If you were watching movies in the mid-90s, you probably have a visceral memory of Legends of the Fall. For some it was a sexual awakening; others remember the swell of the score against the sumptuous Oscar-winning cinematography; but most remember it as a melodramatic movie that starred a really, really hot Brad Pitt and his long blonde hair.
Close your eyes and you can probably see the movie poster — or the cover of the VHS nestled on a shelf at Blockbuster. Pitt’s is the first face you see, his expertly highlighted locks sweeping dramatically across his face. It’s a Harlequin paperback cover, but it’s real, thanks to Pitt’s portrayal of the charismatic, smoldering Tristan Ludlow. Legends of the Fall was released in theaters in 1994, and was an absolute smash hit, earning over $160 million at the box office against its $30 million budget. That year, the name Tristan was #452 on a list of the top 1,000 baby names for boys.
In 1995, the name made it to 121.
In 1996, Tristan was the 68th most popular baby boy name in America.
It’s easy to theorize that Brad Pitt’s charisma — and his iconic hair — is responsible for the jump in the baby name’s popularity. (It actually means “sad” or “melancholy,” which is kind of perfect if your desire is to have a charismatic boy with impeccable hair.) Tristan Phillips, the assistant manager of a grocery store in Atlanta, GA, tells me that his mom found out she was pregnant with him the day after she saw Legends of the Fall. “She already had my brother and that movie has three sons in it, so she started feeling like I was a boy before she even found out. She said she really liked the name Tristan and thought it was unique.” Tristan was born in July 1995.
Phillips says he always knew his name was inspired by the character, but when I press him on whether his mom actually just had a crush on Pitt’s Tristan, he laughs. “Oh definitely. She wanted my dad to grow his hair out long like him, too. And she wants me to tell you that when I went to day care in 1997, I was one of three Tristans in the baby room.”
Tristan Chavez, a PR executive in Arizona, tells me that his parents wanted to name him Stanley, after his grandfather, but that would make him the third Stanley in the family. “That's when my mother remembered Legends of the Fall. My parents loved the name Tristan and it fit perfectly,” he says, noting that the Tri in Tristan meant three and then his family used “stan” in the name to mean Stanley, making him literally the third Stanley.
But Tristan Ludlow isn’t the only character to launch a generation of baby names — it was happening well before VHS tapes were even a thing. Doctor Zhivago, an epic romance movie from 1965, starred Julie Christie as Lara. The movie was a cultural phenomenon, and its popularity showed up on the baby charts almost immediately. In 1965, the name Lara wasn’t even in the top 1,000 names for baby girls; in 1966, it hit #618.
Thirty years later, Bailey Salinger, Party of Five’s rebellious teenage star (and, like Tristan, his family’s second-born son) was played by Scott Wolf, and his presence onscreen inspired a bunch of pregnant women to name their own boys after him. The show premiered in 1994, and while the name Bailey was already fairly popular for girls, it took an enormous leap as a name for boys, jumping from #769 in 1994 to #277 in 1995. Need another sensitive, loving kid with dreams to name a bunch of babies after? There was also James Van Der Beek’s Dawson Leery from Dawson’s Creek. The show premiered in January of 1998. In 1997, Dawson was the 734th most popular name for boys. In 1998? It was #175.
Baby name predictions for 2023 already include the rise of western baby names thanks to the popularity of television shows like Yellowstone. Don’t be surprised if there are more than a few Rips, Duttons, and Kayces in the kindergarten class of 2028.
“Popular culture serves an important social function in teaching audiences what the norms are for society,” says Dr. Dustin Kidd, associate professor and chair of the department of Sociology at Temple University, who studies storytelling and identity. Media-makers will introduce unique names as a way for a character to stand out, or to indicate a story’s time period or geographic setting. “If it is in a fantastical realm, like the world of Game of Thrones, that realm demarcates the unique names as something other than normal. If the story is modern and in a similar setting as the audience, the names used in the story shape the sense of what normal names are,” Kidd says. In other words Tristan, Bailey, and Dawson might have all seemed strange or off-puttingly original a year or two before their namesake characters became popular, but once they were part of the zeitgeist, they felt like a much more “normal” choice.
It’s funny how many names might potentially have taken off with the right spark from pop culture, but we’ve never noticed because they were already on the charts. You can imagine that plenty of people named their babies Edward and Jacob when Twilight was a thing, but those names were already popular, so it’s hard to track if Twilight caused a rise. (The baby name Bella, though, jumped from its #122 spot to #58 after the first Twilight movie premiered in 2008.) I like to imagine that Jack and Rose from 1997’s Titanic spawned a bunch of infant imitators, but like Edward and Jacob, it’s hard to see any kind of statistical rise. And you just know in your heart — much like a character in a romance movie — that some little kid out there was named William because their mom loved Notting Hill.
My mother-in-law had two sons in the ‘80s. Her first, my husband, was named after his father. But her second son’s name was inspired by a character, too — Alex P. Keaton. “I had never thought about Alex for a name until hearing it on Family Ties and loved it. But no big crush on Michael J. Fox. He’s cute though,” she tells me. (I suspect she liked that character because he was a Republican.)
When I ask her if she liked Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall though, it’s a resounding yes. “Loved him. If I had been pregnant during that time, I would have for sure been drawn to that name.”
Tristan, Bailey, and Dawson are all undeniably attractive characters, but they are also good men. (Politics aside, so is Alex P. Keaton.) They have integrity and respect, care deeply for those around them, but are sensitive, brooding types. “Tristan’s always been wild,” his big brother says at one point in the movie. “Duh, he’s Bailey,” Bailey’s big brother says about why a girl will absolutely fall for him. “There’s you. There’s proof that someone out there is thinking of me, my friend who was with me always. It’s pure magic,” Joey says about Dawson.
Handsome, loyal, and unthreatening is apparently an irresistible template. Writers — and pregnant people — take note.