“When we look in the rear-view, it is always the most outrageous moments that end up defining an era. The twenties flapper, eighties punk rocker, and nineties grunge bands represented small slivers of the population, but now seem to epitomize the decades in which they were the outlying occurrences.”
I thought that I was the only one feeling oddly nostalgic for the nineties. The impulse to download mediocre music from my formative years came out of nowhere. I might have been born in the eighties, but the nineties really informed the wayward disposition of my youth. I attribute my inexplicable craving for “Gin Blossoms” and “Toad the Wet Sprocket” to having crossed the thirty year threshold. It is music that my younger self wouldn’t be caught dead playing but getting older can make a person do strange things. So there I was, listening to “Found Out About You” and “Walk on the Ocean,” as I emerged from a summer filled with such adult activities as toasting engagements (not my own), cursing my insurance company, and preparing the Spring line for its market-week debut. With the last appointment finished and mercury beginning its descent to the cooler side of centigrade, it was time to pull focus toward the brewing trends.
I walked into Zara, my favorite source of new (and sometimes refurbished) fashion, and the Eastern and Tribal influences had been replaced by “flannel” plaids, muted florals, lace trimming, pattern mixing, and shrunken tops. Why choose between plaid and floral when you can wear both at the same time? It all looked familiar, reminiscent of things that were once loved, then loathed and ultimately reclaimed by the local thrift store. It was the nineties brought back to life, in all of its mismatched glory.
That was the moment I started paying attention and ever since, I have seen a lot of contemporary pieces juxtaposed against nineties throwbacks, the new old look of choice for the irreverent sartorialist.
click THEN and NOW to see how each trend has evolved
Part of what makes something mirror the last decade of the old millenium is context and styling. Some pieces toed the line between lingerie and street worthy threads. If you have to ask “is it a slip or a dress,” then the look is clearly not meant for you.
At Zara, the deliberate juxtaposition of casual prints, flowing silhouettes, and chunky-heeled footwear meant that the display mannequins looked too polished to qualify as true “grunge,” but they were convincing posers. They conjured up mental images of a “Reality Bites” era Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. The latter so accurately personified the whole ethos of the sexy slacker, of how cool it was to not care too deeply about anything. Kurt Cobain summed up this attitude in aninterview he did back in 1993…
The “come as you are” approach to fashion, which was full of loose contrasting layers, offered a plethora of ways to obscure the body. You weren’t supposed to stand out, or look like you were trying too hard, drab colors as (sub)urban camouflage.
At the time, grunge was a fringe movement. I thought of the prevailing style as dreadfully boring, “the absence of all that was cool and interesting.” I went to a prep school, the landscape whitewashed in a sea of khaki and polo shirts. There were brief flashes of the “alternative” influence, with clothes that were thrown together in a way that was unrehearsed. At the time I listened to mostly classic rock, favoring Led Zeppelin and The Doobie Brothers over the Dave Mathews Band, though I did mix it up with some Fiona Apple and Outkast.
Fashion and music are alike in that they absorb the thoughts and feelings that we had when we first came into contact with them. The majority of the pants I now own are basically glorified leggings, but seeing some flared pants recently aided the whole mental rewind. Back then, there were plenty of styles from which to choose: tapered, bootcut, flared, wide-leg, and baggy were the spectrum of options. But you weren’t simply selecting a pair of pants. You might ask yourself “what is the difference between wide leg and baggy,” and what could they possible say about who you are for that matter, but that is like asking the difference between Pearl Jam and 2Pac, alternative and rap. Though I may not have been listening to the music, it was unavoidable as MTV was the channel to watch.
Despite my environment, I was not wearing khaki pants, polo shirts, Northface jackets, or the distressed basics offered up by A&F. I accumulated vintage and other obscure finds that suggested a lazy rebellion. I was really searching for Rayanne Graff, a fictional personage from the cult show “My So-Called Life.” Of course I had no idea that I was dressing for the type of friend I thought I wanted, but you repeat an experience enough times and you eventually start to question your own way of doing things. Rayanne was the irreverent best friend to the quietly suffering Angela Chase, played by an awkward Claire Danes. Rayanne was wild, exciting, impulsive, and she didn’t always do the right thing but even in her failures as a friend and a human being, she was still compelling to watch. She embodied the essence of grunge, a mix of wild abandon and apathy, the same attitude I wore with varying degrees of intensity until I graduated from college. It is also what made the ensuing transition so difficult, since my “laissez-faire leanings” would not translate well into my next life of being a responsible adult .
Life might be filled with a lot of mundane moments, of taking out the garbage (or not and fighting with your roommates about it), but every once in a while we experience a pivotal moment. In measurable time, the nineties are not far behind, but our culture has undergone many changes, both swift and irrevocable. My generation came of age alongside our current technology, emerging from school to confront an adapting landscape. There was anticipation leading up to the new Millenium, as if something momentous was about to occur. It is only now in retrospect that I realize how appropriate that feeling was. It was before September 11th, the war in Iraq, an “Inconvenient Truth,” the organic food movement, a self-imploding financial system, the second coming of Apple, smartphones, gay marriage, decriminalization of marijuana, and the influence of social media worldwide. I can’t imagine life without cell phones, but I remember it. And just like the way we communicate has been forever changed, I don’t recognize myself then and now as being the same person. As a fully functioning adult, I must care about all sorts of things: interest rates, 401k (I don’t have one but feel like I should), global warming, pesticides, short term gain vs. long term rewards, the speed at which the fabric of stability could easily unravel… We are more self conscious and have short attention spans, knowing that everything we say and do can last forever online. Of course, I had no idea I would look back on being a teenager as a simpler time.
And as I watched my relatively short life flash before my eyes, caught up in moments that defined the not-so-distant past, the punch line finally arrived. I came across an article published by the Daily Beast that announced the twenty year anniversary of “In Utero.” In case you are not likewise tuned in to the current events of this resurrected epoch, “In Utero” was the third album of the American grunge band “Nirvana,” an event that would forever be eclipsed by the untimely death of Kurt Cobain.
The whole momentum of the grunge movement really started with Nirvana, but its not a term they themselves would have used…
“Some of the rumors are that Jonathan Poneman said it one time sarcastically and it just caught on. He is one of the head honchos at Sub Pop Records. No one set out to market this music as that. That’s what happens when the main media catches on. They have to call it something. I like it as much as New Wave. I would have been proud to be a New Waver. We are getting more New Wave as the days go by. Grunge is really kind of boring for us. Our tastes are just changing so rapidly. This is just the last chapter of three chord grunge music.”
– Kurt Cobain
Fashion usually trickles from the top down, but this was a multi-layered infusion. In 1992 Marc Jacobs designed a collection for Perry Ellis that captured the pulse of alternative music, with Nirvana as his spirit guide. But the perennial fashion darling had yet to earn the complete confidence of the men holding the purse strings. The clothes were an apt representation of what was happening on the street, but despite the cultural relevance of the collection, it led to Jacobs’ being unceremoniously dismissed.
“The press was smitten. The powers at Perry Ellis, however, were not… the executives weren’t convinced women would pay a lot of money for clothes that looked, as Jacobs has always been so fond of describing things, ‘a little fucked-up.’ Jacobs and Duffy rented a store on Mercer Street but couldn’t afford to do anything but leave it empty— ‘We just kept thinking, This is how our friends dress, and we can’t be that crazy.’”
-Amy Larocca, New York Magazine
When we look in the rear-view, it is always the most outrageous moments that end up defining an era. The twenties flapper, eighties punk rocker, and nineties grunge bands represented small slivers of the population, but now seem to epitomize the decades in which they were the outlying occurrences. Though “grunge” is one of the first words that come to mind in reference to this revived era, it was just one of the many attitudes that ruled the day. There were also thigh highs, plaid kilts, hammer pants, clogs, slip dresses, overalls, velvet and minimalism.
Even then, the fashion flock was looking to the past, which reminds me of a quote from the nineties film “Chasing Amy,” which featured a then-unknown Ben Affleck.
“There is nothing new under the sun and anything that can be done with a person has probably already been done long before you got there.”
Sure it was in reference to sex, but the sentiment still translates. The term “melting pot” was coined to describe the variety in our populace, but can also refer to the convergence of influences on how we dress. Flared pants were a more subdued version of bell bottoms, Birkenstocks were reminiscent of hippies, and the army jacket / combat boots were souvenirs of Vietnam War vets. Acid wash denim, mom jeans, touches of punk and bright hair dye were run-off from the eighties. Converse All-Stars have been around since the twenties and the choker necklace recalls Gothic Victorian imagery.
And while Marc Jacobs was showing street wear on his runway, Gianni Versace was bringing the sex, skin, and opulent surface design to high end frocks.
Long before “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Gianni Versace was mining sex shops for inspiration back in 1992. In 1994, Elizabeth Hurley made headlines for wearing his “safety-pin” dress to a premiere. Thelate designer, who was murdered in 1997, is also the subject of a new biopic. And speaking of 1997, that was also the year that “The Fifth Element” came out. While sex was not one of the prevailing themes of the film, Milla Jovovich’s costume left her scantily clad in a series of “bandages” that were strategically placed.
But beyond the literal interpretation of nineties style, what I find the most interesting is how people are connecting to it on a personal level. While designers typically set the standard for what is fashionable, the consumer is the variable that we are ultimately trying to appease. When we proclaim what the new trends are, they are usually the common denominators among the large fashion houses, but street style is the real indicator of what people want to wear.
IN THE TRENCHES
Special Thanks to Michael Rabin, Juliana Lazzaro, Helene Saucedo, Nikki Davis, Elide Grabowski, Tatiana Sarandinaki, Andrea Serbonich and Jessica Levine.