Bad Fads by Mark A. Long

“Fashion constantly begins and ends in two things it abhors most : singularity and vulgarity.”
— Hazlitt

Fad: a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Break out the bell-bottoms — wait, you already did that. The ’50s came back, as did the ’60s along with the decade we swore we had written off forever, the flashy ’70s. Dismiss the revivals as yet another nostalgic stroll down memory lane, or (and this is closer to the truth), our desire to rejuvenate long-forgotten fads which serve as fond memories of days gone past.

In Bad Fads, author Mark A. Long chronicles our penchant for fads, new and revived, and charts his discoveries in the manner of a timeline of the 20th century (as defined by all that is and was “kitsch,” of course).

Curious what made people tick in the early 1900s? The dark, dank mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Baffled by the curious disappearance of airplanes and ships in the great void, the Bermuda Triangle became the talk of the nation, as skeptics and super-power devotees attempted to decipher its mysterious forces.

The 1920s heralded the age of the party-going, let-the-good-times-roll flappers who shocked the world with their rising hemlines, the Charleston, cigarettes, and enjoying the attention of attentive young suitors. Miniature Golf kicked off around this time, initiating a golfing craze. As Long explains: “. . . By the fall of 1930, more than 25 million people had become miniature golfers.” Long then navigates the ’30s and ’40s which ushered in the eras of marathon dancing, good old drive-in movie theaters, Mickey Mouse and UFO scares.

There is apparently a Bad Fads museum which highlights remnants of kitschy obsessions through the ages, and credits the original entrepreneurs behind the brainchild discoveries. Not surprisingly, a number of the concoctions were inspired by toy manufacturers who swiftly marketed their creations and waited for the gadgets to take off. Wham-O made a killing with the Hula Hoop, to date, one of the best-selling products on the market, and the bouncy Superball. Others seem to have stumbled accidentally onto their inventions, such as naval engineer Richard T. James who one day “watched a spring fall off a shelf and then gyrate and slither across the floor.” James then went on to manufacture and market the beloved Slinky.

A few fads have ingrained themselves so firmly within the cultural mainstream that they are practically icons. The Barbie doll, invented by Ruth and Eliot Handler and named in honor of their daughter Barbara, has remained as one of the top-ranking toys around the world. According to Long,” . . . . Over the last 40 years, more than 100 million Barbie dolls have been sold. . . .” Other fads in this ever-lasting category are the Hula Hoop, Sea Monkeys and slogan buttons.

College students are often credited with the more bizarre fads which seem to have all been popularized briefly, then forgotten as soon as another trend hit the scene. Amongst some of the more bizarre pastimes was (brace yourselves) goldfish swallowing –- Long cites one student who “allegedly ingested 300 fish in one sitting,” phone booth stuffing which was later replaced with Volkswagon stuffing, and glass eating, inspired by former USC student and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Tim Rossovich who chewed on light bulbs in an effort to “show the public how tough he was. . . .” Other college-inspired trends, however, such as the Toga party have lingered.

Aside from the obvious fads, Long lists a few which have caused a craze and no one can quite understand why. Take, for example, the Pet Rock (which was, essentially, a packaged rock), or Beanie Babies which were “nothing more than small, inexpensive stuffed animals with a tag stating their name and birth date.” However, as is often the case, word of mouth is responsible for a particular popularity of toy, gadget, and so on and so forth. If one kid on the block owns a Beanie Baby, then all the other kids on the block are sure to follow suit.

The most interesting decade -– fad-wise –- was the ’70s (which, admit it, we made so much fun of). Yup, the era of disco and Saturday Night Fever, the Leisure suit, Mood rings, EST therapy, streaking and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have produced some of the most memorable and lasting trends, which goes to show that the unfashionable fashion of today could be tomorrow’s cash cow (the 70s, as we all know, reappeared with a vengeance in the ’90s).

Bad Fads is a quick, easy, and delightful read, accompanied with illustrations which depict the various fads of the times. Unfortunately, Long has steered clear of a number of fads which were all Hollywood-inspired: the Rat Pack chic, and James Bond or sci-fi-inspired fashions and gadgets, in addition to popular lingos and expressions, such as “Valley girl” and Surfer speak. However, the book cleverly outlines some of our most notable obsessions throughout the last century. As a word to the wise, rummage through your attic and if you come across any Pez dispensers, platform shoes, or granny glasses, hang on to them: Remember, fashion always makes a comeback.

And how cool is that?