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We’ve all looked back at old photos of our parents and cringed. Dad in his velvet suit, mum in her gaucho trousers. Through modern eyes, this clothing treads a fine line between charming and mortifying, but there’s a time – be it in one year or twelve – when their seemingly dated wardrobe choices will start to appear in yours. It’s all thanks to the 20-year rule – the time it takes for a trend to die, then become fashionable again.

The path forward by way of the past is a well-trodden one, and not just in fashion. The 20-year rule holds true for music, decor, television, film, and art more broadly. Consider some of your favourite television shows from the past 10 years, and there’s a good chance there’s at least one 90s remake or spinoff among them. And these patterns aren’t new. The 1978 film Grease was essentially a love letter to the 1950s. That 70s Show came out in 1998. The grunge bands that topped the charts in the 90s – from Pearl Jam to Soundgarden – were just doing their take on the hard rock Whitesnake et al thrashed out in the 1970s.

Even the most visionary artists look backwards when creating something new, a tendency to which fashion is especially susceptible. “Fashion is about storytelling and drama and theatricality, so there’s always the element of pulling stories from the past,” says Geraldine Wharry, a trend forecaster, designer, and futurist. It’s a starting point for designers to look to past references for design inspiration. There’s something familiar and comforting about looking back.”

 

The archives are plentiful, and when enough time has passed, the inspiration induces that all-too familiar feeling: nostalgia. “Nostalgia is the connection we have with memories but in what we decide to wear; it is typically linked to positive emotions we express through fashion,” says Wendy Bendoni, international trend forecaster fashion marketing chair at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. “Trend forecasters, stylists, buyers and retailers know that nostalgic styles are the best constant trend we see every year.”

This cycle started long before designers started deliberately exploiting it. In 1937, James Laver – a 20th-century Renaissance man of sorts, who listed author, museum curator, and art historian among his many gigs – analysed the cycle of fashion and distilled his findings into a 12-step timeline, beginning 10 years before a trend surfaces, when it is deemed indecent, and ending 160 years later, when it is considered beautiful.

Laver surmised that it took half a century for trends to re-emerge. As the pace of the fashion industry has sped up, that timeline has contracted, but the fundamentals of Laver’s thinking still apply. For now.

One thing Laver never had to contend with was a visual archive of every single trend ever devised, nestled in every pocket. In our screen-obsessed age, trends emerge than die before we’ve even had a chance to get changed. Separating one trend from the next becomes almost impossible when they’re all arriving at once. “There are so many trends, and there’s so much aggregation into one look, which is the influence of social media,” says Wharry.

 

Amid this maelstrom, however, the 20-year rule still dictates the bigger, longer-lasting trends that endure for more than a few months. It’s the guiding hand behind society’s attitude towards its wardrobe. “We don’t progress in a linear way, we zigzag,” says Thread stylist Luke McDonald. “When things get smooth and elegant, then we crave punk and grunge. It’s a normal sensation to want to react against cultural norms when they’ve overstayed their welcome.”

When trends have reached overexposure, designers dig into the archives for a palette cleanser. That doesn’t mean creating carbon copies of styles from their past – Disco Stu is the example not to follow – but rather extracting the elements that make most sense in the context of today. “We look for fashion cues from decades of yesteryears in prints and silhouettes,” says Bendoni. “We borrow from the decade, but we don’t dress in it from head-to-toe.”

This stylistic shift generally happens top-down, as designers at brands like Louis Vuitton or Dior reimagine the past in ways that then trickle down to the rest of us. Just think of the looser suit and trouser shapes that are becoming ubiquitous – they began life five years ago on Gucci’s 70s-referencing runways.

The most innovative designers are able to dig into the archives to create something new, but still preserve its original DNA. “Designers inject modern fabrication and surface treatment and modern colours,” Wharry says. “It’s also about styling and how you combine something like a 50s silhouette with something really modern. There’s so much aggregation involved today.” 

That’s the beauty of viewing trends through a modern lens: we’re able to smooth out some of the groovier edges, and style it in a way that strikes the balance between rugged and refined. After all, you don’t want to show up to a dinner party looking like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. “When we say the 70s are back, that doesn’t mean everyone is wearing polyester fitted pants with low button landscape disco shirts,” Bendoni says. “We don’t literally couple the exact styles and silhouettes. We borrow styles and translate them in modern times. So what do we borrow? Typically, we look for print inspiration, color themes, and silhouettes. If it looks exact from head-to-toe, it begins to look like a costume.” 

 

It’s also worth noting that when reaching into the past for inspiration, you shouldn’t approach each decade in the same way. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of influences from the 90s, and as a result, from the 70s and 50s, but elements from each should be incorporated differently. Take mid-century designs, for instance. Because enough time has passed that they’re now seen as classic, they’re accessible to anyone, no matter where they sit on the conservative-risky spectrum. “In much the same way that everyone suddenly has a mid-century armchair in their living room, a lot of men are reaching for mid-century designs in their wardrobes too,” Luke says. 

As part of this mid-century movement, heritage manufacturing has also made a comeback, like the time- and labour-intensive selvedge denim, which was largely discontinued in the 80s to make way for cheaper mass-production. Back then, denim was workwear, for jobs were your clothes would take a beating. Now, selvedge denim shows an appreciation of craftsmanship and has become the uniform for a different type of worker, one more likely to wear his with a blazer and Chelsea boots, or dressed down with a t-shirt and Converse.

The same goes for camp collars, which first appeared on high fashion runways a few years ago, but quickly became a warm-weather essential. “We’ve been eschewing more conventional collars recently, and in their place, 1950s styles have re-emerged,” Luke says. “Designers have reimagined it, but the same essence endures.” For a more modern, relaxed edge, Luke recommends reaching for the influx of styles with looser fits – they bring these old-school pieces into the modern day.  

The Ivy League-inspired tailoring that was popular in the 50s is also on the rise right now. Because suits are no longer as much of a requirement in day-to-day dressing, they’ve transitioned from something you wear for somebody else – your boss, or your vicar – to something you wear for yourself. To wear it in a more contemporary way, Luke recommends pairing it with slimmer ties and more relaxed silhouettes that lend your look comfort and ease.

 

Despite having a more rebellious feel, 1970s-inspired styles also have a classic appeal that can be worn multi-generationally. “Designers during that time really used the cowboy as inspiration and a signifier of a more rugged spirit,” Luke says. “You’ll notice a lot of texture, from velvet to suede to beat-up denim. There’s also a homespun quality to many of the pieces.” The irreverence has permeated the style of today, but designers have wisely left things like sweaty fabrics and endless shades of brown back where they found them.

“The idea is to keep the same relaxed-fitting suits and mingling of textures, but to ditch the bell bottom and heavy pointed collar,” Luke says. “Also lose the medallions, patterned rayon, and oversized ties while you’re at it. The spirit of the originals should live on, but the interpretation should feel less cartoonish and costume-like.” 

The 90s, however, is recent enough to feel divisive. Designers have been raiding their own childhoods for inspiration and the pieces they’ve come up with – from tracksuits to bucket hats – are more on-trend than classic. This is style with a shelf-life. “Rave fashion has made a comeback,” Wharry says. “Pieces like ugly sneakers have returned, and they’re more fashion and rebellious and anti-beauty.” 

While guys of all ages should feel confident wearing tie-dye, pale denim, and bold, punchy sportswear, if it feels out of your comfort zone, know that there are plenty of ways to embrace the 90s without going full Liam Gallagher. “The 90s was the first decade when sportswear really exploded, so it really set the tone as how that could look in terms of everyday dressing,” Luke says. “Today we’ve taken it a step further with the ubiquity of athleisure. It’s about the mix of sportswear and tailoring in everyday environments, even corporate ones – suits with trainers, sweatpants with blazers, it’s all fair game.” 

Instead of stealing wholesale from LL Cool J or Kurt Cobain, the trick is referencing their style in terms of shape and attitude. “You can still have the oversized jacket, the loose shirt that Jerry Seinfeld popularised, and the grunge elements of Curt Kobain, but shown through a pair of beat-up Converse as opposed to a head-to-toe look,” Luke says.

So as we inch nearer to the 2020s, should we expect to find noughties references trickle into our wardrobes? According to Wharry, we already have. “My first job as a designer was in December 2001, and I already see the stuff we were designing then coming back,” she says. “There was a focus on cargo trousers, skater hats, strappy backpacks, and bum-bags. I’m seeing a lot of that in menswear now.” 

It may feel like we’re being inundated with every major trend from the past, but the beauty of trying a trend the second time around is that you’ve already got a crib sheet on how to pull it off. It’s also a more pleasurable wear when your 90s-referencing sweatpants are cut from breathable cotton, rather than sticky, clingy polyester.

Not that everything deserves another go. “Some trends will probably never come back,” Wharry says. “For example, Burberry created a collection featuring African prints nearly a decade ago. Something like that wouldn’t go as well today, out of fear of cultural appropriation, unless it was done in collaboration with a local African artist. More sensitivity is needed when pursuing certain trends these days.” 

It’s cultural shifts like these, including a focus on sustainability and the environment, that might alter the rhythm of the 20-year rule for good. “I think there are different tensions right now between the status quo and people rethinking the value of certain designs,” Wharry says. “A lot of brands have a sense of moral compass.” 

Mass-producing styles in the spirit of decades past may not look like it does today – largely because it’s simply not sustainable. Second-hand shopping is already on the rise and may replace fast fashion as early as 2030, so the way in which we cycle through trends could look entirely different. 

“Right now, we look to future solutions, technology, and shifts in paradigm, but a lot of solutions are actually in the past,” Wharry says. “There’s a huge lesson in looking back, not in terms of simply referencing the same old designs, but also looking at how things were created in the past.” So whether we look backwards for style inspiration or for forgotten ways to create clothing more sustainably, it’s clear the past will always be a key part of the future of design. To get there, sometimes old rules have to be broken.

 


Words: Allison Pavlick
Photography: Lola & Pani
Styling: Luke McDonald