“Do you remember the first time?” crowed Jarvis Cocker back in 1994. If the answer is yes, you may have wanted to forget the nineties ever happened – dodgy denim, Britpop tracksuits and bucket hats all ensured the decade ingrained itself as the era that style forgot.
Despite this unceremonious assessment, the nineties resurgence has hit full throttle this season. If this thought fills you with more dread than the final scene of Se7en, fear not. They say hindsight is 20:20, and luckily, that means we’re now able to see through the ‘eclectic’ clobber and dodgy hairstyles to pick the pearls of wisdom that sat buried under khaki cut-offs and dungarees.
Below we’ve highlighted five nineties trends that are making a welcome comeback, and created a sensible guide on how to wear them without looking like you’re an extra in a B*Witched’s ‘C’est La Vie’ video remake. “Uh oh,” indeed.
Grunge Cleans Up Its Act
“Grunge is both an adjective and a noun, and has been kicked around in rock ‘n’ roll for decades until it defined a generation,” wrote grunge expert (and Kurt Cobain biographer) Charles R. Cross. But for something so uniquely versatile and widespread in linguistic terms, until recently grunge was shorthand for grubby when it came to clothes.
For 2017, the subculture is cleaning up its act. Alongside ripped denim and flappy flannel shirts, neater alternatives are also taking centre stage, adopted by contemporary hip-hop stars like Lil Yachty, Kanye West and Travis Scott.
“The beauty of the grunge trend is that it can be interpreted for all shapes, and in so many different ways,” says Giles Farnham, head of the River Island Style Studio. “For a modern, flattering take on the flannel-shirt-and-jeans combo, layer up pieces that nod to Nirvana but have a slimmer fit.”
Lightweight knitwear and soft, flannel shirts with neat collars are effortless layering pieces that won’t add bulk. And for chillier days, these work just as well with black jeans and a trucker jacket as they do indigo denim and a khaki military shacket.
In addition to colour, playing with vintage-inspired textures in the same palette can also work. Kurt Cobain’s famous mohair cardigan recently sold at auction for $137,500 (£110,000). While the owner is probably not using it as the layering piece it was intended, the soft green hue and fuzzy texture, combined with corduroy in a slightly darker shade, makes a solid off-duty look that’s a refreshing change from athleisure.
Of all the iffy trends, denim belongs in this decade’s Room 101 more than most. Fortunately, the nineties-inspired jeans hitting rails today have been given a modern update. Wide, baggy legs have been traded for narrow, straight cuts; icy-cold, acid washes have become warmer light blues and greys; and the extreme high waist has been lowered to remove the Simon Cowell factor.
Both high-end and high-street designers are bringing back classic washes while ditching the less desirable elements of old-school denim. “The nineties are having a moment in all aspects of culture,” says Gap chief marketing officer Craig Brommers. “Denim really set the tone for the decade, hence why brands like ours are re-issuing those pieces.”
Chip Bergh, the chief executive of Levi’s – which has a Vintage sub-label for this very reason – adds that the brand takes a refine-and-improve attitude to ensure its nineties styles are less Zack (Saved By The Bell), more Zayn (Saved From The Directioners).
“With denim, the trends are cyclical because what you inherently want is for the style to be flattering. So to make denim work for today, we head into the company’s archives and look at old jeans to see how we can update them, rather than reinvent the wheel.”
Despite the on-trend update, classic jeans still require the same legwork (if not more) when it comes to buying a pair.
“Fit is everything with lighter washes”, says celebrity stylist Ashley Weston, the brains behind Riz Ahmed’s wardrobe. “If you’ve got very thin legs, take your pick, but if you want to do nineties denim and you’re not walking on pipe cleaners, go for something that’s slightly darker.”
Weston suggests an Obama-style mid-blue dad wash or something with a greyer tone. “But whatever your shape, ditch the extreme mid-thigh fade. Some trends should be left in the past,” she adds.
As for what to wear with this new denim? Faded band T-shirts and bomber jackets give a nod to the cool kid at school look, but to properly take things full circle, take a leaf out of A$AP Rocky’s book and opt for a tucked-in crisp white T-shirt and a smart belt.
Watch any nineties Hollywood movie and chances are the main characters will be decked out in more preppy gear than an Ivy League headteacher. Whether it’s tennis whites, moleskin suits and tie clips in The Talented Mr Ripley, or the beshirted, camel coat wearing antiheroes of The Usual Suspects, educational chic was the order of the day. Everything was smart, neat and orderly, with cashmere jumpers and polo shirt piques atop chinos and loafers, whatever the occasion.
Taking neat, retro sportswear and combining it with refined Harvard-worthy staples is the contemporary way to adopt the trend without looking like you’re in fancy dress – aim for Ripley, not Rydell High.
The resurgence in popularity of polo shirts – with modern, knitted versions dubbed future classics – means there’s no shortage of options to invest in. This low-maintenance menswear essential layers effortlessly under Harrington and bomber jackets, so it pays to have classic versions in white, navy, red and even camel in your rotation.
A word of advice from Lacoste’s creative director, Felipe Oliveria Baptista: “One thing I hate is when people wear the collar up on polo shirts. No.” You’ve been warned.
Of course, there’s more to preppy than polo shirts. Subtle references can be made by subbing standard lace-ups for penny loafers or by making use of the eras favourite material – denim – with a chambray shirt and tie combination (just stop short of Justin Timberlake’s full suit look).
“Varsity jackets, smart knitwear and plain T-shirts can all be stacked on top of each other to create a modern preppy look,” says Boohoo menswear designer Abby Hynd. “Just don’t be tempted to tie them over your shoulders or you will step into costume territory.”
Everything was bigger in the nineties. Creme Eggs. T-Shirts. Breast Implants. But as Tara Reid will confirm, sometimes, bigger is not always better.
Stepping up sizes is one of the more difficult nineties trends to dabble in. “There’s a fine line between oversized and just plain too big,” says Arnold from Mr Porter. “[A top] should still fit your form and not drape over your shoulders or drag on the floor, or you will look like you’re wearing somebody else’s clothes.”
The key to nailing the look is about balancing three aspects: shape, colour, and size.
Shape is arguably the most important to get right. A favourite look of Justin Bieber, ‘lampshading’ is the term for pairing a hugely oversized top with a skinny spray-on pair of jeans. This look will do little more than make you look like one of the decade’s favourite toys – the Weeble Wobble.
Instead, opt for shapes that balance out the whole oversized look across your frame. “Choose strict, simple tailoring in boxier cuts for an oversized look,” says Style.com senior menswear editor Rob Nowill. “A wider pair of tailored trousers teamed with a loose-fitting white T-shirt will spread the bagginess across your whole body rather than making you appear top or bottom heavy.”
There’s also more to it than just sweeping up the biggest size you can find. “Instead look for items that have been designed to be oversized as these will fit best,” says vintage streetwear expert Alex James. “If the item is not intended to be oversized, or it’s vintage, never go up more than three from your usual or it just won’t sit well on your body.”
As for colour, primary brights were a favourite of oversized trailblazer Tupac, and they still work today. “Don’t be afraid of colour on vintage-inspired clothes,” says the menswear gurus at ASOS. “Following seasons of muted hues, oversized pieces will pop more in bolder colours. Just pair with something more tame, like a pair of straight-leg black jeans or stone chinos with a single pleat.”
The words ‘nineties footwear’ may summon images of Sketchers and split-toe Nikes, but there’s a lot to be learned from the decade that also gave us the moon boot and heelies. Some of the most iconic kicks that we still wear today had their heyday back then, and it’s with good reason they’re still revered.
The Converse All-Star is an iconic shoe, and its synonymity with the grunge movement gave the style credibility that remains. Providing they’re beaten up enough not to look box-fresh, they add rock ‘n’ roll rebellious vibes to most outfits. “Just throw high-tops on with an unstructured suit and T-shirt and you’re set,” says River Island’s Farnham.
For a preppier take on the sneaker, look to those crisp white kicks you’ve been getting wear out of for the last couple of seasons – everyone from River Phoenix to Run DMC were fans of the Adidas Shell Toe.
What the nineties were really famous for, though, was the eye-watering technicolour trainer, and it’s a look Mr Porter’s style director Olie Arnold says can return.
“The preppy, retro sportswear look can handle bright, block colours – if you’re brave enough. The nostalgia of the decade has brought in contemporary, risk-free takes on colourful nineties styles.”
The grunge and hip-hop scenes weren’t the only ones to birth signature shoes during the decade. Football-inspired trainers from nineties Terrace culture (think the Adidas Samba and Umbro Speciali) are making a comeback in a big way. Beautiful game. Beautiful decade. Beautiful kicks.