Illustration by Nikita Jha

Think back ten months ago. It’s the 2021 BET Awards. Zendaya graced the red carpet in a strappy archival Versace look, courtesy of stylist Law Roach paying tribute to the dress Beyonce performed in at the same event — eighteen years prior. Individually, this is fairly innocuous, a modern style icon pays tribute to a pop culture icon in a touching gesture. However, this instance is one in a long line of fashion moments that play on nostalgia on a collective scale. Nostalgia is everywhere at the moment— Y2K is here to stay, trends like disco heels and mules are reappearing with a vengeance and the popularity of vintage fashion influencers like Jasmine Chiswell is at an all-time high. This mania is bleeding onto the runway too, whether it be Miu Miu’s revival of the micro-mini or the decal dressed denim of Versace Jeans Couture’s SS22 campaign, all the major players are banking on a communal longing for the good old days.

“Human beings have long turned to culture as a way to cope in hard times and fashion has not been an exception”

But where has this shared longing come from and what does it mean? The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about increased uncertainty about the future on a personal and global scale, with worldwide economic uncertainty and looming job, mental health and disability crises. Lockdowns and travel restrictions also mean that avenues of creativity that depended on travel and cultural exchange have been shut down or severely curtailed.

The 2000s style making a resurgence

I, like many young people, have felt these pressures personally. Incessant cycles of lockdowns made accessing casual work difficult. Internal travel restrictions, expensive COVID tests, convoluted certification processes and navigating travel bans meant that international travel was a pipe dream (that is without factoring in the non-existent funds from lack of access to casual work). Losing the experiences that have defined age-based milestones has been hard and coming to terms with the fact that these expectations of young adulthood may never pan out as planned is a tough pill to swallow. Human beings have long turned to culture as a way to cope in hard times and fashion has not been an exception. Although the solitude of lockdowns and the routine of quarantine have resulted in some exceptional work, it will be widely remembered as a truly difficult period for creatives.

“On paper, we are living in the best of times”

Looking back to my first column, the preoccupation with constant innovation within the fashion industry is chiefly responsible for an unsustainable cycle of production. The pandemic briefly offered a chance to break this cycle as global shutdowns halted production and encouraged people to take on creative projects and upcycle the clothes they already had. Unshakeable institutions seemed to be on the verge of crumbling within weeks, revealing the fragility of the system. Such economic and social upheaval felt reminiscent of the financial crisis of 2008, a supposedly once in a lifetime freak event. But for a generation whose childhoods and adult lives have been defined by once-in-a-lifetime-never-to-happen-again disasters, the pandemic is one more in a succession of events that have robbed them of any semblance of a ‘normal’ life. On paper, we are living in the best of times; technology, education, healthcare and opportunities abound, yet the cost of living continues to rise, rights and freedoms are under attack and the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to cede. It feels like the worst of times.

70s punk hairdo as seen on lil nas x

What does it mean for fashion to be so firmly fixated on what has been in a time when what currently is feels uncertain at best and miserable at worst? The Frankfurt School, a group of critical theorists who focused on modernity for much of their work take a castigatory view. In this theorisation of modern society, nostalgic cultural production represents an attempt to manufacture togetherness by appealing to notions of collective experience within the population. Such production functions as a distraction from the failures of modernity and the contradictions of late-stage capitalism. Rather than paying homage to the iconic creations of the past, the resurgence of nostalgia within fashion and the wider cultural industry becomes an attempt to distract the masses from the reality of their society, keeping them focused on an idealised past rather than an inadequate present.


Mountain View

Dress Up Smoke and Mirrors

When considered as a tool of capitalists to keep us pacified, the nostalgic fixation of the fashion industry takes on a sinister colouring. Nostalgic fashion comes to represent the commodification of the past in a society in which everything is exploited for profit. Although it soothes our inner child just so, that even our fondest memories of the past can be commodified and sold back to us for profit leaves an acrid aftertaste. So while we find solace in Ganni x Juicy Couture tracksuits, the world seems to burn around us. The tastemakers of the fashion world desperately scramble through the archives to find yet another nugget of the past to transmogrify, meanwhile the magic machine called modernity has gasped its last and the endless progress we were promised is a fallacy.