(Trends)

Why We Keep Returning To The 'Best' Decades In Fashion, According To Experts

A historian, psychologist, and forecaster weigh in.

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vintage dior outfit

History has a way of repeating itself, even with fashion. The unveiling of a season's new collections almost always includes a decisive nod to a previous 'best' decade in fashion, if not multiple. Lately, there's been a big push for the return of puffed-up '80s sleeve silhouettes, and the psychedelic tie-dye prints as seen on Gabriela Hearst's Spring/Summer 2021 runway that could easily be transplanted to a 1960s scene at Woodstock. On the Gen Z front, it's all about the Y2K aesthetic right now (cue the Fiorucci tees and rainbow-bright color palettes!). It feels like the last ten years have been a repeat loop when it comes to referencing eras of fashion past — but are things about to change?

You don't need to be reminded what a year 2020 was. The pandemic, racial injustice coming to a head yet again, a recession, political upheaval, and everything in between. It's shaken the world to its core and there's little possibility that disruption won't trickle down to the fashion industry. It's fair to presume that, despite artistic inclinations to return to the past for inspiration, this post-pandemic existence may spark a new era of dressing that still looks to the past, but through a lens that's better tapped into the future.

To help explain how changes in the industry — and the rise of Gen Z shoppers — has shifted the way fashion looks backwards, TZR tapped three experts: a fashion historian, fashion psychologist, and a trend forecasting agency. Together, the three lend insights into why fashion revivalism is so ubiquitous and what the future has in store.

The Trend Cycle

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If you read about fashion long enough, you'll stumble upon the idea of the trend cycle; a metaphorical washing machine that spins out similar style concepts every few years. "I think trends will always reference the past in one way or another. The trend cycle is called a cycle for a reason," Trendalytics Content Strategist Kristin Breakell tells TZR. "The speed of the fashion cycle has accelerated, largely due to social media. Only weeks after a look appears on the runway, people already have a version of it in their closets and a picture of it on the timeline. In other words, trends become old news much quicker than they did ten years ago."

This rapid pace has taken its toll on industry figures ranging from creative directors and designers all the way to manufacturers abroad. "The fashion cycle has grown too extreme," Fashion and Design Curator Michelle Finamore tells TZR. "How can any human keep up with creating six to eight collections a year?" As a result of this often-unrealistic demand for newness, many are beginning to revolt. "So many [designers] have been abandoning the notion of fashion week for the past few years and I would also argue that the notion of 'seasonal' dressing is starting to wane," Finamore says. This has been especially accelerated by production shifts and changes in shopping habits due to Covid — leading even luxury brands like Gucci to combine collections and show after the traditional calendar.

The result of all this change, Breakell weighs in, is a shift toward a long-lasting wardrobe. "Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen a type of 'trendlessness' emerge, where designers are driven less by this short-lived trend cycle and more by utility, longevity, and high quality," she says.

COVID-19 Reshapes the Process

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The pandemic's impact on fashion designers has been swift and strong. "Designers are being presented with an opportunity to bring brand new ideas to the table. Recent changes to the fashion calendar have given them more time to create each collection," Breakell explains. "A disruption to their normal routines has forced designers to draw inspiration from new sources, notably nature and the concept of escapism. We’re already seeing more creativity and newness in how they present their runway collections." She offers examples of AR integrations, digital avatars, and futuristic films. "The limitations introduced by the pandemic have driven designers to more openly embrace new tech, re-evaluate the needs of their consumer, and reflect on their brand’s identity and purpose moving forward," she adds.

From an ethics standpoint, last year held a mirror up to the industry's sordid past with racial inequalities and lack of representation. "Events of the past year have also forced the industry to recognize and address its history of racism," Breakell notes. "Hopefully, in 2021, we will see new talent and ideas emerge." If this is true, the trend cycle stands to experience major shifts due to a fresh wave of previously-ignored concepts and more inclusive points of view (Kamala Harris's choice to wear Christopher John Rogers on inauguration day is likely to ignite an uptick of the up-and-coming designer's exuberant aesthetic).

Nostalgia Still a Key Theme

"Despite this opportunity for newness," Breakell says, "we’re also seeing nostalgia become a key theme for the coming year." Trendalytics recorded that searches for velour tracksuits are up 41% from last year, which can likely be attributed to the Y2K revival. "At the same time, '70s styles like tie-dye and flared jeans don’t seem to be going anywhere. Searches for tie-dye are up 179% from last year and searches for flared jeans are up 45% from last year," she adds.

Shakaila Forbes-Bell, Afterpay's Consumer Fashion Psychologist, is also seeing a continued emphasis on nostalgia-based trends. "At Afterpay, we're seeing the return of '90s and Y2K fashion (think chunky footwear, shearling, butterfly print, and more)," she shares. "It's very much in line with how Gen Z consumers like to shop, which is part of our core demographic."

An interesting insight about Gen Z's shopping habits is the concept of near-vintage items. "What we’re noticing is that nostalgia cycles are shortening and people are keener to purchase ‘near vintage’ items, that being, styles which were present during their childhood rather than ones before they were born," Forbes-Bell says. She argues that this affection for near-vintage items explains why it feels like the ‘90s and 00s will never die. "It's our closest reference point in the fashion trend cycle," she says. "For example, Afterpay data revealed that brands like Crocs, Ugg, and Old Navy, which all peaked in popularity two decades ago, were among the most popular brands during the holiday shopping season. As nostalgia cycles shorten it will be interesting to see which 2010 brands will be making a comeback."

Fashion Revivalism, Not a New Concept

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Above: A Paul Poiret dress made in the 'Directoire' silhouette.

Though it may seem like the thirst for nostalgia has intensified in recent years, it's not a new concept. "Fashion referencing the past has been going on for centuries; as early as the 17th century," Finamore explains. While you may associate the gothic aesthetic with the Victorian era (black velvet, lace gloves, corsets), its origins date back to the 1400s. "Gothic Revivalism in dress looked back to the 15th century, and it resurfaced in the mid-to-late-19th century."

A more recent example includes the archeological discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, which she says inspired what is now called Egyptomania. "The 1920s saw a penchant for scarab jewelry and films such as the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza Cleopatra, which provided viewers with a uniquely Art Deco interpretation of Egyptian-inspired dress worn by actress Claudette Colbert."

Another fascinating example of the recycling of the past is what Finamore describes as the continued recurrence of neo-classical design in fashion. "Introduced in Europe and America in the 1810s and '20s, these dresses featured a less structured, high-waisted, simpler line in whites and pale hues that were in direct contrast to the Rococo styles that preceded them," she says. "Also inspired by post-Revolution democratic ideals, these Greco-Roman styles are probably now most associated visually with Jane Austen. The look was then re-introduced in the 1910s by French designers such as Paul Poiret and called the 'Directoire' style. And it keeps cycling — the 1960s was yet another decade that saw a re-issue of that line."

While there is a long history of fashion revivalism to look back on, Finamore thinks right now feels different. "There does seem to be more of an emphasis on the recycling of former styles in the last fifty or so years and I believe we are still seeing the impact of a dramatic moment in fashion history — the anti-fashion revolution of the 1960s and '70s," she says. "The 'youthquake' of that era saw the rise of vintage clothing as an expression of hippie chic. Although the 1980s is considered an era that heralded a return to couture, the bricolage of that era has stuck with us, as has rebellious, subcultural style."

Still, A Moment For Change

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For Finamore, people will probably always have a taste for the nostalgia of decades past. "Just look at the TV shows that are so popular right now! Bridgerton, The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown, even a redo of Sex and the City, which is still a reference point for design," she says. "A popular idea in fashion theory is that there has always been a constant push and pull between the present and the past and there is no way to fully remove yourself from a connection to history."

However, despite this bond, this current moment in time still holds the opportunity for seismic shifts. "Periods of uncertainty and survival often breed innovation," Breakell says. "While this innovation could take many forms, I think the introduction of new technology and the increasing urgency of the sustainability conversation will both be driving forces for this year and beyond."

As for the question if we'll continue to reference previous decades in fashion? Breakell says yes and no, pointing to the likelihood that we will ultimately see a combination of trends, old and new, this year. "This question also raises another question: are any trends or styles ever truly new? I would argue that most, if not all, modern styles are referencing a specific culture or time period, even if not in an obvious way. It’s usually a new interpretation of a style or a new generation of consumers that makes a trend seem new."