a crash course in 90s fashion, told through youtube

Decrypting the decade that brought us the supermodel and the ironic baby barrette.

by Rory Satran
07 January 2017, 2:15am

Still from 'Unzipped' via YouTube

The idea of archiving and memorializing "90s fashion" still feels slightly absurd to anyone who actually lived through it. Yet the topic was one of the most searched Google queries of the past year, and mock-neck crop tops are perhaps more prevalent now than they were the first time around. Of course, there's more to the 90s than Clueless and the Spice Girls. Haute Couture reached its most expressive heights (pun intended) in the latter part of the decade with masters like John Galliano (sorry) and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto developed entire aesthetic languages painted in black and white.

It was a decade of contradiction: "International" trends like kimono dressing and chinoiserie flourished alongside trade globalization, but cultural appropriation was not discussed. "Girl power" was our motto even as we dressed as infantilized Lolitas. But fashion also led the pack in making safe sex sexy (TLC went so far as to wear condoms), and the riot grrrl movement made dressing like yourself okay, even desirable. Read on for an exploration of that specific shade of "90s lilac," a lot of Shalom Harlow, and the birth of fashion irony.

Alaïa gave women a body (1990)
As Cher Horowitz famously said, Azzedine Alaïa is "like, a totally important designer." It is as true today as it was in 1990, when the tiny Tunisian-Parisian put out his sleek fall/winter 90 collection of formfitting dresses. One cannot underestimate the influence of these high, tight ponytails and sheer lace catsuits (to put it gently, Kim Kardashian's look is very inspired).

The supers lip-synch to "Freedom! '90'' in Versace (1991)
The exuberant, bigger-than-life trio of Naomi, Cindy, and Christy mouthed the late George Michael's hit on Gianni Versace's runway in what Tim Blanks called "a fashion moment of biblical proportions." This show birthed the supermodel era, but it also dictated its distinctive style: monochromatic power dressing, true shoulders, and lots of black (as Gianni said, "a very, very happy black").

Comme des Garçons made the avant-garde wearable (1993)
A young, intense-looking Calvin Klein pronounced this spring show "perfect", saying "I know what it takes to do that kind of work." Rei Kawakubo proposed -- as she does today -- completely avant-garde constructions that you could walk to the bodega in. Her white, layered daywear looks appeared in watered-down versions by other designers throughout the 90s.

Sonic Youth sent up grunge fashion in "Sugar Kane" (1992/3)
This video (like Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho from the year before) has an ambivalent stance on fashion. On one hand, there's a clearly ironic distance from the backstage footage of Marc Jacobs's groundbreaking "grunge" collection for Perry Ellis, and its sketches. But the band also plays along, wearing great clothing and introducing highschooler and Sassy intern Chloë Sevigny.

Anna Sui also showed grunge (1993)
What's gotten a bit lost in the postmortems and reconsiderations of Marc Jacobs's "grunge" collection, is that Anna Sui also showed a grunge collection for spring/summer 93. Sui, a close friend of Jacobs, also picked up on the vibrations of Seattle music and showed vintage-inspired dresses, Doc Martens-style combat boots, beanies, chokers...At the time, Sui said, "It's not about status or dressing to show off your money, it's more to show what it is that you're feeling and what you're trying to express."

Isaac Mizrahi was the biggest star in fashion with Unzipped (1994)
The star of one of the greatest fashion documentaries of all time, Isaac Mizrahi personified a certain brand of innocent, wearable American chic (along with Todd Oldham and Cynthia Rowley). His Marlboro-Light-fueled hysterics and ebullient creativity were the product of a pre-recession city. In this clip, he tries to convince the big girls to get on board with taking their clothes off. "What?" says Kate Moss, wearing a lilac-colored cardigan of the kind that thrived in the 90s.

Chloë Sevigny's X-Girl Opus (1995)
It's no accident that this is Chloë's second appearance on this list. She incarnated the distinctively 90s intersection of minimalism, thrift store eccentricity, and high fashion excess like no one else (see: her appearance in a bra top in a 1996 Miu Miu show). This fashion film before its time, directed by Phil Morrison of Junebug, is a Nouvelle Vague romp through downtown New York (when did Café Gitane ever look so cool?). Chloë and Rita Ackermann made the completely simple t-shirts and dresses of Kim Gordon's line look determinedly cool and special.

Tom Ford brought sexy back (1995)
For his fall/winter 95 Gucci show, Tom sent BFFs Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow down the runway in The Look: satin blouse (opened to there), paired with jewel-tone velvet bootcut trousers and angora peacoats. Now, it feels almost quaintly simple; Kirsty Hume wore a mod black dress and red pumps straight out of a Catherine Deneuve film. The Look continued with Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow wearing it on the red carpet, appearing more straightforwardly sexy than they'd ever been.

Hole made DIY a matter of life or death (1995)
Courtney Love toured Live Through This in the year following Kurt Cobain's death as well as Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff's fatal overdose, a fact that haunts every live show you can watch. This particular performance of "Violet" shows a woman singing through her pain, in armor of a very Courtney sort: satin thrift store nightie, overly enthusiastic lipstick, and a pink Built By Wendy guitar strap (the choice of garage band girls from middle school on). The idea that you could build an entire look on ideas and ingenuity -- not shopping -- was Courtney's gift to broke, creative girls everywhere.

Aaliyah's Tommy Hilfiger commercial (1996)
Not to oversimplify, but Aaliyah was an earth angel. Before her untimely death at 22 years old, she gave the world three albums, two films, and a truly original style that was as copied by young girls as it was by designers like Tommy Hilfiger. This Tommy commercial shows the teen R&B star in her signature tomboy-meets-femme-fatale outfit: tube top, perfect abs, visible boy undergarments, and baggy jeans. Her confident gender play was ahead of its time.

The playful absurdity of Chanel's micro-bikinis (1996)
Remember pogs? The classic 90s kid's game involving Hawaiian juice bottle caps was likely not an inspiration for the spring/summer 96 Chanel collection, but that didn't stop everyone from calling its mini bikini tops "pogs." Karl Lagerfeld brought bikinis to the point of absurdity, and in doing so opened up a dialogue about clothing appropriateness that is still happening in the age of #freethenipple. And, he made fluorescents fashionable, so, double win.

Galliano's excessive mastery at Dior (1996 on)
Admiring Galliano's work at Dior from 1996 to the early 2000s does not mean you condone his politics. This mashup of his most indelible moments (in addition to being the perfect getting-ready video for a drag queen) is a parade of inspiration. Pat McGrath's Makeup with a capital "M," the painterly use of color, the sense of drama -- it's all a good reminder that fashion should be fun, and fun to look at.

Prada's influential restraint (1996)
Choosing a Prada show that shaped 90s fashion is a silly exercise; they all did. But the fall/winter 96 show was particularly epic. There's the Carolyn Bessette Kennedy bourgeois dowdiness of those beige and grey sweaters, the so-wrong-it's-right 70s upholstery print. And then, like a redemption, Miuccia sends us some straight-up beautiful stuff: slip dresses in 90s lilac edged with paillettes. Just like Uma wore.

Missy Elliott's visual playground for 'Supa Dupa Fly' (1997)
90s Missy was one of the first female artists to really own her space, both literally (in a ballooning trash-bag-like jumpsuit), and figuratively (her unapologetic AF attitude). Her style in this Hype Williams-directed joint was larger-than-life in a way that permitted women to think bigger and bolder. Elongated vinyl gloves? Sure thing. Neon green tracksuit? Duh. Beyond Missy, the video serves as a compendium of 90s styles, with Lil' Kim representing an ab-baring Chanel suspender situation, and Puff Daddy rocking a more low-key white t-shirt and diamond earrings look.

Alexander McQueen's meditation on fashion itself (1999)
Although McQueen's scary-brilliant "Highland Rape" collection of 1995 is often credited for bringing narrative to fashion, his spring/summer 99 collection closed the decade on a thoughtful high note. With two robots spray-painting a hypnotically dancing Shalom Harlow's white dress, he made us question authorship and creativity in fashion. What makes a dress - the designer, the person or thing that fabricates it, or the person that wears it? Does it even matter?


Text Rory Satran

Tom Ford
chloe sevigny
90s fashion
Isaac Mizrahi
shalom harlow