The subconscious desires behind our intense '90s nostalgia

Something strange is happening in the world of fashion. If you walk into a typical store this winter, you won’t find new trends or avant-garde designs. The styles of the season look like they’ve been imported via time machine straight from the 1990s.

We’re not talking a little nostalgic inspiration – we’re talking racks of choker necklaces, starter jackets, Doc Martens, Mary Janes, jelly sandals, crushed velvet slip dresses, denim mini skirts, fanny packs, flannel shirts and more. These looks ripped from another decade aren’t just taking over fast-fashion retailers; they’re dominating the collections of high-end designers like Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Kenzo, Nina Ricci and Saint Laurent. You could literally raid your closet from 20 years ago and step onto a runway today.


At the latest Paris Fashion Week, Karl Lagerfeld sent models down the Chanel runway in colourful sideways baseball caps and neon tweeds. The show looked more like a casting call for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than something that’d be reviewed in Vogue. Sarah Burton presented checked plaid pantsuits at Alexander McQueen – a look reminiscent of ‘90s darling Cher Horowitz. Kenzo’s slinky, plastic-looking spandex dresses could’ve easily provided the wardrobe for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion or Spice World.

It was inevitable, really, that ‘90s nostalgia would take over the world of fashion. In recent years it’s dominated the music, film, TV, tech and even food industries. Shows like Full House, Boy Meets World and Gilmore Girls are back on the air, Pokémon Go wreaked havoc on the civilized world, Britney Spears is a legitimate pop star again and Puff Daddy staged a wildly popular Bad Boy Records Reunion Tour featuring the likes of DMX, Mase, Lil’ Kim and Nelly. KFC brought back the Colonel in its advertising campaigns and there’s actually a Nostalgia Festival scheduled for March 2017 in a New Zealand 1990s replica township.

The entire movement is driven by the insatiable appetite of millennials to relive their childhoods and teenage years. Every generation has dabbled in nostalgia: Baby Boomers had the ‘60s and Gen X pined for the ‘80s. However, something is different this time around. The onset of ‘90s nostalgia is all encompassing and more intense than the wistful fleets of reminiscence seen in the past. Millennials don’t just want a taste of their youth; they want to drown in it.

Psychologically, nostalgia is about longing for one’s childhood; going back to a time we see as simpler and more innocent. But, if nostalgia is an almost universal inclination, why are millennials feeling it so much more intensely than previous generations?

According to experts, the answer lies in the dismal economy, job outlook, terrorism, general decline in the standard of living and dominating sense that the world is spiralling out of control. “The ‘90s were, arguably, the last good decade — the last time the economy was doing pretty well and the last time we weren’t worrying about terrorism,” Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me recently explained to E! Online. “Many millennials experienced a ‘90s childhood of peace and prosperity, only to enter adulthood during the Great Recession. It’s like someone baited and switched them.”

The onslaught of high-tech lifestyles and the digital world has also left Gen Y feeling overwhelmed and out of touch with reality in 2016. A lot of what Millennials experience and spend their time on these days isn’t, well technically, real.

When it comes to rehashing dark goth lipstick and cheeky platform shoes, there’s another factor at play: identity politics. Fashion, although often dismissed as a superficial pursuit, plays a vital role in how we identify ourselves and communicate that identity to the world. Fashion was a key player in the French Revolution, anti-Thatcherism, the Civil Rights, LGBTQ rights and feminist movements for this reason. Fast fashion’s so-called democratization of the industry and anti-elitist rejection of high street preceded the populist drive that led to the election of Donald Trump.

Nineties fashion was particularly based around group identity (albeit perhaps which table in the cafeteria one identified with). Were you a goth, jock, geek, skater, misunderstood outsider, prom queen or stoner? What you wore and where you shopped said it all.

Today, millennials are encouraged to focus on personal, rather than collective, identity. The rise of ‘personal branding’ is the perfect example of this. On one hand, this can be a liberating experience in learning about one’s self. On the other hand, it can get lonely after awhile. We crave community, camaraderie and acceptance as part of a larger group. Therein lies the temptation to revert back to the last time we truly felt part of a clique: high school in the ’90s.

It’s telling that most millennials who buy into the nostalgia trend don’t redefine their identities, but rather purchase items similar to what they wore two decades ago. Nineties goths that frequented Hot Topic are now 2016 goths who don Alexander Wang, while the jocks of yesteryear now sport vintage-style Blue Jays and Raptors gear. We miss being part of a collective that extends past posting in a Facebook group.

This deep-seeded psychological need means that fashion’s ‘90s revival is more than just a passing trend. It’s a movement, driven by the same mentality boosting the sharing economy and rise of group experiences like music festivals and high-energy cycling classes. This season’s black lipstick, overalls, Calvin Klein sports bras and combat boots aren’t about what’s on the outside – they represent what Gen Y yearns for on the inside.

This piece originally appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux