This article has been updated for accuracy.
As spring wades into summer, the retail industry again buzzes with new collections and styles. Trendy stores like Abercrombie and Pacsun display their latest arrivals, hoping to catch the eye of Gen Z and young Millennial shoppers revamping their closets for the warmer months. Despite the crickets in my bank account, it’s still fun to window shop and internet browse.
Last Thursday afternoon, I decided to camp out at the dining room table with my laptop and an abundance of free time that traditionally comes with the return of hometown boredom. As I surfed through Urban Outfitters’s trendiest summer pieces, my mother, in true mom fashion, drifted over my shoulder for a “subtle” glance at my computer screen. At the time, my cursor hovered over a low-waisted, army-green pair of camouflage cargo pants. The pants were a unique item, and though I haven’t shown interest in such a style before, I felt drawn to the piece. Intrigued, I turned around and asked my mom what she thought. Without saying a word, my mom reached for her phone and pulled up a photo of me from 2005, wearing almost identical pants. We laughed about how my 3-year-old self rocked a clothing item now meant for teenagers in 2022. The pants are just one example of how fashion from the early 2000s is experiencing a spirited revival among young adults today.
From low-waisted jeans to cargo pants to babydoll tees, decades-old styles are sprinkled throughout this year’s summer collections. I wouldn’t be surprised if a piece at Hollister appeared in an old Disney Channel rerun of “Hannah Montana.” Professor Carolyn Mair, Behavioral Psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion, offers an explanation as to why the resurgence of these styles is taking over the young adult clothing market.
“We cannot separate clothing from the self and identity because what we wear is an outward display of our self and our identity,” Mair wrote in her book. “When we try on new clothing, we can see ourselves as a different person and take on a new identity and mood.” According to Mair, clothing has the ability to change how we perceive ourselves. Perhaps, fashion changes how we feel about the world around us, as well.
“We can imbue our clothing with symbolic meaning to influence how we feel and even…how we think,” Mair wrote. “(Social psychologists) Adam and Galinsky argue that the experience of wearing clothes triggers associated abstract concepts and their symbolic meanings, causing the wearer to ‘embody’ the clothing and its symbolic meaning. In doing so, the worn clothing influences the wearer’s psychological processes by activating associated abstract concepts through its symbolic meaning.”
Imagine your favorite T-shirt or a pair of lucky socks. The memories and associations you feel are embedded into their very fabric. Mair describes this feeling of being attached to material objects as a manifestation of identity. Therefore, clothing and styles from the early 2000s may embody safety and simplicity for this generation of young adults.
Although we have grown accustomed to living with a pandemic, fearing gun violence and fighting for human rights in the midst of economic uncertainty is no easy task. With the instability of the past two years, I doubt this generation’s retreat to elements of their childhood wardrobes is coincidental. The return of spaghetti-strap slip dresses and half-inch sandal heels may foster a sense of childlike security for Gen Zs and young Millennials today. Who wouldn’t take comfort in the nostalgia of old styles whilst facing such daunting, modern obstacles?
Journalist Helen Barrett wrote about the resurgence of ’90s trends in her 2020 pandemic-era article, “Cyclical fashion: the attraction of Y2K innocence.”
Barrett describes the ’90s as “the last moments before 9/11 and the financial crash — events that traumatised a generation and priced them out of a stake in the future.”
Barrett suggests 2020’s appeal for pre-Y2K styles is an attempt to live in an existence before pandemics and financial struggles and before we were chronically online and inundated with information overload. In her article, Barrett asks Geraldine Wharry, a fashion trend forecaster, why the ’90s styles are making such a comeback.
“It is a subconscious craving for (a time before 9/11 and the financial crash),” Wharry said. “There is also a lot of Y2K gear populating on Depop, eBay and idling in parental wardrobes, for example. Whereas good ’70s and ’80s stuff is super-expensive and hard to find,” said Barrett.
Barrett and Wharry also mention an interesting financial element of the ’90s-style resurgence in 2020. Today, it’s easier and cheaper to find items from the early 2000s — thrift stores and second-hand resale outlets are popular shopping spots of this generation, which also helps to combat the fast-fashion industry’s acceleration of the climate crisis. With a potential economic recession brewing, it’s logical to want clothes that are inexpensive, trendy and better for the planet than newer, high-turnover pieces.
As a budding adult and first-year college student, I can understand the appeal of childhood memories. When I was wearing the previously mentioned camouflage cargo pants at 3 years old, the smile on my face came easy — all I had to worry about was remembering to record the latest episode of “Sesame Street.” I don’t want to admit that I might be chasing the ignorant bliss of a toddler with my present-day wardrobe choices, but I can’t deny that nostalgia is a powerful drug. Wistful sentiments of an easier life that seep through a cropped cardigan and flared yoga pants just make everything seem like it’s going to be okay.
It’s not my intention to promote an escapist attitude in the face of the world’s challenges. As the nation’s next leaders, it’s our responsibility to solve these problems and foster change for the future. In “Fashion” an article from the peer-reviewed Textile History Journal, Christopher Breward describes fashion as “an active agent of change. It is a bounded thing, fixed and experienced in space — an amalgamation of textiles and seams, an interface between the body and its environment.”
We interact with our identity, subconscious emotions and environment through our clothing. It has the power to affect how we feel and the way in which we perceive the world. Therefore, fashion in itself is an element of change. Though it may feel safe and comfortable to return to the styles of our past, the world faced adversity in our childhoods as well. Just because we don’t remember a problematic life at three years old, doesn’t mean our parents weren’t dealing with the banking crisis and corrupt politicians.
Nostalgia is just a romanticized Taylor Swift song, and we are the teenage girls playing “Fearless” on repeat — which, I’ll admit, is very on-brand for our stylistic return to the early 2000s. But we, in fact, are not fearless when it comes to the hardships of this world. And that’s okay to admit. Let’s push forward anyway.
Statement Columnist Reese Martin can be reached at [email protected].