‘Do you remember the first time?” Jarvis Cocker sang, way back in 1994. More than 20 years later, it’s a pertinent question. The 1990s – the decade that saw a snake-hipped, NHS-specs-wearing Cocker become a sex symbol, Sara Cox crowned a ladette and Will Smith arrive as The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air – is back. This year’s shows were full of throwbacks, from Saint Laurent’s slip dresses and Courtney Love crowns to Chloé’s Britpop trackie tops, while on the high street you’ll find beanies (very My So-Called Life) and mom jeans (high waist, slim ankle – think Beverly Hills 90210).
Any revival involves sorting through the flotsam and jetsam of a decade to find the pieces that still look fresh today. And, because there’s so much variation, there’s lots of room to get it wrong. Good 1990s right now means a bit of Britpop (trackie tops, androgyny, vintage), a smidgen of R&B (those high-waisted jeans, dungarees) and a whole lot of grunge (slip dresses and cardigans). Less likely to come back? Blossom’s hats, Tony Blair’s suits and the wardrobe of Whigfield.
A 1990s revival is tricky, says Louise Wener, singer of 90s Britpop group Sleeper, because “it’s quite indistinct. If you think about the 60s, it’s a miniskirt, the 70s is flares, 80s is shoulderpads. The 90s is diffuse. It went from Rachel in Friends to Courtney Love.” In other words, it was eclectic, which may be another reason it appeals now, when a pick-and-mix approach to culture and fashion rules.
“Fashion then was all over the place, and so was what I was wearing,” says Meg Mathews, who after marrying Noel Gallagher became an It girl of the era, a face of Cool Britannia. In 1997, she was the third most photographed woman in Britain. Her outfits included Galliano bias-cut dresses, Chanel, Versace and Patrick Cox. Mathews grimaces at some memories. “Rifat özbek made me an outfit for a Downing Street party which was a crop top. Who would wear a crop top to Downing Street now?”
Mathews says the era coincided with her “having money to spend, so I made loads of faux pas. My biggest mistake was a Diesel nylon dress covered in an orange-and-blue 70s print that looked like my mum’s tablecloth. It was definitely not the look.” Mathews in the Diesel frock or at Downing Street may not be on the moodboard now; but Mathews at a 1998 Vogue party with Kate Moss, wearing louche bohemian dresses, definitely is.
The stripped-back, raw fashion images by photographers including Corinne Day, David Sims, Steven Meisel and Juergen Teller have become popular references for today’s designers. Richard Benson, former editor of 1990s style bible the Face, dates this aesthetic to the early 90s: after the Berlin Wall came down, while the Conservatives were still in power, before the champagne socialism of Mathews’ era.
Corinne Day took her iconic images of a bare-faced Kate Moss frolicking on a beach in 1990, when the UK was still in a recession. “It was political with a small p,” Benson says. “The recession was a big factor in the decade, up until about 1994 – the fact there were no jobs. The bedsits in the photoshoots – that doesn’t make sense without context.” This aspect of the era still resonates – this is another generation growing up with a Conservative government; last year was the worst in 20 years for youth unemployment, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Charity shops became cool in the 1990s because they were cheap. While there were plenty of shiny pop stars such as the Spice Girls, New Kids On The Block, Take That and, erm, B*Witched, it was the bands with guitars – Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Blur – dressed in their best secondhand garb, whose style stuck. This vintage 1990s look is being referenced today, only now it comes with four-figure prices and a label reading Gucci or Saint Laurent.
“Everything I owned came from Rokit in Camden,” says Wener, who wore vintage T-shirts, DMs and skinny jeans. “The first thing you did on tour was check out the local charity shops. It was a badge of honour to say, ‘I got this amazing thing in a charity shop in Copenhagen.’”
Crispian Mills, lead singer of 90s band Kula Shaker, says he took inspiration from the 1960s. “My influences were George Harrison and Brian Jones. When we first met our manager, we were all in candy-striped trousers and three-button suits. He had to do a double take, to check we weren’t all in our 40s.”
Perhaps that’s why grunge – arguably the biggest movement of the 90s – has had longevity. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and his wife Courtney Love might have been living the rock star life, but they were dressing the way they did when they were struggling musicians with no money. It felt authentic. “I remember seeing Courtney on Top Of The Pops in fairy wings with eye makeup everywhere, the kinderwhore look,” says Wener. “She was unashamedly expressing herself. It’s more contrived now.”
Terry Christian, presenter of 1990s yoof TV show The Word, says the style of the time was about “loads of designer gear, but making it look scruffy… dressing down”. He points to the Madchester scene, which started in the late 1980s and continued into the 1990s, as his highlight. “It was so grass roots. Everyone wore wide, baggy flares from the 70s, and you never tucked your shirt in or let anyone see your socks.” It’s this kind of artlessness that is now being fetishised: there are hints of Madchester in the too-long sleeves and baggy hoodies of the latest Vetements collection.
There remain a few great corners of 1990s culture yet to be revisited, including hip-hop, the YBAs and Tarantino films (I’m looking forward to that). As for B*Witched, they might not make the cut…
No one wants to be a Monet (ask any Clueless fan). To avoid such a fate, refer to Cher and Dionne’s wardrobe: plaid, knee socks and long glossy hair.
The slip dress
Thanks to Kate Moss, the slip dress has been the cool girl’s party look for 20 years.
The elegantly wasted look. Marc Jacobs put it on the catwalk; Kurt and Courtney were its king and queen.
Tom Ford at Gucci was a 90s Fashion Moment. Gwyneth was an early adopter, and her red velvet suit at the 1996 MTV Awards still looks supercool, thanks to the oversized fit and an extra shirt button undone.
Chokers, black lipstick and miniskirts – the teen witches of The Craft were the height of cool, and they still look amazing.
Born in the 70s, they went oversized in the 90s. Marky Mark wore them topless and TLC went multicoloured.
Damon Albarn’s hair
Much imitated, and often swooned over, Albarn’s French crop was the haircut to define a moment.
Sex And The City’s foursome influenced the wardrobes of all Gen Y women who owned a TV. Carrie’s name necklace and tutu were both hip and pretty, a combo she continued to perfect through six seasons. Thanks, Patricia Field.
Alexander McQueen’s famous trousers, so low they exposed the top of the wearer’s buttocks. A shock on the catwalk and not easy to wear IRL.
A T-shirt that changes colour when you sweat? Sounds like a terrible idea. Not if you were a raver in the 90s. Try eBay, or the new version, Global Technacolour, from Skate Hut.
This look meant business: see Sandra Bullock in a romcom, Scully in the X Files and Hillary Clinton. With the X Files back and Clinton pitching for the White House, its return is only a matter of time.
Mariah Carey, Pamela Anderson and Cindy Crawford all favoured a heavily outlined lip. Now worn by Kylie Jenner, a comeback could be on the cards.
The torso is back, but strictly above the waist. The bellybutton is so 20 years ago.
Always threatening a revival, the Spice Girls-endorsed Buffalo boots were huge – literally and figuratively.
Jennifer Aniston reportedly hated her character’s haircut in Friends, but it was replicated by women everywhere – who possibly lived to regret it.
Any jeans that require a bikini wax should not exist, but by the end of the 90s, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were engaged in a sort of low-off. Risky.
A Baywatch-inspired leftover from the 80s. No coincidence surely that the Brazilian wax came in soon after.
Some unsuspecting souls – too young to remember this trend first time around – are attempting to revive the floppy hats worn by Blossom on her TV show. Be afraid.
Bindis as pop accessories
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ was still in the post, but the use of bindis by non-Hindu pop stars including Gwen Stefani was alive and well.
Blame Karen Millen and Jane Norman. These were usually cut short, perfect for wearing with white bootcut trousers and a Fendi baguette bag. Good times.