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Reinvention and restlessness, fashion in the 90s

By Jackie Mallon

14 May 2021

Ah, the 90s. The decade belongs to a whole other century, indeed millennium. Its image is tight and ripe for exploration unlike the first two decades of the new millennium which have been a bit messy and hard to pin down. Those of us who were adults then look back on the decade with nostalgia; those who are discovering it for the first time, are perhaps surprised how much the codes of Martin Margiela or Helmut Lang have exerted an influence on them, without their even knowing it.

The 90s was a decade of powerful and competing trends. It started with a rejection of 80s excess as minimalism became the new luxury. Calvin Klein’s slip dresses floated down the runway in New York while in Milan Jil Sander’s purity of line and controlled palette began a quiet revolution long before Phoebe Philo, a Sander successor in subtle subversion, had even entered fashion school. It ended with technology inserting itself into fashion like never before as Helmut Lang live-streamed his collection, and fear of Y2K propelled circuit board patterns on clothing while Alexander McQueen presented for fall/winter ’99 a molded body suit lit up with LED lights for his new role at Givenchy.

In new book, Reinvention and Restlessness; Fashion in the 90s, Colleen Hill, curator of costume at the Museum at FIT, details the opposing movements that make the decade so appealing. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, was championing gender fluidity in floral dresses while breaking ground in the grunge scene while Marc Jacobs, now an advocate for non-binary fashion, was fired for his 1993 grunge-inspired collection as designer of Perry Ellis.

The powerful influence of the 90s on fashion today

When Cher, the entitled and stylish Beverly Hills teen in the 1995 movie Clueless, chose her outfit each morning by tapping a digital screen, she preempted how we do our online shopping, a generation later. In 1999, exploring alternative ways of presenting fashion––something which continues to fascinate contemporary designers today––Alexander McQueen strapped model Shalom Harlow to a turntable and, like a damsel tied to the railway tracks in a silent movie, she swooned as a robot spray painted her white dress with jets of yellow and black.

Vivienne Westwood platforms 1993

Utilitarian fashion was minimalism’s first cousin and Prada nylon backpacks with the now ubiquitous triangle logo were launched. The waif emerged as the ideal fashion body type with its figurehead, Kate Moss. But unorthodox and true to her punk roots, Vivienne Westwood opened the decade with her corset-filled Portrait Collection inspired by 18th century paintings by French Rococo artist François Boucher and her runways featured voluptuous heaving bosoms, bloomers, bustles, and towering platform shoes that landed supermodel Naomi Campbell on her derrière.

The decade also saw the rise of fashion studies and Central St Martins in London seemed to spit out megastars with each graduating year: Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Stella McCartney, and Hussein Chalayan who buried his garments, then unearthed them. Deconstruction reigned and magazines like Dazed & Confused gave the decade’s do-it-yourself aesthetic a platform within its pages. The almost-bankrupt house of Gucci hired Tom Ford as its creative director in 1994 heralding a highly glamorous and successful run for the house that sits in distinct opposition to the grandma chic favored by its current inhabitant, Alessandro Michele.

Sustainability was not yet a buzzword of the fashion industry but upcycling was already a fundamental feature of Martin Margiela’s aesthetic, and singer Bjork, muse to many designers of the 90s and beyond, wore his sweater made of intact army socks. Globalism was an exciting concept in the 90s and the world seemed small and brim full with infinite inspiration. Designers embarked on seasonal inspiration trips bringing back hauls from which to design, a practice which would lead to accusations of cultural appropriation today.

Reinvention and Restlessness; Fashion in the 90s by Colleen Hill is published by Rizzoli with plans for an accompanying exhibit to be held in the fall at the Museum at FIT.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry

Header image author’s own. Vivienne Westwood platforms from 1993 photo by Daniel Milner Wikimedia Commons