The year may be 2022, but fashion is stuck in the ’90s.
Sourcing design inspiration from past decades is a time-honored tradition in fashion, but the prevalence of commercial ’90s fashion in the market—from wide-leg jeans and checkerboard prints, to bucket hats, plastic rings and platform flip-flops—is nearly a complete do-over of the decade, albeit through a decidedly Gen Z lens.
Nostalgia for ’90s television series like “Friends,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Nanny”—along with social media accounts dedicated to the shows’ fashion—is driving this trend. The pandemic, and months of uninterrupted time spent binge-watching ’90s series on Hulu, Netflix, HBOMax and other streaming sites resulted in a visual masterclass of how to dress like a ’90s kids.
The shows’ simple yet farfetched plot lines were a refuge from an otherwise complicated and uncertain period. Television in the ’90s rarely strayed from proven formulas spanning teenage melodrama (“Blossom” and “Saved by the Bell”) and young professionals navigating careers and love with a laugh track (“Living Single” and “Martin”), to wild cards disrupting stuffy upper-class families (Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Fran Drescher in “The Nanny”).
The shows’ wardrobes, however, were key to the development of characters that have left an indelible mark on pop culture and continue to influence fashion trends. From Blossom’s signature hats to Bayside High’s penchant for bleached denim and pastels, here’s a look back at the ’90s television series and characters that might inspire the next big throwback trend.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Before the slap that was felt around the world, Will Smith played a character whose East Coast-meets-West Coast look in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” laid the groundwork for the color blocking, matching track suits and varsity-inspired insignias that are trending right now. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, Smith found himself with a show wardrobe that essentially was an amped-up version of his own—cropped sports tees and baggy denim overalls (worn with just one strap) et al. Smith’s playful style was a sharp contrast to cousin Carlton Bank’s buttoned-up old-money look, including V-neck sweater vests, cardigans and madras.
The women on the show sported a style all their own. Hilary Banks, an underrated TV fashionista, wore square necklines, cutout bodycon dresses and preppy pleated skirts before the first Gen Zer was ever born, while younger sister Ashley Banks became the poster child for navel-baring crop tops and classic denim.
She had style and she had flair—Fran Fine, played by Fran Drescher from 1993-1999, brought ’80s excess into the ’90s in a package that only a native Queens girl could pull off. Before Carrie Bradshaw ever entered the pop culture scene, Nanny Fine rocked big hair, mismatched shoes and a suspiciously pricey designer wardrobe for a gal down on her luck. She routinely took to the small screen in fashion that Gen Z swoons over, including psychedelic prints, mini-skirts, coordinating sets and fur- and feather-trimmed knits.
In Living Color
“In Living Color,” the late-night variety show that rivaled “Saturday Night Live,” introduced the public to the comedic talent of Jamie Foxx, Jim Carey, the Wayans family and more. Its dance troupe, The Fly Girls, however, was not just responsible for the show’s boldest sartorial moments—but also became the “big break” for multi-hyphenate superstar Jennifer Lopez.
Dressed each week in similar (but never the same) bustier tops, bodysuits, ribbed knits, cutoff shorts, combat boots and sneakers, The Fly Girls forged the tough-yet-sexy look Gen Z-ers try to emulate during TikTok thrifting hauls.
Boy Meets World
The young cast of “Boy Meets World” personified the mundane suburban style of middle-class teenage boys in the ’90s. Flannel shirts layered over basic tees worn with baggy light-wash jeans was de rigueur for characters Corey, Shawn and Eric, each sporting a bowl haircut. Their version of light grunge resonates with American Eagle and Aeropostale, which are bulking up their collections with looser denim fits.
Meanwhile, Topanga’s eclectic style fits right in with the current demand for vintage and thrifted finds. Though her style evolved during seven seasons, Topanga’s initial bohemian look of long-sleeve lace and floral empire-waist dresses, choker necklaces, tights and combat boots is a page right out today’s Free People look book.
From Gina’s tailored suits to Sheneneh’s outlandish ensembles, “Martin,” the five-season sitcom starring comedian Martin Lawrence as a radio station talk host, used fashion for character building and as comedic costuming. The show’s men’s fashion, however, stayed true to ’90s trends rekindled by the 2020 Michael Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance,” including vests, baseball jerseys, boxy suiting and pleated trousers.
Beverly Hills, 90210
Though played by a cast of mostly adult actors, classic teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210” and its aspirational fashion were etched into teen psyches during the early ’90s. The Californian glow-up of Midwestern twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh (played by Shannon Doherty and Jason Priestley) continues to be a blueprint in how to achieve a So-Cal cool look consisting of Levi’s 501 jeans, slim-fitting T-shirts and small-frame sunglasses.
Meanwhile, the shoulder-skimming bodysuits, mini dresses and headbands worn by well-heeled characters Kelly Taylor and Donna Martin from a look emulated by ‘It’ girls today.
Those some of the edgier plot lines of “Blossom” from drug abuse to dieting and gun safety have not aged well, the show’s quirky wardrobe is a thrift shopper’s dream mood board. The coming-of-age sitcom about a clever teenage girl named Blossom Russo was the source of iconic ’90s girls’ trends like floppy hats (often adorned with a silk flower), printed overalls and men’s wear-inspired looks. It also inspired a generation of boys to rock tank tops and flannel shirts a la Blossom’s hunky brother played by Joey Lawrence.
While many hope some of the show’s trends will never see the light of day again—like kneepads as accessories—the characters’ free-spirited, individualist approach to fashion is something to be admired.
Before there was “Friends,” there was “Living Single,” the Fox sitcom that followed the trials, tribulations and comedic hijinks of single roommates and friends living in Brooklyn and starring an all-Black cast, including Queen Latifah. While each character had a signature look—Kim Coles’ character Synclaire rocked velvet printed baby doll dresses and Terrence C. Carson’s character Kyle knew how to accessorize a three-piece suit—Regine, played by Kim Fields, was the show’s sartorial standout. Her boldly printed skirt suits and matching earring and necklaces are right in line with Gen Z’s penchant for coordinating sets.
Saved By the Bell
The lighter, more daytime-friendly version of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” the NBC teen sitcom “Saved by the Bell” also delivered more playful and accessible fashion trends. True to form, the cast wore ’90s-era staples like 501 jeans, high-waisted cutoff shorts and cropped jean jackets during its initial four-season run, as well as varsity jacket and cheerleading uniforms archetypal of American high schoolers. But as an early ’90s show, “Saved by the Bell” also benefited from the bright pastel and neon hues carried over from the late ’80s.