Given the cyclical nature of fashion, it’s no wonder the 90s are back in vogue, with Winona Ryder’s pixie cut taking centre stage. But if you lived through a trend the first time, are you too old to revisit it when it gets rehashed decades later? Vintage 501s in hand, Carolyn Moore enters the debate.
Twenty-odd years ago I had an encounter in a supermarket that haunts me to this day. Trailing my mum around Quinnsworth, I picked up something dropped by a child sitting in a trolley.
“Say thank you to the boy,” his mother instructed as I handed it back. “Thank you,” he said, and off they went, leaving a very distraught teenage girl in their wake.
In retrospect, the blame lay firmly at my feet, or more specifically on my head.
I’d recently fallen victim to the siren call of Winona Ryder’s Reality Bites shag (for the uninitiated, that’s the après-bob, pre-pixie haircut she was rocking circa 1994), but in my eagerness to emulate her I’d overlooked the fact that I was not a saucer-eyed pixie with a rosebud pout.
As I learned that day, reality does bite if you insist on dressing like Damon Albarn before you’ve discovered makeup.
There’s been much fashion water under the bridge since then, and coming of age in the ‘90s meant that whole decade was a journey of self-discovery.
Given the cyclical nature of fashion, it’s no surprise the ‘90s are back, but it’s serendipitous that, thanks to Stranger Things, Winona has reentered the public consciousness at the peak of this resurgence.
Girls who weren’t born when Johnny Depp was inking Winona Forever on his bicep now share Winona-inspired #stylegoals on Instagram: Winona in 501s and a biker jacket; Winona in a velvet slip dress with a delicate choker; Winona making vintage a thing at the Oscars.
Seeing those familiar images now triggers in me something more than fashion nostalgia. It sparks a longing to reconnect with the fashion of my youth.
And that puts me toe to toe with the old maxim that if you lived through a trend the first time, you’re too old to revisit it when it gets rehashed decades later. Given that I was in nappies in the ‘70s and Day-Glo separates for much of the ‘80s, it’s a rule I didn’t pay much heed to until the ‘90s started creeping back.
But realising a few years ago that I was one pair of 8-hole Docs away from dressing like myself at 17 gave me pause for thought.
“You will always be tempted to replicate what you wore at 17,” former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman told the Guardian last year, adding: “This is not always a mistake.” Branding as “nonsense” the idea that wearing a trend first time round puts it out of bounds, she posits that “with careful recalibration” the style of your youth is yours to reclaim. And I agree.
Shulman’s decade was the 70s, and she confessed an enduring love for hippy dresses and knee-high boots.
For those who came of age in the 80s, strong shoulders and stiletto heels will always appeal. And for 90s teens, the combined forces of grunge and minimalism will always feel like a call to action. With a few contemporary updates, there’s no reason you can’t respond.
Case in point, I’m now rewearing a pair of vintage 501s I bought in the 90s, but instead of band tees and Docs I wear them with oversized knits and block-heeled ankle boots – a subtle distinction for a not dissimilar look.
Likewise, a slip dress over a white tee feels too literal, but layering one over a ribbed knit evokes that aesthetic in a more grown-up way.
Viewed through a retrospective lens, any decade can be reduced to a fashion stereotype: the ‘60s had minis, the 70s had flares, the 80s had shoulder pads.
But fashion is more nuanced than that, and thinking outside the fancy dress box you realise the 90s offered plenty of classics that can be distilled into today’s wardrobe without making you look like you stepped off the set of Spice World.
It was, after all, the decade when Marc Jacobs gave us high fashion grunge while Gianni Versace pumped out high octane glamour; when Chanel showed derivative hip-hop inspired baggy jeans while Calvin Klein redefined fashion with muted minimalism; when Tom Ford looked to the sexy seventies for his Gucci debut while Helmut Lang looked to the future with rubberised shifts that still feel contemporary today.
There were foolish fads, but it was also a time of groundbreaking designers; the last era before fast fashion changed everything. With the benefit of hindsight, you can leave the sillier trends to today’s teens (they can regret them in their own time), but if you were young enough to have embraced mohair crop tops, baby backpacks and Buffalo boots, you likely missed out on the 90s’ sophisticated undercurrent, so think of this as a reboot.
As a golden rule decide that if a Baldwin, a Jenner or a Hadid is doing it, it’s probably not for you, and instead, cherry-pick the best of the decade.
For winter, that’s oversized tailoring (Carolyn Bessette Kennedy is your role model in that department) and lashings of velvet (if you look like you’re about to invoke Manon you’ve taken it too far).
For spring, pastel hues, slouchy tailoring and slip dresses will be back, but the focus will shift to Brit Pop, with bum bags, bucket hats and wide-legged jeans all set for a fashion do-over.
Why miss out on the fun of rediscovering them? My Adidas tracksuit tops will be coming out of the attic, and my dark Lee denim jacket (the one Madonna wore in Ray of Light) is already back in my wardrobe. As we’ve seen with the 50s, 60s and 70s, fashion can only revisit a decade so many times before it gets subsumed into what we consider contemporary style anyway, so why abide by an arbitrary cut off point that excludes you from that?
Being drawn to the style signifiers of your youth is natural. When you’re finding your fashion feet, the aesthetic of the era gets hardwired into your personal style. It’s primal. Leaving aside the odd faux pas or hair don’t, there are lessons learned in every decade that we carry forward, repurpose and improve upon, so use your 90s know how to your advantage.
It’s not pathetic, and it’s not clinging desperately to your youth, it’s what style is all about.
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