Our obsession with nostalgia is driving a trend revival spiral

Image via @indiesleaze

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. We’re recycling eras so quickly in the 2020s that the 1990s might as well be a century ago. But if 2014 is already old hat, where do we go from here?

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

In January 1983, journalist and critic Jon Savage wrote an article in THE FACE titled The Age of Plunder. In it, he railed against the excessive affection for the past that he was seeing in contemporary pop culture.

We are inundated with images of the past,” he observed, swamped by the nostalgia that is splattered all over Thatcherite Britain. Everywhere you turn, you trip over it.”

Nearly 40 years on, we’re not so much tripping over nostalgia, revivals and retro but hoarding them. We have become pack rats of our collective past. This is evident from the most middlebrow content – everything from the Regencycore of Netflix megahit Bridgerton and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Mumsnet-friendly Kitchen Disco to more niche concerns: Marc Jacobs’ Heaven-approved 90s emo style, maybe, or an Instagram account dedicated solely to the clothing in The Sopranos.

But what is different now, though, and what probably really grinds Savage’s gears, is the acceleration of nostalgia. We’re trapped in what might be called a Revival Spiral.

It used to be that time and distance were allowed before present culture plundered, to use Savage’s term, a past decade for style inspiration. Received wisdom put it at around 30 years, enough time for a new generation, and fresh eyes, to reassess. In that spirit, 1950s poodle skirts came back in the 80s, with an added twist of irony; 1930s dresses were all the rage in the 70s, reworked for an elegantly wasted generation. But, in a world where images of the past are just a finger swipe away, all bets are off. We have over-plundered the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Even fetishising Y2K is starting to look a bit tired.

The solution? The very recent past. The era in the frame? The mid-to-late Noughties.

Adam Sandler, not previously known for his place in fashion’s pantheon, was 2021’s most-googled style icon. Fourteen-year-old images of the actor wearing comfy brown slippers and XXXL shorts, at a Berlin photocall for his role as a hairdresser-undercover commando in 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, circulated on social media, accompanied by plaudits for this newly anointed style GOAT. The American version of The Office, which ran from 2005 to 2013, is our favourite comfort TV but also style inspo: the boxy suits worn by Dwight Schrute are not all that far away from some of Balenciaga’s collections.

Meanwhile, brands like True Religion, Ed Hardy and Juicy Couture, all woefully unfashionable for the best part of a decade, are back. True Religion, following a collab with Supreme, made £173 million in 2021, the most profitable it’s been since around 2013. Meanwhile, 2014 is the year of choice on TikTok. Videos with #2014tumblr have more than 122 million views and even Vogue has endorsed a revival of the eight-year-old look.


Then there’s the Indie Sleaze” movement, the revival of a late-Noughties scene where torn band tees dominated, when American Apparel was a shop, not a scandal, when everyone stuck out their tongues and it was a badge of honour to be photographed by party snapper Mark Hunter, aka The Cobrasnake. Also called American Apparel nostalgia” by Mel magazine, its influence is seen in a Skims campaign with Megan Fox and Kourtney Kardashian, that looks more than a little like the brand’s flash-ringed ad campaigns by, ugh, Terry Richardson, as well as in the exemplary tongues-on-the-red- carpet work of those couples for our times, Kourtney with Travis Barker, and Megan with Machine Gun Kelly.

The @indiesleaze Insta was started in 2021. As the account bio reads, it documents the decadence of mid-late aughts and the indie sleaze party scene that died in 2012”. While the follower account is modest, 15.3k at the time of writing, its influence has been significant. Indie Sleaze, the look and the account, has been covered in videos on TikTok by trend forecaster Old Loser in Brooklyn. Even MailOnline is getting in on the action, writing about the trend in October 2021.

The creator of Indie Sleaze, who wishes to remain anonymous, says they started the account as a personal nostalgia trip. It was an era that I lived through myself,” they say. From 2008 to 2012, I was at university. And those years were obviously very impactful for me, and important.”

While some of the current retro culture is anemoia – nostalgia for an era you didn’t live through, ie Hailey Bieber obsessing over the 90s when her birth certificate reads 1996 – The Revival Spiral sees us leaning into a seemingly ever-hastening longing for the recent past. This is possibly because change is constant in digital culture, meaning we’re quickly nostalgic for eras that, on paper, we have only just left.

In the last five to seven years, [trends have] been very snatched [ie flawless],” says Indie Sleaze. I feel pressure to look perfect or put together. And naturally I’m very chaotic and kind of scrambled. So the chaos and the maximalist vibe of this style is a draw for me.”

Anemoia is (currently, anyway) fuelled by an analogue-era scarcity. There are only a finite amount of images of Jean-Michel Basquiat in paint-covered Armani suits in the 80s, for example. In contrast, nostalgia for the past 10 years or so can feed off a plentiful resource: the sidebar of shame” school of thought when it comes to celebrity imagery. Thanks to demand, digital photography and a disregard for privacy, there are endless shots of Lily Allen looking worse for wear in a prom dress, Azealia Banks’s dayglo wigs or when Sky Ferreira sat front row at fashion week.

This nostalgic state of mind has been magnified and sped up for a generation who have lived through turbulent times: Trump, Brexit and (there it is) a global pandemic”

The dictionary definition of nostalgia is a pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again”. This wistfulness has been found to be particularly strong for older people, who like to hark back to the good old days”, and for young adults. Born between 1997 and 2012, the older cohort of Gen Z have now reached their early twenties, a time that always comes with a level of nostalgia for your teenage years, when you had fewer responsibilities and the time (and inclination?) to listen to Smile on repeat.

There’s also a second chance to try out trends that were intimidating – grown-up, the height of cool – as a child or a tween. Now, with your own bank account and ability to use a washing machine, you have the chance to experiment with lowrise jeans or trucker caps.

This nostalgic state of mind has been magnified and sped up for a generation who have lived through turbulent times: Trump, Brexit and (there it is) a global pandemic. Pre-2016 might only be seven years ago but, given those global spasms, it feels like a lifetime. To immerse yourself in that time is comforting, says Indie Sleaze. I just wanted to celebrate all the fun things, look back and reminisce. There’s a theory I’ve read [that says] nostalgia is a sickness of society. And I’m like: Well, it’s fun to look back.’”

The Digital Fairy is a creative agency that specialises in and documents youth culture for its TikTok following of 40,000. Biz Sherbert, Culture Editor at the London-based company, has also observed The Revival Spiral and predicts that it will only intensify.

We’ll definitely start seeing more nostalgia for what seems like just yesterday,” she says. Already, I’ve been seeing a lot of interest in influencer aesthetics from around 2016. The pandemic seems to have heightened this – we really romanticise any cultural signifiers from 2019 or earlier.”

Sarah Lloyd is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Visual Culture at the University for the Creative Arts. As a researcher in nostalgia in fashion, she argues that the phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that we consume culture like we listen to podcasts: at 1.5x speed.

The plethora of images and information we are exposed to means we simply cannot process what we’re experiencing,” she says. For me, revival culture is gaining a sense of control over an ever-shifting cultural landscape and relocating oneself in the recent past in order to fully process the present. [It’s] a way of temporarily stopping time.”


The recent past appeals because older eras are, well, a bit done. It’s about trying to create a rarity and exclusivity,” Lloyd continues. Because if you think about how mainstream vintage has become – your parents might have their house decorated in mid- century modern, for example – you’re obviously going to be looking for something more edgy.”

Lloyd says a solely digital life experience has an effect, too. When growing up without an iPhone or social media is unimaginable, the relatively recent past seems like ancient history.”

Indeed, Indie Sleaze’s harking back to a pre-filter Instagram and #2014Tumblr represent a whole new type of nostalgia: one for past internet culture. The Digital Fairy believe that the online tools at our disposal are also crucial to revivals now. We’re able to moodboard and publish seemingly innocuous moments in time faster,” says Natalia Christina, the agency’s Director of Brand and Strategy. We live in an eternal GIF of looking back, without any creation of newness. But what’s interesting now is that looking back’ is creating change quicker than ever before.”

While the acceleration of the trend cycle is striking, the virality of the digital world, with search engines and algorithms as standard, has had its own impact. There’s been a kind of flattening of the zeitgeist, leading to a monoculture that is understood across generations. Boomers and Gen Zers both probably watched Squid Game, for example, or shared that TikTok of the boy who loves Komodo dragons. So the fevered search for the next ever-more-niche revival could be seen as a way for Gen Z to carve out a IYKYK (“if you know, you know”) point of difference and ring-fence a specific look, community or interest. For a limited time, anyway.

Sherbert points out that the vintage and resale market – set to be worth £62 billion by 2030 – is intrinsically invested in The Revival Spiral. The mainstreaming of thrifting and Depop has created a whole economy and ecosystem around fashion revivals,” she says. The online resale market needs them to contextualise and drive interest in what’s being sold. The details are what make the crucial difference between the same product being positioned as an early 2000s trucker hat’ or as a y2k mcbling paris hilton simple life von dutch hat’.”

Agus Panzoni, the woman behind TikTok trend analysis account The Algorythm, agrees. Social media commoditises culture for views and engagement,” she says. Therefore, subcultures become stripped to mere aesthetics [and] participation in them requires consumption of material goods.”

It’s just that now – to, appropriately enough, repurpose an old joke – nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”

Microtrends, the blink-and-you-miss-it obsessions found on TikTok’s FYP (For You Page), are the result. While some of these are revivals (such as McBling, the Paris Hilton-esque noughties aesthetic that Sherbert namechecks), others are centred around specific items and won’t win you any plaudits from sustainability experts. Take House of Sunny’s Hockney dress,” says Panzoni. We weren’t obsessed with any swirly dress, we wanted that one. It got duplicated by fast fashion retailers and only six months later we started seeing it discarded in thrift stores.”

If the cycle of revivals and trends is faster than ever, the appeal of looking back in fashion is, just like the content, nothing new. The Romans revived Ancient Greek fits. All things medieval were hot in Victorian times, thanks to the Gothic Revival. Beatnik girls in the 50s wore flea market dresses from the 30s. Teddy boys took their inspiration from Edwardian clothes. The 60s, seen as ground zero of bright shiny, brand new youth culture, were obsessed with the past, with influential Swinging London stores like Granny Takes a Trip selling Victorian clothes.

In theory, then, when we have referenced Beat poets, mods, teddy boys and anything goth over the past 40 years, a version of The Revival Spiral has already been at work: these looks were, in themselves, versions of what happened in the past. It’s just that now – to, appropriately enough, repurpose an old joke – nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Now we’re overwriting the past ad nauseam, and at a greater speed. Take the goth-inclined subculture aesthetic known as Dark Academia. It could be seen as a 2022 version of a style from 2012 via 1992 via 1981 via 1964 via 1922 via 1880 via 1248. Dizzy, yet?

It’s perhaps since the 80s and postmodernism’s bricolage – the idea of collaging of different and diverse references and revivals – that this tendency to look back has really gone into overdrive. Writing in her 1985 book Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson described what sounds like our own obsession with the past with eerie prescience. A single style can no longer dominate in the postmodern period,” she wrote.

Instead there is a constant attempt to recreate atmosphere. In the fantasy culture of the 1980s there is no real history, no real past; it is replaced by an instant, magical nostalgia, a strangely unmotivated appropriation of the past.” Put simply, it’s that hit of nostalgia, and the discovery of a new niche, that we’re after.

@thealgorythm Let me know tour thoughts! 👇🏼Inspired by @guyfieri.superfan 💚 #normcore #aestheticvideos #fashiontrends ♬ CHANCES (INSTRUMENTAL) - KAYTRANADA

Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past is a sort of sequel to this thinking, one published in the Indie Sleaze-approved year of 2010. In it, the music journalist and cultural critic discussed pop culture’s addiction to its own past”, inspired by how instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once. We’ve become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organise, instantly access, and share vast amounts of cultural data.”

Twelve years on, this organising, cataloguing and naming of revivals, aesthetics and trends is a growing industry, one that’s been supersized by ultra-speedy TikTok in particular. Curators like Old Loser in Brooklyn, The Digital Fairy and The Algorythm document them with quick-fire videos on the platform, meaning you can learn all about, say, the fashion maximalism trend Avant Apocalypse or the electronic music genre Vaporwave in the time it takes to boil the kettle.

I do think that the move of trend research from coveted industry insights to engaging topics for social media content has helped to accelerate the trend cycle,” says Panzoni. She hopes her account, which focuses on how TikTok’s algorithm spreads trends, allows followers to find their own way through. There’s so much interest in content that categorises and explains trends. It helps make sense of the discourse online and distinguish trends from fads.”

Trend analysis on TikTok often mirrors content on more specialised sites like Aesthetics Wiki and CARI (the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute). Cindy Hernandez, one of the founding members of CARI, says the goal has always been seeing consumer aesthetics as part of a past rather than as contemporary” but is well aware of The Revival Spiral in action. Pop culture seems more cyclical than ever… One gets surprised at what recent revamp is getting another revamp so soon.”

But, as is the way of cycles, the culture of yesterday will also be old news at some point. Where do we go from there – or rather, then? Lloyd points to present-day China, where there is a TikTok trend for dressing up in the style of the Han Dynasty (an era which ended in 220 AD) while skateboarding.

I find it positive that the references are getting more obscure, but also quite eerie,” she says. Say hello, then, to archaeological-core – although, as the revivals continue to spiral, even that might be over by the time you read this.

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00