you could still see the bright midsummer sunlight outside. I would have preferred darkness. I wound my way around the teens who aren’t enlightened enough to make their own unique fashion choices as I made my way to the coolest store in the mall.I got a lot of weird looks, probably because of my strap-covered purple pants and thick black eyeliner. I didn’t conform to the grey t-shirt and khaki cargo pants “uniform” of my peers. I was unique. I was a rebel. I confidently walked into Hot Topic knowing that I was anticonformist and I didn’t think like the rest of the lemming-esk populous.
But on that hot day, I had a thought which would forever change the way I understood fashion: Why can the US have a nation wide store which sells anti-mainstream clothing to goths? Doesn’t this mean that my awesome pants aren’t actually that unique? Aren’t I actually following some trend by being anti-society and “goth” in my appearance?
Looking back at this time, I still have to laugh at my righteous beliefs of nonconformity. To add further irony, 1996 is the year that Hot Topic went public as a company. My realization couldn’t have been more true. How could there be a large enough, and predictable enough, section of the public to buy that many cookie-cutter goth styles? I think there will always be a cyclic behavior of people trying to be unique or trying to average which causes the population to always have people who will buy clothing at Hot Topic. My theory was recently supported by the work of Dr. Jonathan Touboul.
Dr. Jonathan Touboul, who, like me, is a mathematician interested in social constructions and mathematics. He and I actually have a lot in common because he also studies dynamical systems and his WordPress blog uses a theme that I used for years. (coincidence? I think NOT!). He just posted a draft of his newest article on arXiv: The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same. The Washington Post recently covered the article as well. The Washington Post article does a nice job of explaining the overall choice algorithm of the model. At each moment in time, a single entity will stay with her style or switch depending on if she wants to be in the majority or minority.
Dr. Touboul says:
Beyond the choice of the best suit to wear this winter, this study may have important implications in understanding dynamics of inhibitory networks of the brain or investment strategies finance, or the understanding of emergent dynamics in social science, domains in which delays of communication and the geometry of the systems are prominent.
Translated from I’m-writting-a-paper language, I believe that Touboul is saying that we may use this type of modeling to understand social decisions. By modeling our social interactions, we might be able predict if and when the hipster fashion will change. While we have used models for years to try to predict the stock market, he is saying that it may also be possible to predict the style choices of the anti-conformists at the same time as you predict the styles of the conformists. There will be some stable ratio and, if you can identify the important features (cut, sleeve length, fit, etc), then you could predict which styles will sell the biggest. Which is why it’s possible to make a graphic like this one:
Okay, let’s look at the math for a couple of minutes because it’s really cool and it’s alarmingly similar to the work that I did in my graduate research. Here’s a clipping from his paper where is shows the resonance that the hipster system has with the conformist system. An oscillation develops and is maintained after a certain point in time.Touboul adds a delay in the system as well as some noise to simulate reality. He also uses a dynamic Hopf bifurcation. My dissertation focused on dynamic Hopf bifurcations in externally forced systems. (Do we need any more evidence that he and I are secretly on the same intellectual wavelength. It’s almost creepy!) One can think of his hipster equation (red) as a forced oscillator. I show in my dissertation that if you add any noise to a dynamic Hopf bifurcation it is extremely likely that the system will lose any relationship with it’s initial condition and tend to latch onto the nearest stable trajectory within the solution space. Thus, it is not surprising to me that the anti-conformists are correlated and/or phase locked to the conformists. If you define your sense of self based of of someone else, even if your definition is “whatever they are not”, then you are dooming yourself to be forever influenced by their choices.
Thus, it is may not be so surprising that Hot Topic can predict the next biggest thing for goths to wear. In a similar way, American Apparel can predict hipster trends (Does American Apparel even count as hipster?). Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that all hipsters look similar. But what does that mean about my style? I haven’t been in a Hot Topic in years. And I have made peace with the fact that I blend in more than I stand out. But I’m not sure that I can believe that mathematics will ever understand the nuances of fashion enough to predict what next year’s biggest thing is.