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Now-stalgia: why fashion is going back to the future

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Last September, Jennifer Lopez closed Milan’s spring/summer Versace show, shimmering down the catwalk like some A-list whirling dervish, in a sheer jungle-print scarf dress. It was the same sheer scarf dress that she wore on the red carpet of the 2000 Grammys which wowed for the fact it looked like it would disintegrate and fall off her body at any moment. As the fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote at the time: “It was revealing without revealing anything. It dazzled because it threatened to slip away at any moment.” (It also made the term, ahem, “tit tape” go viral).

Nineteen years later, the dress had a different sort of meaning. As she slid down the catwalk to the flashes of 100 iPhones, Lopez was winning Milan fashion week. Here was a strong and confident woman of a certain age, defying stereotypes. But, as a cultural moment it also crystallised an idea that swept through fashion month: fashion is not just stuck in the past, it is in bed with it, snuggling up nice and close and rubbing its cold feet on it.

In Paris, in the same month, the 33-year-old Olivier Rousteing opened his Balmain show with Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 song Rumours (the show also featured 00s classics from Britney Spears, ‘NSync and Christina Aguilera). In the show notes, Rousteing asked: “Is my generation’s nostalgia for our turn-of-the-century childhood culture somehow less cool than fashion’s more familiar fixation on the 70s and 80s?”

Marc Jacobs show at New York Fashion Week, 11 Sep 2019.

Marc Jacobs’s show at New York fashion week, 11 Sep 2019. Photograph: Masato Onoda/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

The answer was a firm “no”: in 2020 all nostalgia is good nostalgia. “The nostalgia economy”, as named by Quartz, is the most powerful trend in fashion since florals or trousers and is a reaction to what’s happening in the world. With Covid-19, an environmental calamity and the doomsday clock inching its way towards the end of humanity, it is no wonder the past looks appealing. “Fashion,” explains Andrew Groves, professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster, “is unsure of its future and has retreated into its past. Something it does during periods of global crisis, like a pandemic.”

The cultural theorist Emmanuelle Dirix traces it back to 2001. “After the collapse of the twin towers, we realised that the promise of interconnectivity that the internet held wasn’t actually true,” she says, “at that point we immediately looked backwards.” Trends such as shabby chic and the 50s revival began then. “It’s easy in a sense to look back at an era when you haven’t lived through the reality of it,” she says. And that leads to viewing the past from a strange vantage point. “We think we’re referencing points in time when things were safe but they were not,” Dirix says, “there were divisions of class and race. Do we really want to go back to a pre-Windrush era when all the people in power were white and women had to stay at home and look pretty?”

Marc Jacobs was a child during the period he referenced during his closing New York fashion week show which was possibly the most unapologetically nostalgic show in recent memory. It featured a group of models sauntering across the catwalk in a Broadway style, dressed like they had just come from a Wes Anderson remake of the Muppets. They walked en masse wearing wide-brimmed cartwheel hats in tiger oranges and mauve, medallion yellow mumu dresses and bedazzled amethyst flared trousers worn with exaggerated butterfly-shaped glasses, all to the tune of Mama Cass’s 1968 version of Dream a Little Dream of Me. It called to mind Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret (a musical from 1966, adapted from a play from 1951 which was based on a book from 1939 and made into a Bob Fosse film in 1972). In this case, it was a smile-inducing, sensory tribute to the boomer halcyon period of the 60s and 70s; a time of peace, love, dreams and hope. The show, he said, was a riposte to the “computer or the cloud or the transient archives of the internet”.

Online, history has become a mood board. On social media there is a sort of democracy of timelessness: Pinterest boards, “remember this?” prompts on Facebook and Instagram’s #TBT lend time a meaningless and yet meaningful quality.

Throwback Instagram accounts have become scroll-bait for many of us. Featuring a visual feast of rare old snaps, weird pop culture moments and outrageous fashions, accounts such as 70sbabes speak to a braver, pre-internet time. James Abraham the man behind 90s Anxiety (1.2 million followers, recent posts: Kim Kardashian in super baggy jeans, baby Beyoncé at Tina Knowles’s hair salon) believes that we are living in a time that is more hungry for nostalgia than ever. “I think that now more than ever people have an insatiable desire to look back at or reflect on the past,” he says. “Using nostalgic reference as a sort of foundation or compass for how or how not to do things in the future.” It is the norm for an entertainment website to publish a throwback gallery or for a celebrity to post a “TBT photo” on their personal Instagram (think of Courteney Cox’s feed which featured a much regrammed image of the Friends cast on the last day of filming).

“Nostalgic content comprises a big portion of what resonates well with viewers in 2020,” Abraham says. “It’s almost like a new form of expression, creating a repository of images of significance or inspiration in a sort of modern day form of scrapbooking. We have social media: Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter to thank for that.”

For Abraham, his goal has always been to provide an escape to a bubble of comfort. He wants to “evoke that sort of emotional response when you see something that was significant to you at an earlier point in time”.

Bode Menswear Fall/Winter 2020-2021 show

Models walk the runway during the Bode Menswear fall/winter 2020-2021 show as part of Paris fashion week on J18 January, 2020 in Paris, France Photograph: Thierry Chesnot and Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

Which is something fashion is attempting to do, too. Groves thinks that in the future people will engage with their clothes in a different way. “I predict a shift away from ‘object possession’ to ‘object curation’,” he says, “where garments are prized for their historical narrative.” It’s something that designers such as Emily Bode are doing already. Dubbed “nostalgic upcycling”, her intricate, storied clothes have their own stories to tell; menswear made from repurposed grain sacks, khandi napkins and Victorian quilts. “We tell a story behind each garment,” she told Matches, “and each of our labels says: ‘This shirt is made from …’ and we write where it came from. The history is literally woven into the garment.”


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