Former styles become new trend

by STACY JOHNSON//Editorial Assistant

The fashion of the 1990s is back in a big way.

During the past three years, there seems to have been a resurgence in the fashion trends of the millennial youth.

In 2014, mainstream clothing retailer American Eagle launched a trendy runway-inspired collection titled “Don’t Ask Why.”  The majority of the collection is straight out of the ‘90s.  The line currently features the crushed velvet bodycon dress that was ubiquitous in 1996, as well as slinky slip dresses paired with bulky cargo jackets.  It combines the skintight styles of the last decade with the playful, dynamic, rebellious looks that characterized the ‘90s.

What does the return to ‘90s fashion say about the time we live in now?  In 1991, award-winning fashion icon Calvin Klein predicted, “There’s going to be a big change in the ‘90s, and it’s only just beginning. … There’s a restructuring of priorities.  It’s less about flash and more about people in the streets, the environment.  People are becoming more real.”  Klein’s fashions were defined by casual simplicity in an age of materialistic excess.

The theme music for television sitcom “Full House” featured lyrics about “predictability, the milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV,” and the program glorified traditional family values, while the equally popular show “Roseanne” highlighted the deterioration of the American family.  Artists such as Madonna and Nirvana were pushing boundaries in ways we had never seen before.  Mixed messages were being projected to youth by the ever more influential media.  Cultural diversity was emphasized as a politically correct nation emerged from a period of globalization and rapid change.  We became a culture at war with ourselves.

Airy, feminine dresses paired with combat boots expressed the juxtaposed nature of an increasingly dysfunctional society that presented itself to the world as moral and just.

Plaid shirts tied haphazardly around waists and paired with Doc Martens and all-denim everything stressed practicality, utility, and comfort over aesthetics.  Wash and go hair, scraggly long locks, and the five o’clock shadow at 9 a.m. were becoming popular alternatives to the heavily hair-sprayed coifs and baby-smooth faces of the 1980s.

Yearning to break free of the judgmental, French manicured “What Not to Wear” culture of the early 2000s that stifled individuality and led us toward the “rules” of expressing ourselves with fashion, we are rebelling: returning to the days of innocence and anarchy—dialectically opposed and harmoniously melded.


Grunge and urban fashion have made a comeback.  However, modern styles have dropped the “heroin chic” themes of emaciated models with cigarettes pursed between their lips, as society embraces positivity, body acceptance, and organic fruits and vegetables.  We’ve lost the greasy, matted hair and replaced it with chic, ombré blowouts, all the while keeping the faded Nirvana tees to let everyone know that it’s just fine to “Come as You Are.”

The bagging, sagging, and torn days of grunge remind us of our questioning nature, threatening to keep the establishment in check at every turn.  Brightly colored hair, dark nail polish, and suggestive chokers channel the subversive rockers who dared to speak their minds through music in a time of social and political uncertainty.

We see dainty floral prints, the likes of which were popularized by TV teen idol Blossom, returning to the nostalgia of media that embodied wholesomeness, but adding the sexualized elements that became a part of our social identity during the ‘90s and beyond.

These fashions transport us back to a simpler time—a time before the rapid advance of technology pushed us away from one another and into the warm and distracting embrace of unthinking, unfeeling machines.  Perhaps they represent a return to our inquisitive, person-centered nature as human beings.  We’ve shed the plastic, superficial masks we’ve donned to the world for so long while celebrating the progress we’ve made during the past few decades.  We begin to shun self-consciousness and superficiality in favor of bold self-expression, as we enter an era of social media where each one of us is a celebrity in our own right.

While American Eagle urges us not to ask why, it’s important for us to question ourselves as a society and to look critically at aspects of our own culture—to ask why we return to the looks of the past, and what they mean to us.  By examining which styles we embrace as vintage fashion while allowing others to languish on the thrift store racks, we can learn more about ourselves than we could ever imagine.


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