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Don’t Call It a Comeback: The ’90s and Early Aughts Revival Is So Much More Than a Trend

There’s comfort in the familiar. With a few years’ distance between the present and a specific memory, we give ourselves enough room to assign it a new narrative and mould it into what we want it to be now. 

So many of 2017’s biggest trends can be summed up by this sense of nostalgia, but where the over-romanticization of previous decades is hardly an industry anomaly, is it intended only to give us an escape this time around? In a year defined by political upheaval, dipping back into the ’90s and early aughts has lent itself to a storyline rooted in a temporary reprieve. By re-introducing the likes of fanny packs, bedazzled denim and Steve Madden sandals, fashion has been reminding us, consciously or not, that it’s possible to go home again. The question, however, is why we want to.

In the late ’90s and early aughts, fashion was consumed differently. Without social media, teenage-centric style norms were created by merging cultural influencers with must-have pieces (separated by brand hierarchy) to establish a relevant aesthetic. The likes of Tommy Hilfiger overalls were paired with stretch chokers and baby backpacks, and magazines like Teen People, YM and Seventeen passed down tips and tricks to style them.

For millennials, our formative years also put us face-to-face with the birth of celebrity coverage as we now know it. While magazines and pre-E! reality television had been covering the famouses’ wardrobes for years, the internet awarded a novel and candid approach to style documentation. Within days — and eventually, hours and minutes — of arriving at events or parties, the aesthetic choices of our favorite socialites (Paris Hilton), actors (Lindsay Lohan) and pop stars (Britney Spears) were posted and poured over. It gave us the illusion of intimacy: Our devotion to a particular icon would be rewarded with new red carpet and paparazzi images, and from those, we would know what type of trend to define ourselves by next, convinced we were evoking the same brand of magic that made Mischa Barton or Kirsten Dunst who they were.

A piece from Juicy Couture's collaboration with Urban Outfitters, which was released in February. Photo: @juicycouture/Instagram

A piece from Juicy Couture’s collaboration with Urban Outfitters, which was released in February. Photo: @juicycouture/Instagram

Even just a decade ago, many of us were too young to question that train of thought. As preteens and teenagers without access to the internet as it exists now, it was easier to consume and replicate than it was to ask questions. Many of us made our style choices based on what we saw our favorite celebrities wear — and also on what we could afford. So while names like Adidas, Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Steve Madden were part of the daily lexicon, actually wearing them was a different story. You built outfits based on what you’d seen, and then you accessorized to highlight your capacity for originality.

The thing is, our approach to style has changed dramatically in the years since. In 2017, we understand more comprehensively that late-’90s trends were based largely on those of the ’70s, and that the excess that began springing up in 2000 was as much an amalgamation of previous decades — the way Boho was a ’60s-era knock-off, for example — as it was a direct opposition to the past, like the stark, simple lines of ’90s minimalism. On a dialogue level, we also talk about style much differently now, more often viewing trends as part of a bigger picture while acknowledging the impact of street style or specific players within the zeitgeist. To this end, take Kylie Jenner and her tendency to appropriate the trends pioneered by and for cultures of which she isn’t a part.

We know that fashion has always been the sum of its parts, with trends tweaked just enough for a new incarnation to fit into the current landscape. Is our current nineties and noughties’ obsession less an example of our zest for Juicy Couture and more an example of how the industry works, en masse? Ultimately, we’re using fashion’s cyclical nature to justify our youthful choices — as if we had a real say in them then.

We now consume trends in a more complex way than we did as adolescents, and this is why the teen trend revival is interesting. Knowing that so much of late-’90s marketing was based on what we were told to consume, it’s curious that we’re celebrating them all over again — and in a such big way. Mini backpacks and fanny packs have re-emerged“those” Steve Madden sandals were resurrected this spring; Gigi Hadid is now a permanent fixture in the Tommy Hilfiger camp, much of which can surely be attributed to the success of her first ’90s-inspired collaboration; and Calvin Klein tapped Raf Simons to re-instate the vibrant (albeit still minimalist) aesthetic that defined the brand 20 years ago. Add to this Alexander Wang’s Hot Topic tribute last fall, Balenciaga’s puffy coat revival, the return of motocross and Juicy Couture’s comeback — plus Abercrombie & Fitch’s brand overhaul and the resurgence of the Von Dutch hat — and the proof is there: We’re desperate to feel young again.

An archival image of Kate Moss, shot by Mario Sorrenti, for Calvin Klein's new Obsessed fragrance campaign. Photo: @calvinklein/Instagram

An archival image of Kate Moss, shot by Mario Sorrenti, for Calvin Klein’s new Obsessed fragrance campaign. Photo: @calvinklein/Instagram

But now, style is built less on a do-don’t approach to clothes and more on personal interpretation. We’ve come to understand that a person’s aesthetic is subjective — that it’s unique and it’s not for any of us to judge, provided they’re not doing anything wrong (like cultural appropriation, which should always be called out). 

Today, we understand that fashion, like any art form, can grant a much-needed escape from our day-to-day. And while no type of art can truly serve as a pair of blinders — or should justify ignoring reality — it can offer a few fleeting seconds of distraction. But we also understand that by flocking to pieces we were too young to afford (or even escape into the pieces we miss), we’re granting ourselves a precious minute to reminisce. Many of us may be aching to overlook the complications of adolescence in hopes of transporting ourselves to an era in which we were blissfully unaware. The fastest way to do that is to wrap ourselves in pieces inspired by that time.

Escapism is a powerful coping mechanism. It can keep us buoyant in moments of heaviness and can work to give both our brains and hearts a break. 

But it’s also temporary. Nostalgia-infused trends may bring us joy, distract us or give us a reason to buy the perfume we weren’t allowed to have in middle school, but its magic lies in its fluidity. Just as nostalgia itself can’t be captured permanently, neither can the feelings we’ve had in the wake of particular teen trends cropping back up. These pieces are special because of what they represent to us. It’s up to those who wear them to keep forging ahead and creating new memories that we can reminisce about (and in) years from now when the next resurgence rears its head.

Homepage photo: @tommyhilfiger/Instagram

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