Pop culture takes the guardians of regular culture by surprise, but never more so than when people learn to love a virtue they’ve been taught to mock before. The rise (and consistent popularity) of NYD sweatshirts belies the idea that even the most talented fashion designers can guide taste in a particular direction. Unlike most fashions, they are utilitarian, they rely on universal symbols, and they are inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s clear, upon careful analysis, that a trend like NYPD sweatshirts can only arise if it quickly gains the critical mass necessary to outflank normal fashion.

Fashion and design are rooted in mining popular culture for new ideas. Designers are looking for a way to appeal to emotions, either subtly or blatantly, in a way that affects behavior. Although NYPD-branded sweatshirts certainly do have a powerful emotional impact, it’s not the kind the fashion world is going for. NYPD sweatshirts make people who see them want to buy them, not to avoid being excluded, but to acknowledge being included. People who wear sweatshirts with the NYPD brand are not saying that others are different, but that in terms of our potential and our common experiences, we’re in many ways the same. They are an inclusive trend, but by being inclusive, they make people who don’t follow the trend feel as if they’re being left behind. It’s a complicated paradox, but it’s at the root of understanding how these sweatshirts can be so popular and yet so unfashionable.

Many fashions create a sense of artificial scarcity by using expensive materials or copyrighted brands to reduce supplies and raise prices. NYPD sweatshirts do the opposite, by taking a common symbol and rebroadcasting it in new contexts. For this reason alone, many traditional creators and guardians of fashion can be opposed to it — since anyone can get NYPD sweatshirts, they can mean what the average person thinks they mean, rather than what a particular designer wants them to mean.

It’s hard to imagine a fashion designer coming up with the idea for NYPD sweatshirts, and it’s even harder to imagine someone carefully shepherding the trend to its current state. It’s just too complicated, too dynamic a phenomenon to be the creation of any one person. Instead, the driving force behind the adoption of NYPD Sweatshirts is that they are a simple way to communicate a popular message. People who see NYPD sweatshirts want to buy them, because the shirts carry a message that everyone would like to share.

Being driven by sharing, rather than excluding, is perhaps the most unique feature of NYPD sweatshirts. They are very much a trend of offering something to other people: reminding others of an important moment, and inspiring them to live up to the ideals of that moment. It seems implausible that people could forget their cynicism long enough to consider such a trend, much less to adopt it so thoroughly. But perhaps the real secret of NYPD sweatshirts is that we’re not as cynical as we all think.

write by James Brown