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How Nostalgia Changed Fashion

By: Shreya Karnik

Y2K Aesthetic retrieved from Tumblr

Nostalgia dominates our senses; when we pass by bakeries and smell the aroma of freshly baked cookies, we think back to our childhoods. Or, when we watch movies like Pulp Fiction, we’re transported into a world of our parents’ youth. Similarly, we recycle fashion trend after fashion trend from the 20th-century and pass it off as ‘vintage’ and ‘cool’ in the name of nostalgia. All while failing to create trends of our own that dominate the media space for more than 14 months. Sure, we had soap brows in 2020 and vsco girls in 2019, but neither of these trends that were seemingly created in the 21st-century were able to stick around. Instead, we returned to clothing and hairstyle trends from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Pulling out clothing from our mothers’ closets in an attempt to recreate the old look of slip dresses and mini skirts and capture the same innocent memory of the young adults at the time. But this all begs the question, why are we unable to create our own modern trends that actually last, and how does nostalgia impact that?

Revivals seem to be all too commonplace; when we long for a past immersed with our own sense of nostalgia, we perpetuate the cyclical nature of nostalgia itself, looking back on people who were also looking back, all pining for the golden age that was supposed to have preceded them. Our romance with nostalgia began in ancient Greece, where they decided that memory was a prerequisite of human thought. The Greeks “believed that the universe went through repeating stages of transformation similar to those found in the "wheel of time" of Hinduism and Buddhism.” The idea around memory in Greece was seemingly one of the most critical building blocks of the Romantic movement and future discourse surrounding recycled clothing. The idea progressed to realize that memory was inevitably linked to a sense of loss. Hence, the rise of nostalgia and the cyclical nature of fashion. As modernity propels us further into the future, never has fashion moved alongside it, the ephemerality of both equally infuriating and thought-provoking. As fashion designers use the past as a muse, shaping it to fit the future by often designing a season in advance, it can be said that they force the past and future to converge, ultimately building a present based off of nostalgic instinct.

Emma Chamberlain Y2K Aesthetic Edit retrieved from Tumblr

Vintage clothing reverberates the same imagined nostalgia that our fashion industry is striving to create. Since the act of purchasing and adorning ourselves in vintage clothing is one that requires our own participation and is an act that involves the exclusion of other styles of dress, it is hard to assert that it is a strictly involuntary memory, but rather a recreation of past events. While you buy vintage clothing, you're not remembering something from your own past but instead taking a step into the collective memory. Such a memory is more readily available in the modern digital age, hence our inclination to bring back trends from the past. Whether you choose to wear a sweater that once belonged to your mother when she was your age, or, as a vintage fan, wear a thrifted Chanel bag from the 80s you found on ThredUp, you are equally stepping into a past that did not and could not have possibly included you, invoking the same sense of nostalgia. Hence, you are not remembering your own past, but an imagined past, one that you were never part of but feel familiar with all the same due to the constant reproduction of.

Nostalgia allows the vintage and reemerging y2k aesthetics to be employed, bringing back some of the most significant trends and holding onto the past while simultaneously remolding it in an image of the future. In vintage clothing, past, present and future seem to converge in a manner that incarnates each element in equal measure while concurrently not embodying any of them. Just as fashion is supposed to, it effectively represents the absolute present. However, as fashion is also known to do, it's usually made a cycle ahead, when the future is still tentative and open to the domination of new trends. When we bring back fashion trends in a way that's suited to modernity, the convoluted logic of the fashion industry and its creation of the future gets even further abstracted. The past is redesigned to fit a present that anticipates our nostalgia and even invokes it by bringing back trends. We have seen how this penchant for nostalgia in contemporary culture has been accused of moving so far from historicity that it risks losing all meaning. Some even go as far as to say it displaces us in our own time in history.

Nietzche puts it best in his principle of eternal recurrence, the idea that “existence recurs in an infinite cycle as energy and matter transform over time.” Although an outright connection was never made to art or fashion, it is an interesting concept that correlates precisely to the cyclical nature of nostalgic and capitalistic fashion. Essentially Nietzsche conveys in this philosophy that if our media and culture is like flipping a coin, the outcome will be repeated inevitably, much like the trends that we have seen resurfaced time and time again. Perhaps similarly, we are bound to endlessly reiterate the same aesthetics, new vintage being the proof that our world is not one of boundless ingenuity, but rather one where nostalgia ties us firmly in place in a world of yes, inevitable and constant flux, but also, one that due to our systems in place, recycles itself.

Written by Co-Editor in Chief Shreya Karnik

Originally Published November 14, 2021

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