90s fashion is back in full force. Last year, Harry Styles wore a clueless– Grammys inspired outfit. Year 2000 appearance are all the rage with Gen Z fashionistas. And iconic ’90s bags like the Prada nylon backpack and Dior saddle bag are sell like hot cakes on resale sites like Rebag.
Why are we so fascinated by these trends today, three decades later? And given the eclecticism of ’90s style, ranging from Nirvana-inspired flannel to Calvin Klein-esque minimalism, how do we even define the aesthetic of the era? A new exhibition at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, “Reinvention and turmoil: fashion in the 90s,» explores these questions.
On one level, the ’90s revival is easy to explain, says curator Colleen Hill. Fashion tends to revisit trends in 20-30 year cycles as fashion designers and editors look back on styles from their youth. Hill argues, however, that there are deeper reasons why ’90s style resonates: Many are nostalgic for the optimism of that era, and saving money is easier than ever.
When the future was bright
Unlike the years of pandemic, political polarization and racial calculation, the 90s are optimistic. “The spirit of the 90s was a spirit of possibility, and that’s something that underlines the exhibit,” Hill says. “We were entering a new century and also a millennium. People still look at that time as a really exciting time.
These days, our love affair with technology has faded. But in the 90s the internet was still in its infancy and there was energy and curiosity about the future. Y2K fashion, which emerged towards the end of the decade, was deliberately futuristic, defined by shiny fabrics, smooth leather, metallic tops, rhinestone embellishments and mesh.
Gen Z is particularly intrigued by these Y2K looks, with the #Y2KFashion hashtag generating hundreds of thousands of posts on TikTok and Depop, the resale site hugely popular with teens. These looks could evoke hope that we can still transform the internet into the exciting and inspiring place we once imagined it could be.
Meanwhile, thrift has come back strong, thanks in part to companies like ThredUp and Depop digitizing second-hand shopping. It makes sense that we take inspiration from the 90s when creating thrifty looks, especially since these websites are full of vintage pieces from that era.
pop culture revolution
I was a teenager in the 90s and, despite everything, I have a hard time putting my finger on what defines the aesthetic of the time. According to Hill, it’s the diversity of options that makes ’90s fashion so fun and accessible. “There was so much pluralism in fashion in the 90s,” says Hill. “I would say more than any previous decade. There was this idea that fashion was for everyone in a way that we had never seen before.
The films of the time, like clueless and Ten things I hate about you, offer a generous look at teenage fashion of the time. There are designer looks and it-bags, like the Prada nylon collection. There are clean, minimalist looks – from jeans and cropped tees to form-fitting silk dresses – inspired by Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang.
And then there’s grunge. Both films feature the flannel shirts and plaid miniskirts popularized by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. “These groups were from the Pacific Northwest, so it made sense that they would wear a lot of layers,” Hill says. “They often shopped at thrift stores out of necessity, but it was a look that was perceived as cool.” Grunge made it possible for everyone, regardless of budget, to participate in fashion in a time of global recession.
The exhibit shows how the emergence of the internet has allowed movies, television, music and other aspects of pop culture to influence fashion like never before; for the first time, people could gather online to discuss fashion and find clothes.
90s pop culture sometimes shaped fashion as much as it reflected it. Hill says when the clueless costume directors visited LA high schools to explore trends, they were appalled by all the grunge. “They designed the clueless wardrobe as a kind of dream wardrobe,” says Hill. “It wasn’t meant to represent what students of that age wore, but of course it became a style that students wanted to emulate.”
Shows like sex and the city were also very influential. Today, it’s rare for a single show to start a trend because social media and streaming services are overflowing with so much content. Young people are nostalgic for when an iconic show or movie could set the tone, Hill says. And thanks to streaming services, many teens and twenties can explore now-classic shows and movies from that era.
“The students of the Fashion Institute of Technology know very well cluelesssaid Hill. “They absolutely watched it and some recreated looks straight from the movie.”