Has Style Really Changed in the Past 20 Years?

In the article, “You Say You Want a Devolution?” By Kurt Andersen published in Vanity Fair this month, the author talks about how the rapid changes in politics, the economy and technology slow down the changes in cultural style. This really struck a chord with me, because I can usually tell the differences in style and trend between 1990 through 2002, but after that things start to get blurry…

1990 Minimalism

2002 Maximalism

His observation was that styles in dress consistently changed every decade until we hit the 1990’s, then changes in fashion, art, film, and architecture slowed down in a way that seems like we’ve been asleep since 1995. The most notable change is how these cultural items and ideas are marketed and distributed, which is largely due to the Internet and new technologies in communications.

How it’s affected fashion, for example, is the speed and depth of how we are able to access almost any kind of information on fashion. We can access styles and trends of the past, present, on the runway and on the street.  We can find out what celebrities wear to Starbucks, follow indie fashion bloggers, view online runway shows, research trends, etc…so we are basically taking in and exchanging information, but where are we generating any new ideas?  Has information consuming and gathering replaced individuality? Is “the medium” now the new black?

There could be a possibility that fashion photo blogging of outfits is it’s own genre, except it really seems to be is a re-mix of already existing styles. You can have vintage, designer, and mass market combined in one look.  Vintage fashion inspirations, especially those of the 90’s are not altered by much,  (also is 90’s now vintage?).  Vintage has been widely accepted by the mainstream as well as mass manufacturers who knock those designs off to make vintage style available to everyone.  Authenticity, and not individuality seems to be the driving force here.

Examples of how 90’s floral grunge dress trend can be found in different levels from the runway to the consumer…


… in a country where an adorably huge majority have always considered themselves “middle class,” practically everyone who can afford it now shops stylishly—at Gap, Target, Ikea, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks. Americans: all the same, all kind of cool! And yet, on the other hand, for the first time, anyone anywhere with any arcane cultural taste can now indulge it easily and fully online, clicking themselves deep into whatever curious little niche (punk bossa nova, Nigerian noir cinema, pre-war Hummel figurines) they wish. Americans: quirky, independent individualists. http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2012/01/prisoners-of-style-201201

I have to wonder that once you find that cool obscure niche thing online, do we just move on to the next cool thing we can find? Are we sticking to basics because we’re sure those won’t change next season?  Do we mine of styles of the past because vintage is not going to change either?

Slow growth…these Vogue covers of SJP below are 8 years apart, her hair and makeup, as well the clothes she is wearing are not dramatically different or even dramatic at all.  She just went from short to long hair, pants to dress, and black to blue (okay cerulean blue). There’s no weirdness of “I can’t believe I wore that in 2002.”  I don’t blame SJP, but have to question the stylists at Vogue for not seeing the similarities of the actress on these covers.

This is not the clean slate of ’90’s minimalism, recovering from an 80’s hangover and embracing the rise of new technologies. The 2000’s coincide with the rise of luxury designer goods accessible at sample sale prices.  A luxury bag is timeless, yet there are new ones out every season, same thing – different color.

…and then there’s Lady Gaga, who was compared to the chameleon-like Madonna in the article. Lady Gaga will sometimes borrow Madonna’s style, but the difference between the two are clear. It seems Gaga is able to pull off minimalism and maximalism at once to create something unique, while Madonna’s change of wardrobe is a singular focus on a style, designer, trend, or her current career move.

‘We are all breaking the rules – mixing sportswear with workwear, the old and the new, crossing traditional gender divides, leaping between the proletarian and the elitist, juxtaposing the natural and the artificial, mating the vulgar and the respectable . . . deliberately sending out confusing, even contradictory signals.   -Ted Polhemus “Supermarket of Style”      http://www.tedpolhemus.com/main_concept5%20467.html


DIY fashion is one of the few genres that I think generates some of the most creative new ideas. I think documentation fuels their work, in which creativity is the goal, without regards to being “authentic”, nostalgic or even trendy.   To be clear, I do not mean the crafters, knitters, or sewing how-to-doers, but the scrappy DIYers that have the imagination and talent to work with limited sources, recycled and found materials, basic tools, to make something really unique, sometimes strange – sometimes beautiful.  At times it feels like experimentation without a point-of-view, but maybe that’s the whole point in pushing the current state of fashion forward.











8 thoughts on “Has Style Really Changed in the Past 20 Years?

  1. Could it be that when information and fashion was not so readily available, then you got to be the alpha of your town, group or scene. Now everybody has the same instantaneous info, and is rocking the “NEW STYLE” instantaneously , everything has become
    so “4 seconds ago ( like the new 4G commercial touts). Maybe, the consumer is saying “What’s the point, if I’m only unique for 4 seconds.”

    1. That’s an interesting point Sully, and it makes sense that people looked up to the “alpha” trendsetters in their town to get a sense of emerging fashion. Now this idea of a particular town has expanded globally, the street style in Amsterdam is just as cool as the street style in New York, which is just as cool as the street style in Ohio…etc. As far as speed of information, that does get tricky, “so 4 seconds ago” I think would make most people appreciate the non-fashion basics such as t-shirts, straight leg jeans, Navy pea coats, black blazers, etc…and they could just accessories with whatever emerging thing was trending such as “a pop of color” http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/fashion-articles/top-spring-2012-trends-new-york
      …another question I have is with the speed of turnover in fashion, are fashion trends now considered emerging or just updating?

      1. Maybe like twinkies, those terms are becoming obsolete. Fashion exists and therefore it is. Maybe, people are preoccupied with life, an expanding choices of electronics and artisan items, and thus don’t devote all their time to emerging or updating. They’ve learned to consume fashion, like everything else, as they need it. It doesn’t define them anymore. Maybe fashion had way more relevance in the past, now it part of an a carte menu of lifestyle choices.

  2. I think we have come to a zenith of sorts.

    We bow to pressure from reporting shows that dictate what good taste is so we edit rather than give room to really experiment for fear of being a fashion “don’t”. We now embrace what was once avant garde as fashion becomes more accessible and democratic so the shock value that newness once carried has lost its lustre.

    The change we seek will come, but just as in other centuries, it comes with a new generation and new mindset and that means waiting for another ten years as our lifestyle cathes up and we have truly fresh eyes who have absolutely no connection with the last century.

    I covered this in one of my blog posts (http://fashionobserved.braveblog.com/index.php ) not too long ago.

  3. Well done article. It definitely paints a realistic landscape of fashion/styling/trends. To consider real change, real development of new movements might take an approach that comes from a visual purge or abstinence or perhaps even more purist movements. An over saturated mind can’t distinguish the genuine purpose behind some of the style statements that can so easily pour in through every media.

  4. I agree with your’s and Sully’s comments. Reminds of a Simple Shoes ad we did I think in Details Magazine… (not sure anymore) circa 1996 that said “the end of trends is the next trend”

    Most of the student (18-24) entrepreneurs I work with today all use texting almost exclusively. Email is too slow of a medium for them… and is primarily only a way to communicate with older people… (older being 26 plus).

    the way to get praise these days amongst the alpha millennials… is not centered on ego (self) centric activities (fashion/cars/jewelry etc). It is socially minded ones. Nobody under 25 really cares what you wear or drive… but they get pretty excited about a way to create actual change in the world in a social way. Gen X is the last of the ego centrics.

    Nobody likes to stand out… in fact not many want to comment in public because there is a distinct lack of public social speaking skills developing. This is an interesting sidebar to social media that will develop into a large opportunity for schools that understand what is truly happening.

    There is a huge generational attention shift upon us that probably only about 3% of marketers understand… and less than .5 (yes point five… one half of 1 percent) of the public truly gets.

    Those that get it… will become the new leaders in the next 20 years. Those that don’t will just get old and not care… like every generation before them.

    1. that’s an interesting point about the generational differences in communication, and I would imagine that it would have a negative impact on how we communicate face to face, or in an actual public, non-online setting. I don’t know if Gen X is really the last of the ego centrics, I mean social media is fueled by self promotion and ego as a way to “connect,” ego just found a new playground, but thats okay real connections are made regardless. I like the way Simple puts it, “the end of trends is the next trend.”

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