The Dress Code: Why are the ’90s still popular? Plus resolution tips for stressful years.

Sara and friends in the 90s
Sara (far left) and friends hanging out in a cemetery and looking hella 90s in the 90s. Photo courtesy of Sara Bernstein

Dear Dismantlers, I’ve noticed you write a lot about fashion revivals — especially the 1990s. So, I’m just curious, why are the ’90s still so popular? It’s 2022, if these things move in 20 year cycles, shouldn’t we have moved on to the 2000s by now?

Thanks for noticing! Yes, we share your interest in fashion revivals. And as Gen X/Xennial editors, we suppose we do have a special place in our hearts for the 1990s. And we’ve also noticed that the fashion and pop culture of that decade don’t seem to be going anywhere. The New York Times recently ran a story about “How Gen Z Channels the 90s” and we’ve witnessed that ongoing crush firsthand in our college classrooms and among the teenagers in our lives. 

We’ve also noticed the 2000s trickling back, but with less enthusiasm than one would expect by now. Sara had some fascinating conversations with her fashion history students last semester — most of whom were born in the 21st century — about why they find the ’90s more compelling than the ’00s (imagine life before social media!). Many of them expressed concern that the return of early aughts fashion might bring with it the damaging body and gender standards that proliferated in that belly-baring era. Not that the ’90s were so enlightened, it’s just that the clothes were often more forgiving.  

As always, we want to point out that we’re not trend forecasters. We have no idea when or if the ’90s will feel passe. What we can do is use recent history and cultural theory to try and understand what’s happening now. To that end, we offer three main ideas: first, that all fashion revivals are more complex than they usually get credit for. Second, they don’t really happen in tidy 20 year increments. And third, some eras seem to need more unpacking, while others (like the now beloved 1980s) take longer to get past the “ugh” phase.

Revivals are more complex than they get credit for

We’ve come to expect that every 20 years or so, middle-aged nostalgia and youthful scavenging meet in the form of old clothes, pop music, and retro television. This is the simplest way of understanding revivals, but on closer inspection it raises more questions than it answers. Like, aren’t young people supposed to be busy creating the future? Isn’t there a generation gap that makes it impossible for young and old to understand each other? So why are teens so interested in dressing in styles from their parents’ youth?

The most frequently cited cultural theorists on this topic, guys like Frederic Jameson or Jean Baudrillard, don’t do justice to these complexities. They tend to chalk up revivals up to lack of creativity in a postmodern world where the empty remix has replaced original thought. Meanwhile, the mainstream story is that cycles are getting shorter to the point that revivals are practically meaningless. A 2018 New York Times article worried that vintage was “over” because the 2000s were already coming back. 

On the other hand, cultural historians like Heike Jenss and Elizabeth Guffey, explain them as a pathway for seeking authenticity through resistance to mass market goods. At Dismantle, we lean more toward these arguments, and go further to suggest — as Guffey does — that revivals function as a form of historical research; a form that is embodied, accessible, and rooted in everyday life. 

They’ve never happened in tidy 20 year increments: The Fifties as Case Study

The first era to really be revived in the sense we now understand  —  a widespread and lovingly ironic recycling of the recent past —  was the “1950s.” But that revival was all over the place. Everything from the late 1940s to the early 1960s became part of the re-imagined “Fifties.” People were performing fifties camp and homage as early as Sha-Na-Na at Woodstock and kept on doing it deep into the 1980s when Michael J. Fox went Back to the Future.  

Why? There are a lot of reasons. Some of which Sara discussed in a recent essay about prairie style in the 1980s. And some that Elizabeth Guffey covered in her excellent book on Retro. But a short version is that the political and cultural shifts of the post-war era were still reverberating and impacting lives more than 30 years later. There was a lot to unpack and there were competing ideas about how the major accomplishments and upheavals of that era should be remembered. 

So, while it’s common to associate “the fifties” with the white, middle-class nostalgic conservatism espoused by Happy Days and Ronald Reagan, the era was just as important to the rights movements of the 1970s. For example, the Chicano and Black Power movements were heavily influenced by pachucos and civil rights activists. At the same time young transplants to New York City were exploring the darker edges of the post-war era. When “first wave” punk artists like Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and the Ramones talk about their influences, the fifties are everywhere, but they weren’t looking at culture depicted in Happy Days. It’s the dark fifties — the queer fifties, the junkie and Bowery bum fifties that enchanted them. William S. Burroughs, the author of underground classics like Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959), was treated with a kind of reverence that led some to call him the “Godfather of punk.” (Burroughs himself rejected the idea (of course)). Punk fashion took William Burroughs’ cut up method and applied it to clothes. 

The postwar era also saw the invention of a whole new identity — the Teenager. So, as Sara has discussed in her essay on Pretty in Pink, it makes sense that teens in the 70s and 80s needed some extra time to unpack the earlier era. Many of them were finding that the promises of teendom weren’t being delivered — promises like leisure time, spending money, freedom to explore within the relatively safe confines of home and high school, and an upwardly mobile future.

If we’re lingering in the ’90s, it’s because we still have questions about it. 

You might notice by now that we haven’t spent much time talking about nostalgia. But, sure, of course nostalgia plays a role. Who wouldn’t be longing for a time that seems easier and more full of possibilities than the Crisis Merry-Go-Round of our present? But we also think nostalgia is the lazy response. People don’t spend a decade dressing themselves in old styles, unearthing old songs, watching old movies from a particular era just because of nostalgia. That’s boring and oversimplified, and most versions of the “nostalgia” argument imply that cultural revivals are enacted by a bunch of dupes without the ability to think critically about their engagement with culture.  

Instead, or perhaps more appropriately layered alongside nostalgia, we’d like to think that most revival participants see the important things that the quotidien history of clothes and pop culture can do for us. In fact, we see revivals as belonging to the tradition of what cultural historian E.P. Thompson called “history from below.” This is especially obvious when recent history becomes a site of struggle, where the nostalgia of a dominant group clashes with revisions and insertions from the young and marginalized. 

In other words, conservative forces often try to craft a stable narrative of the past that they can use to buttress their agenda (see MAGA). But revivals offer something different. When Sara’s mom helped her embroider daisies on her jeans — carrying the 60s into the 90s — or when one of our nineteen-year-old students pulled his mom’s old flannel out of a box, something generative happened. It opened a space for both generations to understand the past outside of those grand narratives, and change its meaning. The past is never “done.” We always have to understand it in the context of new information. Through embroidered jeans or battered flannels, something happens that’s very different from nostalgia. History becomes a conversation between youth and age, past and present. Right now, apparently Gen Z still needs the ’90s and Gen X should be happy to deliver it and learn from seeing our history in a new context. 

Dear Dismantlers, I’m overwhelmed more than ever this year by my New Year’s resolutions. For most of my whole life, January was when I set fitness and weight loss goals. More recently, I’ve been trying to shift to health-related changes, rather than just focusing on my body size and physical appearance. However, even these cause me body anxiety – but I still enjoy having some structure in my life! What can you suggest for not getting too hung up on the pressure of resolutions while also not foregoing them altogether?

First of all, you’ve hit on a great contradiction of resolutions and goals in general: we often need them to give us meaning and structure, but their very existence can cause unhelpful, even prohibitive anxieties. There has been tons of reflection and debate about their utility (or futility), and the body positivity movement in particular has taken a beautiful stance assuring people that body-based goals (exercise, weight loss, appearance modifications in general) are often unhelpful and damaging.

One of our favorite online yoga teachers (Melissa West – also a fellow cultural studies Ph.D.!) recently offered some helpful context for thinking about the new year. She noted that we live with this irony in many parts of the Northern hemisphere: January brings about a new year but it’s also the most quiet, introverted winter month. The weather, the light, and the general energy around us suggests that we’re supposed to be hunkering down, resting, recovering, and waiting for the return of longer days and brighter, more energetic weather.

So first things first: reflect on whether or not January actually makes sense for you as the time to set goals, fitness or otherwise. For some, it works great, and the collective cultural energy is invigorating and motivating. But collective cultural energy also generates anxiety: many people feel like they cannot achieve the standards set by the norm. In fact, when norms are set by the dominant cultural groups, and reflect the interests of those with the power and resources to “start the new year off right!,” those who cannot (or will not) strive to achieve them are set up as the failures–when in fact no one is failing, just living within a different cultural structure. At Dismantle, we always try to find the empowering aspects of community. But it’s important to find a community that makes sense to you and doesn’t hold you to standards that don’t make sense or are the wrong cultural “fit.” 

It’s also important to evaluate your agenda. A huge part of our mission at Dismantle is to communicate the idea that “self-improvement” usually works (and feels) best when it’s connected to larger political and social progress. So turn your goals outward. Instead of just thinking about personal things related to your body – get stronger, eat healthier, etc. – think about how these goals can connect you to politics. Support people like Ragen Chastain working to end weight bias in healthcare. Think about how your eating habits are connected to larger economic and environmental processes, like Rachel Powell Horne did in our recently published “On Organic Food, Unlearning and Class Consciousness.” Whatever your personal goal might be, there is a potential for a political community and the space to explore structural, rather than individual solutions.

So the short of it is that if you’re feeling up to goal-setting, great! Do so while keeping in mind the power of that collective social energy that is a key part of January resolutions. At the same time, if you find yourself unmotivated or being more stressed out because you feel like you’re “failing,” then don’t worry too much and let things go. And try focusing outward and move your focus from yourself to your community. It’s amazing what that shift in perspective will do for your mental (and physical) health.

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Elise is a writer, editor and educator with 20+ years in academia and communications. When she isn’t writing web copy, editing a manuscript or putting together the next issue of Dismantle Magazine, she’s teaching. She works part time as a university instructor and recently became a certified yoga teacher. A Louisiana native, Elise enjoys spending time in Mexico with her partner and their dog, “Peligrosa.”
Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.