90s Indie Film Fashion: 10 Looks and Outlooks

90s fashion
Adrienne Shelley in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust (Hal Hartley 1989, 1990)

Slip dresses and chokers, glitter makeup, baggy, high-waisted jeans and little tops. I keep thinking 90s fashion is going to fade back into the past. Instead it seems to be proliferating – which I kind of love. But fashion is more than just “looks.” What’s interesting about fashion revivals is that old meanings attached to those styles don’t go away. They accrue. When we talk about “retro” fashions, I think it’s important not just to celebrate historical looks, but to understand how those styles also represented outlooks.

Why do this through independent film? Because, as I wrote in an earlier piece on “Making Fun of Fashion” in the 1990s, I think there were particular elements of “alternative” styles in the early to mid 1990s that eluded mainstream representation. As conscious attempts to play with, challenge and reinscribe mass culture, they lost their “aura” when they appeared in Vogue or at the multiplex. But during this golden age of independent cinema, many filmmakers were trying to capture the mood the lurked beneath and around blockbuster hits like Pretty Woman or Ghost. Or even slick attempts to cash in on our subculture, like Reality Bites (how that movie haunted my friends and I. Shiny, perfect movie stars mussing their hair and dressing up like caricatures of…us. We hated it. And we memorized it). That kind of thing doubtless influenced our interactions with popular culture, but it never really felt like they were talking to us. Instead, here are 10 films that were. They aren’t necessarily my favorite films from the early/mid 90s – there would be a LOT more Helena Bonham Carter and corsets on that list – but ones that I think reflected and reproduced a certain way of looking at and being in the world.

What was the outlook? Ambivalent. Ironic. An uncomfortable mixture of world-weary cynicism and hopeful naivete. Especially if we were working-class or poor, we were a downwardly mobile generation. And we started the trend of entering adulthood saddled with insurmountable student debt. We witnessed the emergence of a new kind of perpetual war. Mass incarceration. Third wave feminism, heroin chic, something called the Internet. It was a lot to process.

Of all the films on this list, Slacker might best embody the contradictions I’m trying to describe. There was a feeling I always had that might have just been a general symptom of late-capitalism, but I think was intensified by the particular era I grew up in. I always felt like I just missed the good part of the party. The baby boomers had revolutions and rock n roll. They “invented youth culture.” And Generation X got to react against their hypocrisy. Anyway, I first saw Slacker on video, sitting on couch cushions on the floor of a bedroom I shared with three of my friends (actually only one of us was paying rent – and it wasn’t me – so “sharing” is probably the wrong word). It was a revelation. The absence of plot or central characters was, on its own, an act of rebellion. The close focus on conversations and chance encounters among people who weren’t rich or beautiful or ambitious created a space for people who were skeptical of consumer culture, the American Dream, and even of what youthful rebellion was supposed to look like.

The title of the film is ironic. These are only slackers in the sense that they aren’t trying to climb some corporate ladder or accumulate wealth and commodified status. The fact that the film exists and launched a successful directing career, as Douglas Kellner points out, undercuts its own appellation. Yet this film left me with a sense that there were people who looked and thought like me all over the place, and that maybe we could change things. It was exciting. Slacker is full of characters trying to deconstruct mass culture and reinscribe it with local meanings; earnest conversations about the politics of Scooby-Doo, conspiracy theories, a shut-in who collects video tapes and old televisions, an aging anarchist who goes for a philosophical ramble with the kid who tried to rob him, children with a cooperative soda pop racket…everyone is trying to find a way to live with the absurdities and ironies of life in a world that’s rapidly become media and commodity rich and community poor; sold mass media’s fantasy of being able to see everything, and awareness that a lot is necessarily obscured from view. Anything there look familiar?

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.