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From plaid to Prada backpacks, see the ’90s fashion that’s making its museum debut

A new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology explores why ’90s fashion continues to capture our imagination.

Nineties fashion is back in a big way. Last year, Harry Styles wore a Clueless-inspired outfit for the Grammys. Y2K looks are all the rage with Gen Z fashionistas. And iconic ’90s bags like the nylon Prada backpack and the Dior saddle bag are selling like hotcakes on resale sites like Rebag.

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Why are we so fascinated by these trends now, three decades later? And given how eclectic ’90s style was—ranging from Nirvana-inspired flannel to Calvin Klein-style minimalism—how do we even define the aesthetics of the era? A new exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), “Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties,” delves into these questions.

On some level, the ’90s revival is easy to explain, says curator Colleen Hill. Fashion tends to revisit trends in 20- to 30-year cycles, as fashion designers and editors look back at styles from their youth. Hill argues, though, that there are more profound reasons ’90s style is resonating: Many are nostalgic for the optimism of that era, and thrifting is easier than ever.

[Photo: ©2022 The Museum at FIT]

When the future was bright

In contrast to years of pandemic, political polarization, and racial reckoning, the ’90s feel optimistic. “The spirit of the ’90s was one of possibility, and that’s something that underscores the exhibition,” Hill says. “We were coming into a new century and also a millennium. People still look back at that time as one that was really exciting.”

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[Photo: ©2022 The Museum at FIT]
These days, our love affair with technology has waned. But in the ’90s, the internet was still in its infancy and there was an energy and curiosity about the future. Y2K fashion, which emerged toward the end of the decade, was deliberately futuristic, defined by shiny fabrics, sleek leather, metallic tops, rhinestone embellishments, and mesh.

Gen Z is particularly intrigued by these Y2K looks, with the hashtag #Y2KFashion generating hundreds of thousands of posts on TikTok and Depop, the resale site hugely popular with teens. These looks might conjure hope that we can still reshape the internet into the exciting, inspiring place we once imagined it could be.

Meanwhile, thrifting has come back with a vengeance, in part thanks to companies like ThredUp and Depop that digitized secondhand shopping. It makes makes sense that we’re inspired by the ’90s as we put together thrifted looks, especially since these websites are full of vintage pieces from that era.

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Pop culture revolution

I was a teenager in the ’90s and, even so, I find it hard to put my finger on what defines the aesthetics of the era. According to Hill, it was the diverse array of options that makes ’90s fashion so fun and accessible. “There was so much pluralism in fashion during the ’90s,” says Hill. “I would argue more so than any previous decade. There was this idea that fashion was for everyone in a way that we hadn’t seen before.”

Prada, backpack: black nylon and leather, circa 1993. [Photo: ©2022 The Museum at FIT]
Movies from the era, like Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You, offer a generous look at teen fashion at the time. There are designer looks and “it” bags, like the nylon Prada collection. There are streamlined minimalistic looks—from jeans and cropped T-shirts to slinky silk dresses—inspired by Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang.

Helmut Lang, dress: black and olive wool knit, 1996. [Photo: ©2022 The Museum at FIT]
And then there’s grunge. Both films feature the flannel shirts and plaid miniskirts popularized by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. “These bands were from the Pacific Northwest, so it made sense that they were wearing lots of layers,” Hill says. “They often shopped at thrift stores out of necessity, but this is a look that was perceived as cool.” Grunge made it easier for everyone, regardless of budget, to participate in fashion during a time of worldwide recession.

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XULY. Bët (Lamine Kouyaté), ensemble: sweater dress, coat, and blouse, multicolor recycled sweaters, brown printed wool, and red nylon, fall/winter 1994. [Photo: ©2022 The Museum at FIT]
The exhibition shows how the emergence of the internet enabled films, TV, music, and other aspects of pop culture to influence fashion like never before; for the first time, people could congregate online to discuss fashion and find clothes.

Pop culture in the ’90s sometimes shaped fashion as much as it reflected it. Hill says when the Clueless costume directors visited Los Angeles high schools to explore trends, they were dismayed by all the grunge. “They designed the Clueless wardrobe as a sort of dream wardrobe,” says Hill. “It wasn’t meant to represent what students at this age wore, but then of course it became a style that students wanted to emulate.”

Shows like Sex and the City were also massively influential. Today, it’s rare for a single show to kickstart a trend, since social media and streaming services overflow with so much content. Young people are nostalgic for the time when one iconic show or film could set the tone, Hill says. And thanks to streaming services, many teens and 20-somethings are able to explore now-classic shows and movies from that time.

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“Fashion Institute of Technology students are very familiar with Clueless,” Hill says. “They’ve absolutely watched it and some have recreated looks directly from the film.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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