Skip to main content

Why Nostalgic Fashion Holds a Deeper Meaning for Millennials

Acid wash is trendy. Tabloids are obsessed with a new royal. And the sitting U.S. president has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. No, this is not a 1980s “Back to the Future” film. It is 2019, a year when history is repeating itself.

From Marc Jacobs reissuing the iconic grunge collection that got him fired from Perry Ellis in 1993, to Tommy Hilfiger rebounding with ’90s-era logo-driven denim and sportswear, fashion is deeply entrenched in nostalgic cycle. Millennials—who are often described as the “nostalgia generation”—are a receptive audience for these throwback products.

And who can blame them for retreating to the very things that stir up memories of better times?

While millennial tendencies, like living at home, putting off marriage and valuing a freelance lifestyle over a traditional 9-5 gig, have given their elders (and the press) plenty of fodder to critique, this generation has had to swallow several hard pills.

Millennials are the first generation to come into adulthood in a post 9/11 world on high alert, and they entered the workforce in or around the Great Recession. The Obama-era message of hope they enthusiastically latched onto has been replaced with divisive MAGA rhetoric. And although U.S. millennials’ ballooning student debt tops $1.2 trillion, the Federal Reserve reports they earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage of life.

And their pangs for nostalgia don’t start and end with fashion. This penchant for the past is permeating across all channels of pop culture. The past year saw rebooted and refreshed versions of ’90s sitcoms Will & Grace, Murphy Brown and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. The internet broke this fall when Jennifer Lopez wore an updated take on her famous 2000 Versace dress.

Related Story

And in one of the oddest turns of events, more than 1.2 million people signed a petition to have SpongeBob SquarePants—a beloved cartoon from the early 2000s—perform at the 2019 Super Bowl Halftime Show.

“There is a sense of comfort in reconnecting with feelings or experiences that millennial consumers remember fondly,” generational expert Alexis Abramson, PhD, said. “When we reach back and pull up memories of our favorite teen idol, TV show or article of clothing we normally associate it with a positive experience and we want more of the same.

“Millennials,” she added, “are even more embedded in that ability to reach back due to the prolific access to these memories on the internet and via social media. They have past posts and videos reminding them of these experiences and they want to relive that same positive feeling over and over.”

#TBT fashion

Poaching sartorial cues from past decades is not a new concept, but the current nostalgic trends feel particularly recent. “Millennials are old enough to remember the ’80s and ’90s so those decades resonate the most,” Melissa Moylan, Fashion Snoops vice president and creative director of women’s wear, said.

At Project Las Vegas in February, Brian Trunzo, Informa head of sales, men’s fashion, described the quick bursts of nostalgic trends as “near vintage” eras. “Nostalgia cycles are shortening,” he said. “Near vintage is this idea of vintage not being 20-plus years, but vintage being just five to 10 years ago.”

Oversized blazers, bike shorts, fanny packs and Champion gear are among the throwback items to be revived in recent seasons. For denim, the boom in nostalgia has translated into acid wash and bleached denim, Trucker jackets, cargo pockets, high waists, wide legs and rigid fabrications.

Nostalgic influences are alive and well on the Fall/Winter 2019-2020 runway, which Edited market analyst Kayla Marci said will influence retail over the coming year. The firm has seen “quintessential ’90s kid styling” in the form of double denim, boiler suits, skirts and dresses layered with jeans.

For men, Edited sees the denim trucker as a trend to watch as ’90s grunge inspiration picks up momentum. “We’ve seen an 8 percent increase in new styles in the U.S. mass market over the past three months compared to last year,” Marci said. “We can expect to see this style updated with stone and acid washes as a nod to the nostalgic runway influences.”

Moylan pointed out that the ’80s, in particular, have been a bottomless well of inspiration for designers. “There are a lot of potential elements to take away without looking like you came from an episode of Dynasty,” she said. “We’ll continue to see trends like strong tailoring, puff sleeves, metallics and embellishment for seasons to come.”

And tapping the fashion history books for inspiration doesn’t mean fashion has dried up. As a generational expert who works with large brands targeting the 80-million-plus millennial cohort, Abramson says nostalgia is the trend. “I will go out on a limb and say that I think the lack of creativity might actually lie more with the millennials than the brands,” she said. “It seems that the millennial generation sometimes lacks imagination and tends to rely more heavily on past events [and] experiences rather than taking the risk to create new experiences on their own.”

With that theory in mind, Abramson says the latest generational studies show millennials are increasingly “risk averse,” which may be one reason why they’re not creating their own fashion trends. For instance, millennials claim they appreciate products and services that are “experiential” but Abramson wonders whether that’s true or just an answer served up by the media and millennial influencers.

The plethora of immersive experiences or so-called “museums” like San Francisco’s Museum of Ice Cream—filled with ball pits and swings—certainly speaks to the millennial’s inner child. However, these manufactured environments often form the backdrop for highly stylized fashion Instagram posts—far from the authentic and heritage values millennials also claim to favor.

“Will it be discovered that this generation’s preoccupation with the lives of previous generations will actually inhibit future disruption and innovation in the marketplace? Only time will tell,” Abramson said.

Nostalgia’s future

Going forward, Edited’s Marci says nostalgic trends are also ideal for targeting the teen and tween market, where brands can easily merchandise references from the past into fun festival stories. Plus, these so-called nostalgia trends—be it bike shorts or color denim—feel brand new to that demographic.

In her consultancy work for brands, Denim Dudes founder Amy Leverton says she tries to look at nostalgic fashion through the lens of a consumer who didn’t live through the trend the first time around. She urges brands to do the same in order to add modern sensibility—like comfort and stretch—to throwback-inspired styling.

In her trend reports for Kingpins, Leverton forecasts more nostalgia for Fall/Winter 2019-2020, but this time with glitzy style references from dynamic duos of the late ’90s and early 2000s, including Victoria and David Beckham during their “Posh and Becks” era, and Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton. Low-rise jeans, bling, sexy Italian denim fashion and logos are on the horizon.

Similarly, WGSN forecasts ’90s nostalgia to bleed into Y2K with rave culture driving streetwear trends, including denim blinged out with crystal embellishment, contrast stitches, excessive exposed zippers, D-rings, straps and belts.

In the coming seasons, Moylan expects to see designers reach further back into their archives for inspiration. “While minimalism never quite disappeared, we are expanding on the conversation,” she said. “For example, minimal ’70s looks add a point of difference with a retro color palette that entices the customer. Items are shifting back to streamlined staples and we are increasingly seeing design elements like color or material drive sales.”

And as education about self-care and mental health gains importance, there might be deeper meaning to why nostalgia strikes a chord at retail. “Remembering these times gone by brings about a strong emotional reaction with measurable positive benefits,” Abramson said. “Emotion-based memories, such as those linked to music or clothing, have been reported to be more deeply ingrained than non-emotion-based memories.

“This is why nostalgia is here to stay,” she concluded.