When the 1960s ended, my mom put them in a box. Twenty years later, pop culture was saturated with Summer of Love retrospectives, neo-hippie jam bands, mod-influenced Britpop, and The Wonder Years. I was 15, and the ’60s were back. My family didn’t have money for new clothes, but I had the box in the back of my parents’ closet full of fringed suede jackets, houndstooth rompers, and psychedelic mini dresses. My mother thought it was adorable. While I wore her paisley nehru dress, she told me about ironing her hair (like with a regular clothes iron) and seeing The Who smash their guitars on stage.
This was the extent of her reaction to the ’60s revival: It was fun to watch and inspired some nostalgia. She’d never have worn any of it herself. Time had transformed her own clothes into costumes.
I remember wondering what the back of my closet would look like when I was an ancient 40-something. Now that I am one, I can tell you: It looks a lot like the front of my closet. The ’90s are back, and yet I feel like fashion scholar Jessica Glasscock, who jokes with me that while her “ass has vetoed” some things, she “feels no discontinuity as these styles come back.” An informal social media survey suggests we’re not alone. When I asked my peers how they felt about the revival, responses were prolific. Though the representation was broad (white women and women of color, queer and straight, urban, rural, and suburban), there was a common thread. We knew the revival was inevitable, but it seems many Gen X women lack the comfortable distance from the past our mothers had. And this is no accident.
A lot of ’90s fashion was about disrupting progress narratives and challenging tidy chronologies. And now in middle age, Gen X women literally haven’t achieved the progress the previous generation did. It makes sense that our feelings about the sartorial return of the ’90s would be complicated. Yet through these conversations, I’ve come to think that the very styles that made us hard to categorize as young people could be the foundation for a new approach to middle age.
Our old clothes failed to become costumes. In fact, some of them are still in circulation, and we’re selectively joining in the revival. Forty-eight-year-old writer Lara B. Sharp told me, “I’m wearing the same black leather pants and the same band T-shirt that I wore in the ’90s. Not ‘the same kind’ — the actual same exact pieces of clothes.” When I was impressed her pants still fit, she quipped: “I just tuck my sagging breasts into the waistband.” Other women said they’re excited to see currant lipstick, crushed velvet, and “sensible shoes” back in stores. It’s fun, but it’s also confusing. After all, I’m 44 — shouldn’t I have one upcoming event where engineer boots would be inappropriate?
We’re referred to as the “invisible” middle-children between boomers and millennials. There is a lack of consensus about who we even are (were we born between 1961 and 1979? 1965 and 1985?). My own students, most of whom are in their late teens and early 20s, can recount in enthusiastic detail which of the era’s styles they like best, whether it’s rave, grunge, or riot grrrl, anti-fashion or the bright “tacky ’90s.” Yet, when I said I was writing an article about Gen X women’s reactions to the revival, one student earnestly asked me, “Which one is Gen X?”
If you’ve read recent articles about Gen X women, they were probably about how we have less financial stability than our parents, despite being more educated and working longer hours; we’re being squeezed out of the workplace; the beauty industry overlooks us; and we feel like life has passed us by. All of this suggests a group of people who somehow dropped out of their own story. When my student asked, “Which one is Gen X?” I wanted to respond, “The one your classmates are dressed as. Floral dresses with baggy sweaters, beanies, and work boots? That was us.” I didn’t say that. Because we wore those clothes precisely to avoid becoming an easily legible demographic.
Nobody I knew wanted anything to do with our label. It wasn’t just that it felt like a focus group we never signed up for; it also felt exclusionary. Close your eyes and picture a generic baby boomer. If you don’t see a straight white man, I’d be very surprised. If you have any picture of Gen X, it’s probably still pretty white. Black and Latinx street styles were massive influences on ’90s fashion — and its revival (remember Cardi B and Bruno Mars at the Grammys?), but those looks are rarely included as part of the Generation X story. Our cohort is an odd one, though, because it also resisted categorization. How do you describe a generation defined by its alienation from mainstream culture?
Fashion in the ’90s was hard to define, too. Hip-hop was doing bright patterns, color blocks, and oversized denim. High-end designers were doing minimalism, deconstruction, and decayed Victoriana. For midrange brands, meanwhile, logos became the whole look. However, most of the women I talked to referenced a particular subcultural style that’s come to represent “alienated” Gen X. It was a look that combined influences from third-wave feminism and queer fashion with working-class explorations of thrift stores and blue-collar functional dress.
According to Heike Jenss, valuing vintage clothes for their “datedness” is a 20th-century phenomenon linked to the rise of youth culture. Perhaps in reaction to their own commodification, baby boomers first made clothes that were visibly “old” a viable style option. And then the ’90s began with a ’60s revival, but our interest in old things pushed further. We wore vintage in the context of rising income disparity and a new globalized mass culture fueled by neoliberalism. There were piles of castoffs to play with, but what felt like limited options for moving forward. In a previous essay, I used the phrase “making fun of fashion” to describe “the simultaneous sense of playfulness, irony, and ambivalence that characterized our responses to fashion, identity, and mass culture.” There was no eBay or Etsy, only secondhand stores where ’70s bell bottoms, ’50s circle skirts, and ’80s sweaters might be jumbled together with World War II-era uniforms. And every style we created from cheap leftovers was co-opted and sold back to us at higher price. In this context, the whole idea of fashion as chronological, and a way to express both your “true self” and your place in the zeitgeist, starts to seem absurd.
So we played with what clothes mean — we “made fun” of them. A friend who grew up in Oregon and now lives in New York City describes wearing “fishnets paired with cutoff military pants, bulky boots, a pleather bustier, and a men’s cardigan from 1962. Oh, and, of course, a choker.” Using style as a form of rebellion led to Gen X being dismissed as apolitical slackers. But that judgment isn’t quite fair. By mixing and matching all of these pieces from different times in history, and by confusing gender, sexuality, class, etc. codes, we were enacting the breakdown of progress narratives that fuel American mythology. That’s not nothing. And it wasn’t limited to the style described here. For example, hip-hop style looked different, but the re-appropriation of “preppy” brands like Tommy Hilfiger and (implicitly white) working-class brands like Timberland also unraveled histories that linked particular styles (and values) to certain bodies, times, and places.
According to Glasscock, the fashion industry was paying attention to all of it. She argues that the 1990s were “the specific moment that [the industry] absorbed ‘cool style’ associated with youth, which had been building since the immediate post-WWII period, into its own language of dress.” While there had been pieces or collections that were influenced by subcultural style (like Yves Saint Laurent’s infamous “Beat Collection”), “It didn’t infect the whole system in the same way.”
In her article on Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), Glasscock concludes by saying, “The reason the clothes in that film haven’t aged a day is that Clark’s artistic eye assembled the first batch of influencers. Skaters, stylists, club promoters, alternative shopgirls, and urban high school kids have since taken over fashion.” Building on this, historically, discussions of youth subcultural style have included girls as footnotes or adjuncts to the main story (e.g., pachucas, Teddy girls, and sidelined punk women). Ironically, in the ’90s, not only was alternative-girl style central, it became “normal” so quickly that, apparently, history forgot anyone was responsible for it. This is one reason that, for many of us, the revival feels sweet, but also like we’re still living in a story we helped write but never starred in.
Conversations with Gen X women brought up again and again the link between our middle age and that youthful “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” spirit. The same friend who wore the fishnets and army cutoffs explained, “When I was a kid… I felt like society didn’t exist to boost me up or protect me or my friends… It existed to oppress the disenfranchised and boost up evil corporations.” She saw herself as “an artistic, liberal, low-income nobody who felt passionately about human and civil rights but who also felt helpless to effect any kind of meaningful change… so I might as well create a life that could exist inside being poor.”
Eventually she “cut a deal with ‘the man’” for stability, “but even with what should be considered a good salary, I was living paycheck to paycheck.” At 42, she feels “like a fake adult much of the time. And the world around me seems even more unstable… The same social injustices continue to drive a wedge through ideologies… It’s the same in so many ways. Only I’m older and secondhand clothing wears out faster than it did in high school.” Now, she reflects, “I guess in a way I feel like I was right in my angsty youth to feel like everything is sort of pointless.” I’ve had versions of this conversation so many times, with so many women. They’re frustrated that boomers still hold the reins of power. They doubt they’ll pay off their student loans in time to send their own kids to school. The ’90s came back right on schedule. But not only did we upend the timeline 25 years ago, not enough has changed for the past to feel new.
If our reflections sound grim, well… we were never known for our optimism. But there is a productive side to all this. Most writing about fashion revivals assumes two things: That they are primarily about the young people who rediscover old styles, and that they are a form of nostalgia or escapism. These perspective are valid, but incomplete. The women I talked to brought up nostalgia only as a side note. For the most part, they accepted, even welcomed, their age. Dawn Lee Tu said, “I grew up with particular styles in San Francisco that are… incredibly difficult to wear. I giggle every time I see a younger person try to wear [them] because it brings me back to my awkward teen years.” Her current look incorporates ’90s iconoclasm (her “purple and blue hair”) in a more comfortable way, because she knows herself better.
The “kids” are also, obviously, important to the revival. They’re the ones bringing it back. And Gen X women want them to enjoy this moment and use it to generate their own meanings. The trouble is, we know we’re middle-aged, and we know what that’s supposed to mean, but in our ideals and our challenges, we have more in common with millennials than boomers.
There’s another way of understanding revivals: as a form of historical research. I suspect this is rarely discussed because fashion’s connection to youth and femininity makes us overlook it as a form of knowledge and politics. If we re-imagine this fashion revival as an inquiry into the past, examining what it means to wear the ’90s then and now becomes a critical conversation. The fact that our clothes never became costumes can be an asset, helping us analyze how we left the gate open for some bad stuff to creep in, and how we did some things right without recognition. Most importantly, this knowledge can help us dismantle boundaries within and among generations.
In fact, this conversation is already happening. #MeToo, led by Gen X women, became an intergenerational movement. #NeverAgain, organized by high school students, is gaining strength from older cohorts. When we pay attention to history, it turns out a lot of things that seem natural and unshakeable in our time are actually just inventions of earlier generations. Among these is the very idea of the “generation gap,” which was developed in — you guessed it — the 1960s. Maybe that’s one more outdated narrative we can throw out.
The box in the back of my mom’s closet definitely appealed to my longing for a party I missed. But it also built a bridge between my mom and me. The ’90s revival might be even less about nostalgia. Gen X women are finding their place in the current story, and instead of generational opposition, the look of the 2020s might just be collaboration.