The rise and rise of '90s style

2019-06-11 18:05:14

Fashion is cyclical, so really we shouldn't be surprised. But after a decade-plus of skinny jeans dominating the denim discourse, jeans are getting wider. They're getting looser.

On Instagram, outside fashion shows and on the street, denim has a different feel, and once you notice it, you'll see it everywhere. In 2019, jeans are coming straight out of 1994.

They're not alone, either. Cotton On and Zara are full of the kind of oversize printed t-shirts you might find in an op shop, if you were lucky.

Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed rather than a rugby club fundraiser. For those of us who were school-aged when those shows aired, it's an odd experience. Suddenly we're old enough for the stuff we thought was cool as pre-teens to have come back around. We're dressing up as our own cool babysitters and older siblings, in satin slip dresses and combat boots and flannel shirts. It's Before Sunrise, it's Reality Bites. It's also a look that seemed deeply daggy just a few years ago. So how did it come back? And how can it be worn without looking tragic?

Wellington writer Laura Vincent is a keen observer of trends – how they "initially [seem] daring and exciting, but eventually [that] effect is flattened as it becomes the norm". So she's enjoyed seeing the '90s trickle into our wardrobes, saying that "power of nostalgia is undeniable and it's fun choosing whether to dress up as a character from The Craft or Empire Records on any given day".

As well as those cinematic references, Vincent is a fan of the heavy symbolism of the era. She cites yin & yang prints and Selena Quintanilla concert t-shirts, but those are just a couple of examples. Elsewhere you'll find a tie-dye t-shirt paired with an adorable Loewe bag on Australian Instagrammer Elle Ferguson, or a Hawaiian shirt with cut-off 501s on Hailey Bieber. These pieces are fun and evocative, and that's a large part of their appeal. Fans of early-90s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell will find a lot to love in Bieber's latest Levi's shoot, with its Kelly Kapowski vibe.

There's a pleasure in dressing to define yourself like the adults you admired when you were younger, Vincent says. "It's a strange feeling, all the stuff I could only dream about owning as a young person suddenly became surprisingly accessible."

The people Vincent was probably looking up to back then would have been members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, they were teenagers and young adults in the '90s, and set its style agenda. Now, they've fallen under the sharp eye of the New York Times, which has devoted a whole style section to that in-between cohort.

"[As] groups like Bikini Kill, Wu-Tang Clan and Hootie & the Blowfish reunite for tours; as generational idols like Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair publish memoirs; and as the first real Gen X candidates make a run for president, Gen X is in the air," Anya Strzemien writes, variously pointing to grunge, CK One and the antidepressant Prozac as signifiers of the generation.

If this is all sounding very familiar, and you're hesitant to re-wear a look you were across the first time around, you're not alone. But, according to stylist Jackie O'Fee, there is a way forward.

"This is probably one trend that's more approachable across the board. You don't want to dress like your 15-year-old daughter," O'Fee says, noting that younger fans of '90s fashions tend to be wearing a lot of crop tops and high-waisted denim. "It's fresh and new to young people so they embrace it, but when you're older you pick elements of it and work it in."

"I think [the look] has a wide appeal," she says. "Yes, you've got your younger girls wearing it, but with things like bias-cut satin skirts, knee-high boots and a slouchy knit, that's something anyone can wear."

The move away from skinny jeans and trousers is proving popular with clients of all ages, O'Fee says. She's been dressing women in wide-legged, cuffed trousers, and says that as much as they're enjoying the change of silhouette, there's also the comfort factor. Pants that aren't restrictively tight have a lot to recommend them.

Levi's marketing manager Nicky Rowsell would likely agree, saying that the brand's customers are after increasingly prioritising comfort and durability alongside style.

"You'll see this heavier weight denim that doesn't have as much stretch, it's about quality," she says, noting that it's as much a trend in menswear as it is in women's.

"Guys are wearing baggier styles, that whole skater look where it's hanging off their body a bit… It's come from being anti-fashion," Rowsell says, adding that the latest Levi's styles for both men and women are based on cuts from the brand's own archive. Add this to denim's enduring association with rebellion and underground music scenes, and it's not hard to find a bit of inspiration from the era.

"A lot of the [newer Levi's cuts] are replicas of existing styles, but then with a twist to make it in a modern, relevant silhouette. There are tiny nuances of leg profiles than can make it look right for today," she says. In fact, the brand's latest women's style, the Ribcage, is based off a 501 pattern. The original 501 just celebrated its 146th birthday, so you can feel pretty confident it's going to stick around for a while yet.

Those twists to bring the look into 2019 are key, O'Fee says. It's often not as simple as pulling your own '90s favourites out from the back of the wardrobe – shapes have changed, and that pair of cowboy boots you used to love might not be quite right.

Much more wearable are the grungy dresses seen from local labels like Lonely and Kate Sylvester. Lonely's Siousxie Slip ($350), is crying out for a leather jacket and boots, and the yellow plaid of the Selma Mini, also ($350), brings to mind yet another '90s icon in the form of Cher Horowitz. At Kate Sylvester, O'Fee points out the Edith dress ($629), for its long hemline and rich dark green hue.

In fact, any of those frocks would work perfectly with a Levi's trucker jacket, around ($160). It's a great look for the cooler months, Rowsell says, and it adds a bit of attitude.

"Oversized, baggy trucker jackets – even cropped, or cut off. All that stuff is a staple, especially over the shoulders with a fancy dress… it makes it a bit more street," she says, adding that customisation is always key when it comes to denim.

"It's about mixing the highs and the lows. You can wear a trashed-up pair of vintage jeans with an expensive shoe, or a holey t shirt and a designer bag… You mix and match all the bits, and I think it's more fun that way," Rowsell says. "It's a bit eclectic."

That mix also means it's a look that doesn't necessarily cost a bomb to recreate. Glassons are selling vintage Harley Davidson shirts in their flagship stores, and you can pick up Zara's Disney printed shirts for ($36). A Cotton On shirt paying tribute to the Kardashians' neighbourhood of Calabasas will set you back ($30).

Like any trend, this wave of '90s nostalgia is there to take or leave. Maybe it's got no appeal at all, maybe your crop top and flannel shirt days are behind you. But when there are silk dresses and lush, chunky jumpers on offer, and when comfort and practicality are coming back, it's hard to reject it wholesale. It's possible to get it wrong (see the Twitter account @NightOpening for examples of how truly wild '90s style got at times) but for a sense of optimism and individuality, it's a decade that's hard to beat.

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