Fashion Favourites – Why We Look to the Past for Fashion Inspiration

Rachel reflects on the long-held tendency to look to the past for fashion inspiration

Today more than ever, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define what epitomises the current styles and fashion trends. In the past, this easily done; the 20s had drop-waist flapper glamour, the 50s had poodle skirts, and flannels and mom jeans dominated the 90s. What images will the 2020s conjure up in the cultural memory? Is the 2020s fashionista dressed in baggy jeans and a Skims top with a slick back bun? Has she paired Sambas with flare leggings and a football jersey? One thing’s for sure: fashion is cyclical. All of the hot pieces and styles we see today have their roots in another time.

Volta
Source: Volta.

Some have suggested that our tendency to emulate past looks is a nostalgic impulse. Clothing, like songs and films can be associated with good memories and a romanticised bygone era. Designers are able capitalise on habit-dependent consumers in going back to old classics, and generally do so in a 20-year cycle. The reason for this may lie in the nostalgia factor, as fashionable 20-somethings seek to emulate the looks they admired growing up and the cozy feelings associated with their childhood. In this way, a look deemed ‘retro lame’ might suddenly be deemed cool and fashionable- as long as enough time has passed.

There can also be a lot of comfort in the familiarity of items that were once worn and this can tap into our sense of belonging. It can be a great way to reignite the connection with our past selves and the clothes we used to love when we were younger- certain trends have a strong impact over us when, as if out of nowhere, they return to our lives. It has been claimed that modern clothing has turned into a “slideshow of sentimentality” linking the past to the present.

Popular culture of the moment can have a huge influence over fashion trends and can bring back styles from decades gone by. The small 80s revival seen after the release of Stranger Things is a prime example, prompting a revival of loud shirts and baggy trousers. Whilst some picked up 80s culture for Halloween, others integrated the looks directly into their everyday wardrobes. Of course, this isn’t a direct emulation of 80s fashion, reflecting a rose-tinted version of the past. Friends is another key source of retro fashion inspo, with consumers turning again and again to the classic Rachel haircut or Phoebe’s boho style. There is something nice about taking vintage fashion inspiration from the media that surrounds us and modernising the looks in a modern context.

Source: Getty Images.
Source: Everett Collection.

 

There might be more pragmatic concerns at play, too, as consumers push for more sustainable fashion choices. People are more than happy to scour vintage and charity shops to find a retro designer jumper or a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans in good condition. This is not to say that the way people wear items from the past is a case of mere duplication; for example, vintage shoppers continue to lean on the much-loved combination of low waisted jeans and UGG boots, but lose some of the loud colour and pattern choices of the 2000s. There is a culture developing around trying to preserve your clothes- if they have suffered from a little wear and tear, is there anything that can be done to repair them? With this fast-fashion consciousness in mind, it has also become increasingly important for fashion designers both high-end and high-street to try and create timeless and versatile items that people will continue to want to come back to time and time again. These items are designed to last and if the shopper is happy with their purchase, they are more likely to trust the brand in the future and return their service. However, as it’s the simple truth that most consumers and fast fashion brands don’t have the best interest of the planet at heart. Even as past styles become popular, the irony is that most people won’t repair their worn clothes, or put in the effort to trawl through rails and rails of old junk to find that one iconic piece. Fashion retailers, keeping this in mind, create identical items to the ones that were popular twenty years ago.

Source: Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

Another key influence on what is considered fashionable is the state of the economy! Economist George Taylor theorised the ‘Hemline Index’, noting that in a period of economic downturn, hemlines drop, as consumers opt for more mature, conservative clothing choices. Meanwhile, Leonard Lauder’s ‘Lipstick Index’ sees a rise in the sales of affordable luxuries in periods of economic downturns. This may be evidenced by the glitzy rhinestone and velour styles seen in and around the 2008 economic crisis- people were able to splash cash on tracksuits, slippers, and wallets, but waited for the market to stabilise before splurging on fine jewellery or designer handbags.

I’ve shown that people enjoy taking inspiration from the past when deciding what to wear and how they want to present themselves to the world. There have been an array of reasons for this, one being the nostalgic feeling it can give a person. People associate certain items of clothing with good memories of the past and this can end up connecting the past to the present. Popular culture can also have an impact on why people choose to look to the past for inspiration as they may want to emulate their icons. People also look to reuse past styles in attempts to move away from toxic fast-fashion industries, or to reflect a certain economic cultural mindset shift. I wonder if in twenty, thirty, forty years time, younger generations will look back at the fashion trends of the 2020s and take inspiration from them?

 

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