lthough they ended over two decades ago, the 90s seem to be everywhere nowadays, from the runways of high fashion to the showrooms of movie theaters, the decade has persisted long after its finish. The cultural nostalgia that the past few years have developed for the days of dial-up and chunky highlights seems to have reached a point that is inescapable, which brings up the question: Just why has the pop culture of the 90s found its way into the present?
To begin tackling why this former zeitgeist has reemerged into the mainstream, it's important to first understand what nostalgia really is, why it exists, and how it comes into fruition. It’s a feeling that many of us have experienced, an often unexpected rush of warm emotions longing for a time that has long passed, creating a strange phenomenon filled with joy for past memories and consequential sadness for their fleeting nature.
Nostalgia — which was once considered a deadly mental disorder — is now seen as a universal and useful sensation, helping us overcome present challenges by relying on memories and moments of happiness to reckon with current struggles. This quality of resilience is why nostalgia levels are higher in age groups dealing with a greater deal of transitions in life, with young adults and those in old age experiencing higher amounts of the feeling compared to the middle-aged population. A simple bout of math can quickly deduce then just why the culture of the 1990s in particular is so prominent in the present moment: the childhood of today’s young adults’ was set squarely in the decade in question, making it clear that the resurgence of the 90s has everything to do with the millennials and centennials who seek comfort in their childhood during their transitions into adulthood.
This cultural moment that has been described as a “90s renaissance” may seem a bit overblown to skeptics who don’t see just how embedded 90s culture is in today’s age or feel that every decade makes its way back into the cultural present at some point or another. While the latter of those sentiments is likely true — we can clearly see how the rebellious and fed-up nature of the 60s is paralleled in the era of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements — it’s hard to argue that the 90s nostalgia is being overstated. The decade of mainstream grunge and Carrie Bradshaw may be a bygone era, but its influence is woven into almost every aspect of our cultural fabric.
From Chokers to Doc Martens: Fashion from the 90s
Designers and streetwear alike have found a common source of inspiration in the fashion of the 1990s.
Perhaps the most talked about aspect of the 90s that continues to make a home in the present culture is fashion. It’s undeniable that today’s fashion draws heavy inspiration from the decade — teenagers and young adults today still find outfits worn by Clueless’ Cher Horowitz to be, like, totally in. Fictional fashion icons like Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green have become newfound touchstones of style inspiration, giving former children of the time a chance to wear those signature 90s looks that have been imprinted upon them during their most influential period.
The rise in streetwear in both high fashion and — obviously — the streets, can similarly find roots in trends that flourished in the 90s. Styles and brands worn by hip-hop artists in the 90s, such as Nike and Dickies, have pushed their look into the 21st century, establishing the artists not only as icons within the music scene but also within the fashion industry. One cannot look at the streetwear of today and fail to attribute the many Black artists, like N.W.A and Ms. Lauryn Hill, who have paved the way for current trends that continue to be sported by young people of all races.
The recycling of trends is not a novel phenomenon — the preppy wear that dominated the 80s found its roots in the Ivy League style of the 50s — but the 90s’ domination of current trends seems to be especially prominent. Maybe it’s due to some superiority the decade exhibited or perhaps it’s a national longing for a period that marked the launch of the World Wide Web, long before cell phones and social media became quintessential to daily life. Men and women alike continue to find style inspiration from figures ranging from Tupac Shakur to Kate Moss, allowing the 90s to live on within a new period that is similarly filled with technology deemed to be cutting-edge and presidents being impeached.
Reboots Galore: Television and Movies Making a Comeback
Turn on a TV and you’ll likely see a show or movie that might make you think that you’ve been transported back in time for a moment.
Imagine telling someone in the 90s that in twenty years, Full House, Twin Peaks, and Will & Grace would still be on television. They’d likely not believe that you’re from the future, but it’s a true fact! The past few years seem to have birthed countless reiterations of 90s favorites, bringing the decade back onto the silver screen on almost every network and streaming platform imaginable.
The movie industry followed suit with contemporary, live-action remakes of “Disney Renaissance” films making their way into theaters across the country and reimagined versions of 90s favorites like Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (which, yes, is based upon Louisa May Alcotts’s famous novel from the 19th century) collecting accolades twenty-five years later.
Maybe these remakes, reboots, and retellings are part of a movement to continue stories that remain pertinent and relevant in today’s day and age. Perhaps they reflect an industry’s desire to capitalize upon a pool of consumers that seems to eat up anything resembling the 90s with ever-growing ferocity. Either way, these reiterations of the entertainment of the 90s have found massive success, both commercially and critically, proving that the cultural pulse has not shifted much in the past couple of decades, that old stories still can find ways to entertain both the old and some new audiences.
Is the Dream of the 90s Still Alive?
What makes this decade so important and prevalent in what seems to be an ever-changing world?
It should now be clear to you that the 90s remain alive and well within the realm of contemporary pop culture, with fashion and entertainment both revisiting the era for a beacon of innovation. But what about other aspects of the current stage we reside in? Do political resonations exist? Has activism additionally found a source of power from the decade?
Politically speaking, the 90s are viewed as a paradigmatic shift due to the rapid changes in both global and domestic relations, marked by international events like the fall of the Soviet Union as well as escalating US racial tensions following Rodney King’s brutal beating by the LAPD. The decade needed to find a way to reimagine how we viewed the world, with dominant beliefs in an everlasting Cold War and a finite end to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s quickly undone.
Maybe this is why the 90s feel so alive today. Yes, the nostalgia of millennials may result in an outfit that takes inspiration in Monica Gellar, but perhaps the disillusionment of the 90s, the rapid source of immediacy found in then-pertinent issues such as terrorism, mass incarceration, and globalization remain matters that are relevant, residing in the public’s attention. Perhaps the problems we faced decades ago remain problems we are trying to solve today. The 90s may have introduced a legendary slew of pop culture artifacts but the time also was one of political unrest and shifting ideologies. The changes that entered public consciousness were major and unable to be understood and reacted to within the short period of time that was the 1990s, so it only makes sense that ephemeral and concrete remnants show up nowadays.
Similarities have been drawn between the turmoil following the tragic murder of George Floyd to that following the Rodney King verdict — whether or not these parallels have much weight, both the 1990s and 2020s had begun with horrifying videos reflecting just how far we have not come in terms of race, in terms of policing, in terms of society as a whole. The parallels we see between the tragedies and struggles within the 90s and the present — in addition to an overall cultural fascination — feel real, and they are unable to be merely attributed to something like nostalgia.
There seem to be real and indiscrete things that connect us to the 1990s, things greater than fashion styles and movie remakes, although this isn’t to say that popular culture cannot be a truly powerful tool. Moving works of music from artists like Tupac Shakur brought light to important racial and social issues plaguing communities across the nation — audiences from suburbs to cities found that music had the power to connect and educate us in the 90s. And today, artists continue to spread awareness regarding the tragic deaths of Black Americans through the medium of song. We’ve seen television portrayals of racial injustice from the 90s through the lens of today, and many of us continue to fight to achieve a dream that was started in the 1990s, where peace can be portrayed through the fall of a wall and deadly viruses can be curbed with novel technologies in medicine.
A decade does not detach us from the timeline that it contributed to, and the 90s prove to be rich with cues and moments that connect us to larger issues and themes that surface time after time. Our nostalgia for pop cultural icons cannot be disconnected from the struggles that connect our time to theirs. If the 90s remain alive in institutions like fashion and entertainment, then they must remain embedded within the bloodstream of a nation still dealing with persistent continuations of their difficulties.The 90s may be over, but the culture seems to remain, the problems seem to rise again and again, and the dream has yet to be realized.