1990s fashion concluded the 20th century with a collection of trends built on the ’80s and inspired by ’60s fashion.
’60s-inspired mini skirts, baby doll dresses and daisy prints were quintessential staples for every ’90s girl. Plaid shirts, cut-off denim shorts and gothic-length black lace maxis remind us of the era’s birth of “grunge,” a style of androgynous casual dressing that continued to liberate women from more formal day dressing to relaxed and casual looks.
I remember ’90s fashion fondly for its unique take on the trends introduced in the 1980s, like neon brights, abstract prints and workout-gear worn as daywear, including belly revealing crop tops and body con dresses.
Spandex leggings of the ’80s were replaced with spandex biker shorts (often worn under denim cut-offs) and the power suits of the ’80s were replaced with the breakout trend of sexy-but-classic preppy dressing as seen on Cher in 1996’s Clueless.
1990s fashion may feel like it happened just yesterday, but with vintage definition declaring anything from 1993 or earlier as officially “vintage,” this decade is fast approaching the cultural canon of vintage style. The minimalist, grunge, designer, sportswear, hip hop and preppy looks are most remembered styles from the era, establishing western fashion’s permanent shift toward “casual” versus the more dressy, put-together looks of ’50s-’70s fashion.
The ’90s also represents another sweeping trend of 20th century civilization: the rise of technology. With the Internet age blossoming by the late ’90s, the communication of “what’s hot” was faster than ever before. While magazines and television remained the main influences behind fashion change, digital communication began leaving its mark as fashion content shifted back to street-born trends, as we saw happen with mod fashion trends of 1960s London.
While we can’t evaluate the speed of style today, chances are fashion analysts of the future will speak of how this era was one of “rapid change” and “revolutionary growth” in the digital fashion sphere. Whatever their conclusions, one thing is for sure: We are living in an exciting time, and 1990s fashion marked the beginning of this groundbreaking change.
1990s Fashion Trends
We remember Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wearing them on stage and in the band’s iconic video for “Smells Like Teenage Spirit.” The Seattle rock scene’s trend of dirty, “grungy” style dressing went mainstream and once MTV caught on, angst-ridden teenagers and 20-somethings across America began rummaging thrift stores for their own versions of this lumberjack staple.
Source: My So Called Life
In My So Called Life, Claire Danes’ character Angela is known for pairing masculine plaid shirts with feminine floral printed baby doll dresses.
Oh, and don’t forget the tights and combat boots worn as ’90s staples below (Plus some sweet Jared Leto by your side. Yummy.).
The mini skirt made a comeback in the ’90s because 1960s fashion became a hot trend.
Popularized by Mary Quaint in the ’60s, the mini skirt was a skin-revealing style cut high above the knee. In the ’90s, the mini skirt got mega tight. The influences of ’80s spandex made wearing anything tight on trend.
Dresses, tops, shorts and skirts were often made of a Spandex/Lycra blend that cut them snug to the body. In other words: Baby’s got back in a ’90s mini skirt!
Source: Saved by the Bell
How can we forget Kelly Kapowski’s hot-chick-on-campus style from Saved by the Bell?
She wore her mini skirts well, either as a matching top and skirt set (see left) or as bright and bold base for the rest of her neon-styled outfit. Plus feathered bangs and a “Who, me?” attitude, and you’ve got yourself the perfect ’90s hot girl look.
Mickey Mouse has been a cartoon legend since 1928 (his debut in a cartoon), and in the ’90s he was a favored character on T-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.
Perhaps it was because Orlando’s Disneyworld (which first opened in 1971) had capitalized on the marketplace with full lines of ready-to-wear Disney clothing, or it’s just that Mickey and friends has made a comeback for 2013 so the best vintage sellers are sourcing styles for their ’90s loving customers.
Whatever the reason, Mickey is as magical to wear today as he was by suburban moms and their tweens in the ’90s.
The ’80s had cut-off sweatshirts and tight spandex leggings, but the ’90s had cut-off denim shorts and naval-revealing “crop” tops.
The double-whammy pairing represented the era’s trend of sexy dressing. While wearing oversize everything was still a trend among hardcore fans still stuck in the ’80s, the ’90s trends shifted to showing some skin.
Crop tops (or what I called “belly shirts” when asking my mom to buy me one in 4th grade <— true story), came pre-cropped or with above-the-naval ties. Sometimes they were short sleeved and sometimes they were long sleeved, or in a polyester-sheer material that revealed your lingerie below.
Fashion culture’s acceptance of the crop top represents how in the ’90s, the definition of “appropriate” daywear fashion was relaxing in favor of a less-is-more approach.
Liv Tyler’s character in the ’90s classic Empire Records is remembered for showing off her belly button wearing a fuzzy crop top sweater with a plaid school girl skirt below.
She was probably the hottest record store employee in the history of cinema next to Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink.
1980s fashion was inspired by ’50s style. Sweetheart necklines, tulle skirts and pin-up/rockabilly styles were prevalent.
So logically, the ’90s jumped a decade ahead of the ’80s and turned to the ’60s to reinvent its trends for modern wearability. One of the trends the ’90s interpreted was the op art / pop art print. Harlequin checks, multi-colored squares and black/white patterns were some of the most notable patterns of ’90s does ’60s fashion prints.
We saw duplication of Andy Warhol’s most famous imagery (Campbell soup cans, multiple faces of Marilyn Monroe) and the mesmerizing, dizzying prints of abstract art (like a kaleidoscopic wardrobe) in ’90s runway fashion, especially with flashy-forward designers Versace and Gucci.
Neon went nuts in the ’90s, inspired by the crazy colors of the ’80s (fuchsia pink, lime green, canary yellow, Florida orange). The bright shades of the ’80s went ’60s mod with colorblock designs and pop art / op art print motifs.
This ’90s Gucci ad campaign as seen on Fashionista embodies the colorblock trend of the ’60s, typically done with solid colored top and bottom or two shades seen in one garment, like a neon colorblock sweater.
Interestingly, both the neon and colorblock trend made a comeback last summer. Nauseating neon colors were in store windows from Forever 21 to Zara, and street style circa June-July-August 2012 was a parade of ’90s inspiration.
Who can forget the sexy-preppy mini skirt and knee high sock look of the ’90s? Next to grunge, it’s one of the most remembered and revered trends of the era.
Plaid schoolgirl skirts cut high above the knee paired with Mary Jane shoes, knee high socks and an itty bitty top were the must-have pieces. Mall stores like The Limited and Express particularly embraced the trend, mass producing the garments for girls of all shapes and sizes to be pretty-in-prep.
Unlike the ’80s prep movement – which was more about popped collars and games of golf – the ’90s prep movement was like a version of Catholic schoolgirls gone bad. The knee high socks showed just enough leg for the admirer to wish for more, and the plaid skirts may have been a conservative pattern, but certainly not a conservative cut.
Plus, with influences from designer Jean Paul Gaultier leaving their mark on mainstream fashion (he made Madonna’s cone bra and corset looks popular), the prep look adopted the approach that cleavage was actually what school dress code ordered.
Fast forward to Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in 1998, and you’ve got sexy schoolgirl style personified to the tune of mega hit stardom. Oh baby, baby.
We never learn the designer of their duds, but the style from the 1995 teen cult classic Clueless made dressing like a preppy schoolgirl the norm for public schoolgirls across the country.
In 1996, I bought a blue plaid skirt and faux mohair sweater from the Limited Too so I could embody Cher’s I’m so-sassy-for-school look. I never considered it preppy, just cool. But then again, I was 10 years old and arguably dressing like a schoolgirl gone bad. Whoops.
The legging trend crept to new heights in the ’90s, replaced with crazy color and pattern biker shorts that girls wore under cut-off denim or as standalone statement pieces with oversize sweaters and T-shirts.
The tie-dye and peace sign designs are about as ’90s as patterns get, representing the era’s modern interpretation of the ’60s and ’70s love brigade styles. Biker shorts were just another sign of how the ’90s was nothin’ but tight, unlike the baggier-is-better ethos of ’80s styles.
Cher and Dionne show off their tight affections for spandex shorts. The racer stripe biker shorts are the best, especially with the white knee-high socks!
Jackson Pollock would have enjoyed the ’90s. The famous artist known for his avant garde abstract work passed away in 1956, but the ’90s made abstract so trendy that he may as well have returned from the grave to start his own fashion line.
Sometimes amusingly called “art teacher” prints, these are the designs that have no explainable description other than “a lot of shapes” or the even bigger bucket phrase, “ethnic inspired.”
By focusing on geometry and a design technique that resembled natural painting, this ’90s trend took on abstract expressionism with a ’90s fashion twist and was found on button-up shirts, blazers and casual pants for both men and women. In other words, yes: Your shirt’s shapes could match your boyfriend’s. Rock on.
She may have been 13 years old, but Clarissa of Clarissa Explains it All wore her ’90s abstract top well. The Nickelodeon star is embracing her inner primary colors with the red, yellow and blue colors, plus green (blue + yellow) thrown in for good measure.
If she weren’t so smart analyzing life in her room, Clarissa definitely could have been a ’90s art teacher. Just sayin’.
It’s one thing to say floral was a trend, but when isn’t floral a trend in fashion?
Floral matters when a specific genre becomes the hottest thing next to Brad Pitt lying in a bed of roses. In the instance of the ’90s floral trend, a very romantic tapestry-inspired floral was the flower du jour.
Think Laura Ashley prints but with bigger flowers and a really serious penchant for pink, plus ribbons, bows and Victorian-esque corset ties, too. The design’s base was typically white or a light pink and the flowers themselves mixed with darker greenery.
Kelly Kapowski, we bow before you for your killer interpretation of the ’90s floral print trend a la dress, blazer and pants!
The body con dress of the ’90s merged the mini skirt trend with the era’s demands for tighter-is-trendier clothing.
The word “body con” is short for body conscious. In other words, when wearing a body con anything, your curves aren’t just embraced but fully exposed. So as the body con trend emerged, the health and fitness industry equally grew and women everywhere were working out to fit into their itty bitty Spandex and Lycra looks.
The body con dress was cut above the knee and made for day or evening wear. It was designed to stand alone so that it stood out as the outfit’s most important piece, keeping with the ’90s preference for minimal styling of garments. The over-the-top accessories, shoes and layers of the ’80s had been replaced with the most simple style of them all: Skin tight clothing.
As more women began wearing jeans everyday and not just for fun outings or working the garden, the ’90s birthed the first DIY denim short. While denim shorts were being sold in stores, they weren’t available in the micro mini lengths that every body conscious, athletically-inclined girl was attracted to in the ’90s.
So what was a hot girl to do? Why, she took a pair of scissors and cut those Calvins, Tommy’s or Levi’s to fit her little booty!
Now a hot trend amongst 12-25 year olds across the nation, the cut-off short trend can be traced to beginnings in the sweet ’90s. Preference for denim grew by leaps in bounds in the ’90s, following the birth of designer jeans in the ’80s that only became more popular in the ’90s with campaigns from Calvin Klein (think Kate Moss and Markie Mark) and mall stores like The Gap offering every shade under the sun.
Mariah Carey in “Fantasy” – rollerskating on the boardwalk while wearing a black crop top and denim cut-offs – epitomizes this trend to the tee. Check out the video if you’ve never seen it before – ’90s classic!
Our favorite Nickelodeon fashionista Clarissa combines two trends in one: Denim shorts (which she has rolled up here) with spandex biker shorts below! You can’t blame her for wanting to be conservative and not show too much booty. Even at 13, she’s on trend with ’60s hippie patches and a ruffled gypsy sleeve.
Either Melissa Joan Hart (the actress who played Clarissa) had great taste as a teenager, or the show’s stylist seriously deserves an Oscar.
Next to grunge and schoolgirl sexy prep, baby doll dresses are one of the most remembered trends of ’90s fashion.
Popularized by grunge rocker Courtney Love (and girlfriend to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain), the baby doll dress was a staple for girls who may not have wanted to indulge in the mini skirt or body con trends of the day. The baby dolls’ more relaxed fit meant she could show off her legs but hide her curves (read: she didn’t need to visit Jazzercise class with her mom) and if she had a pair of combat boots and a tiny back pack on hand, she could create a killer ’90s outfit with three pieces or less.
Baby doll dresses were usually decorated with ditzy (small) floral prints inspired by ’60s mod styles or the dark romanticism of Victorian florals (preferred by grunge girls).
The denim vest is the lonely cousin of the denim jacket. While a jacket offers the utilitarian benefits of warmth, the vest was just a layering piece that operated as a canvas for funky flair (patches from Hot Topic, alternative rock band pins) and stylish piece of rebellious self expression.
But the vest has made a comeback today and when in need of a casual touch, looks great over dresses or paired with mini skirts and a pair of Tom’s.
Angela’s oversized denim vest is worn open over her dress in My So Called Life.
Keeping with the grunge look, Angela paired casual on top of casual to declare her “I just don’t care how I look because it’s more about how I feel” attitude. And Angela, succeed you did for 19 glorious episodes of this iconic ’90s series.
Let it lace! Arguably a trend every decade of the 20th century, lace was re-visited in new cuts and uses in the ’90s.
Lace dresses weren’t just hot, but also pants, tops, shawls, cardigans and more. A bit of lace infiltrated the closet of the average ’90s woman, especially because it became a popular element of detail used to decorate garments or as leggings.
Like the fashion rebels they tried to be, grunge girls stayed alternative trendy by wearing thrifted vintage lace dresses (’20s-’30s) with combat boots and torn tights for a hard-romantic look.
Your ’90s Vintage Photos
Thank you to everyone for submitting their 1990s fashion photos for inclusion in this post! I’m so blessed to be in the position to share these keepsake memories with the world.
From Halimah: Me (in the middle) on a summer day with friends. We’re all wearing white canvas Keds aka Laverne and Shirleys, as we liked to call them. Laverne and Shirley was a popular late ’70s, early ’80s show. We weren’t old enough for the original broadcast but I did used to watch the re-runs. Both Laverne and Shirley would wear the canvas sneaks – an official summertime shoe of the ’80s and early ’90s.
From Halimah: Me with flyaway hair, yapping on a red phone with a clear beeper and a Tupac-smothered wall.
From Halimah: Halter top, cut off jean shorts, and dingy brown, rented skates.
From Kate: It’s about 1992 and I’m sporting a bakerboy patchwork hat. Hats were big in the early ’90s. I had loads. I’m also wearing a long chiffon blouse, another key look.
What you can’t see is probably a pair of cut off shorts over footless tights and my trusty Doc Martin boots. The boy next to me sums up the early ’90s look: bright colors, logo T’s and a woolly hat.
From Kate: Check me out here in 1992: Ear buns, liquid eyeliner, my Grandmas vintage dress, a handmade wooden piece around my neck and nose ring!
From Shae: This was my senior year of high school at a teen club in Detroit called Maxies in 1996. Tight spandex pants with a short of bell leg were popular (actually anything spandex hence the shiny shirt).
Also my long hair was cut in a popular style then (Bob style at the top with a long bang in the back). Ahhh … the 90’s :-)
More 1990s Fashion Tips
THRIFT: How to Thrift Store Shop ’90s Fashion Trends
RUNWAY: How ’90s Fashion Made a Comeback for Spring 2012
FRESH PRINCE: How I Styled a ’90s-Themed Party
’90s BABY: Everything You Wanted to Know About 1990s Clothes
SHOPPING: Where to Buy 1990s Fashion
More ’90s Fashion Trends
FILM: The Best ’90s Teen Movies You’ll Love Watching Again. Check out this page if you’re looking for ways to watch tv for free.
WE REMEMBER: 25 Trends That Didn’t Survive the ’90s
THE BEST OF: ’80s and ’90s Fashion Trends from Pop Sugar
TOP 100: Complex Magazine Ranks the top 100 ’90s Trends
PLUS: Everything You Wanted to Know About the 1990s from ’90s 411