A family gathers around their television set in 1958; some fads don't go away. National Archives.
A family gathers around their television set in 1958; some fads don't go away. National Archives.

Everybody’s making lists these days and what better list to make than all-time favorite fads in the history of pop culture. What exactly is a fad? Merriam Webster defines it with an origin in 1867 as, “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.” The operative phrase here is “for a time” although fads have been known to resurface (as in number six below). There have been fads that became trends, then styles or movements, and finally cultural icons. Much to the dismay of some parents, the video game fad never left and has now become iconic in nearly every culture. Technology-based social networking appears to be transcending fad status, but it is still too early to tell for sure.

Here then, according to the opinion of yours truly, are the most significant fads in popular culture history, from the bottom of the list to numero uno.

10. Top Ten Lists – Made popular by late-night television host and comedian David Letterman, they are everywhere now, particularly on the worldwide web. Letterman may someday be a cultural icon but it is TV’s habit not to let anything go on too long, even something as generally hilarious as Letterman’s top ten lists. When the standard disappears, the rest will follow and this fad will become passé.

9. Sideburns – Elvis had them. So did The Newlywed Game’s host Bob Eubanks. The name of these patches of male facial hair bordering the ears was inspired by completely bald Civil War general Ambrose E. Burnside who, with huge mutton-chops, burly mustache and a stout over six-foot frame, was one of the most ruggedly handsome celebrities of his day. They raged through the 1970s and hung around on the faces of country music singers for years. Intensely disliked by hair stylists, sideburns are currently attempting a comeback with limited success as under-30 males experiment with them.

8. Beach Movies – In the 1960s Hollywood lured land-locked teens into theaters with beach movies. These shallow romantic comedies featured bikini-clad beauties and blond hunks frolicking in the surf and sand of California and Hawaii. The names said it: Beach Party (1963), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). Some of the films featured box-office stars of the day, including Elvis Presley and Vincent Price. The king and queen of beach movies were, of course, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Cheaper airfares and Spring Break gave young people from all over the U. S. “beach access,” and the fad made an early exit from pop culture history.

7. Boy Bands – Steeped in the tradition of doo-wop and soul music harmonies, boy bands began with The Osmonds and The Jackson 5 about 1970 (followed by Menudo, featuring pre-teen Ricky Martin), then went into hibernation. They were resurgent in the 90s with New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, *N SYNC and Boyz II Men. Some boy band members like Martin and Justin Timberlake went on to successful solo careers. Boy bands haven’t disappeared completely but current pre-teen heartthrobs such as the Jonas Brothers offer musical talents beyond simply harmonizing and dancing to other peoples’ highly produced songs.

6. 3-D Movies – In the 1950s movie producers were desperately trying to find ways to compete with television, and 3-D cinema was born. Satirists have made ample use over the years of the image of a 3-D glasses-clad theater audience in rapt attention. But guess what—they’re back! Most of the 3-D films of the 1950s were pretty pedestrian but I for one consider The House of Wax (1953) a classic motion picture in its own right. 3-D made a brief comeback with the Andy Warhol–inspired gore film Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and again in the early 80s with a number of films, including Jaws 3-D (1983), using a single-strip system rather than two film strips running together as before. The 3-D technique was refined and used primarily as a theme park attraction for awhile, then reintroduced into the theater with dazzling visual effects, making 3-D films like Avatar (2009) into mega hits. After Avatar‘s success, studios are turning out 3-D films faster than theaters can handle, given the limited amount of 3-D equipment most theaters have. Will the new 3-D trend continue? We’ll see.

5. Miniskirts – It wasn’t just Twiggy who exposed her pencil-thin gams in the ’60s. American women across the sociological spectrum were hiking hemlines in the decade. For the first time in countless generations, women were showing off their naked legs in public places other than the beach. And while the short-shorter-shortest-skirt fad faded quicker than most men would have liked, the mini-skirt had lasting value in the fickle fashion world. It began a whole host of style fads and trends that replaced corseted modesty with women’s desire to express their sexuality through clothing.

4. Wham’O Toys – Former World War II fighter pilot Walter F. Morrison sold the rights to his improvised beach toy, which he called the “Pluto Platter,” to the Wham-O Manufacturing Company in 1957—and the iconic Frisbee toy was born. The company went on in the 1960s to launch a series of wacky fad toys with equally kooky names. Some have had periodic resurgences—the Hula Hoop and Slip ‘N Slide, for example. Others came and went in true fad style—the Bob-o-link, Wrist Rocket and Super Ball now being relegated to eBay collectables.

3. As Seen on TV™/Infomercials – Probably the only thing in this age of deregulation that prevents a few conglomerates from owning all of America’s television stations are the long (and extremely long) commercials offered by these clever marketers. The incessant push made by the makers of Flowbee, Snuggie and a hundred varieties of facial creams, diet plans and house-flipping schemes is a cash cow of enormous proportion for independent stations and some cable networks. One would think that by now no one would pick up the phone and dial an 800-number they see on TV but people do. People I know do. This fad is in danger of becoming a trend.

2. Music Videos – They launched many popular music careers and started a cable network but make no mistake about it, music videos are a fad that has been in a long terminal decline. When the idea started it replaced radio airplay as the most effective marketing tool for pop music. Video musicians and artists pushed the envelop of technique and content for short subject matter beyond all previous bounds. Some techniques they championed, such as shaky hand-held camera and dizzying quick cuts, are now used in all kinds of films. But distribution technology has moved on, and music videos are no longer cost-effective marketing tools. MTV barely shows them; they are more popular now among artists in countries other than England and the U. S., where they originated. But thanks to YouTube (itself a trending fad) those in search of nostalgia can replay the video innovations of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Shakira and others over and over again.

1. Hippies – In the 1960s and early ’70s an alliance of students, liberal thinkers and others started a movement (with a generally accepted birthplace of San Francisco) that challenged traditional morality and thought. Reviled by many, they were closely watched and sometimes feared by law enforcement. To their detractors, hippies were dirty, promiscuous, drug-crazed freeloaders. To their generation, they were the leaders of a class of individuals who questioned war, greed, violence, racism and fear-driven politics on the part of what they called “the Establishment.” I was not a hippie, but like nearly everyone in my generation, I embraced certain (non-harmful) aspects of the culture—rock music, long hair, group sharing. Whether they became burned out from drug use, discouraged by repression or, more likely, grew into adult responsibilities, hippies effectively disappeared after about a ten-year span. The world may never again witness such a large and varied segment of humanity challenging the status quo.

What fads would be on your Top Ten list? Tell us in the Comments section below.