The ‘90s Fashion Trends That Inspire Us Now

The ’90s. Although it may be tempting to condense a decade into a Polaroid album of slip dresses and brown lipstick, the true essence of this era is hard to define. Then as now, shock waves of cultural, political, and social turmoil sent a current of reactivity through America. Artists made a mess. Young people broke norms and stereotypes. Everyone wore great clothes. 

Although two decades have gone by, the bold and idiosyncratic spirit is more relevant than ever. Today there’s a lot of pressure to select a given aesthetic or fixed style identity. Looking to the ’90s, we are reminded that this is unnecessary when fashion is impossible to pin down – one’s personal style can be grunge and minimal, avant-garde and classic. And that is why we love it.

Viewed through the lens of different subcultures, here are the ’90s trends that continue to inspire us today.


Winona Ryder, Curt Cobain, Drew Barrymore , Courtney Love and Kim Gordon all had the “keeping it real” vibe of the grunge movement.

“It’s all about freedom, really – and being proud of the holes in your jumper.” –Corinne Day

People see rock and roll as youth culture, and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do? I think we should destroy the bogus capitalistic process that is destroying youth culture.

-Thurston Moore, from “1991: The Year Punk Broke.”

A Sonic Youth Zine.

Grunge, based in protest against capitalism, was an inherently sustainable movement. The thrift style, which arose in the ’80s, centered around the music scene originating in Seattle. However, it quickly spread cross-country – and stormed the catwalks. MARC JACOBS for Perry Ellis was one of the first times casual dressers found their look recreated on the runway. Precariously heeled editors teetered out of the show in disgust. Marc Jacobs lost his job. Essentially, the show broke down boundaries and made the establishment uncomfortable. Though equally upset were the grunge kids who saw it as Marc appropriating their style to sell to the rich people. Rock and roll.

More than anything, grunge was an attitude. It wasn’t just Kurt Cobain’s baggy striped sweater or the now ubiquitous tee shirt. It was the slouch and freedom of movement, the indifference, anger, and charisma projected by Cobain wearing these garments.

Thrifting was popular for a reason – in throwing together unique pieces, one could hint at an autonomy that went beyond the clothes.

Let the editors walk out. The show was on in the streets, and the band would keep playing. Below are some grunge-style essentials for original interpretation only. Use them when you make your thrift store shopping list.

combat boots

Big, bad, and dangerous to know. These chunky lace-up boots are destined to be your go-to weapon (choice of footwear) for when you decide to rally the troops (your friends) in a valiant campaign (rock concert) to storm the trenches (pit). Frankly, the name says it all.

flannel shirt

Rescued from an unfortunate association with lumberjacks, the flannel shirt is the celebrity of the casual fashion world. Tied into the Seattle thrift-store aesthetic, it can also be tied around the waist to add a grunge flair to any outfit. After the flashy ‘80s, the grunge movement proved that fashion doesn’t have to leave your financials in complicated knots. More often than not, a simple one will do the trick. The revival of the flannel, popular in the ‘70s, also displays the cyclical nature of the trend cycle. ‘90s figures like Cobain drew from the ‘70s in the same way we cultivate ‘90s trends to fit our modern aesthetics. While the trend cycle operates in increasingly short durations today, the flannel stubbornly refuses to go away and remains a wardrobe fixture.

babydoll dress

Female grunge musicians like Courtney Love and Kat Bjelland adopted ‘kinderwhore’ styles to mock the era’s infantilizing attitudes towards women. Dressed in an exaggerated vision of femininity like the Victorian doll, Love subverted expectations by screeching her intent to become “A Walking Study in Demonology” into a microphone. Kinderwhore was also an inspirational choice for artists in the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement, who also utilized girly style to express dissatisfaction with the patriarchal status quo. The ultimate in jump scares – no one expects the doll to be capable of murder, and certainly not with the electric guitar as her weapon of choice. Dresses aren’t just for the dirty girls either; male grunge icons have been known to rock a floral number. 

oversized sweater

While wool and acrylic are difficult to ignite, the oversized sweater trend spread like wildfire to become an iconic ‘90s trend. Kurt Cobain subverted the previous emphasis on the body’s form in favor of a looser and more androgynous style. This blurring of lines across gender barriers reflected Cobain’s philosophy as a feminist morally opposed to the rigid gender status quo. Although Courtney Love is the most famous of his partners, he previously dated a member of riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit reportedly derives its name from his former girlfriend’s favorite deodorant brand. Wearing an oversized sweater became the most simple form of rebellion against gender restrictions, the fashion equivalent of a dismissive shrug.

distressed clothes

Rather than expressing your inner emotional turmoil with words, write it in the language of your style. From another view, wearing your clothes to literal shreds is a gesture of love. Orsola de Castro, the author of the sustainable fashion bible “Loved Clothes Last”, says, “For me, wear-and-tear is symbolic of a personal, individual path, with breakages (mended or raw) as a powerful visualization of our activities, memories of moments, the scars of our every day, an integral part of our clothes’ stories.” The black sheep of the family doesn’t have to dress to the nines when lived-in denim communicates independence just as well – if that isn’t the raw truth.

graphic tees

Take a lo-fi approach to Cher Horowitz’s electronic wardrobe and start your endless rotation. Instead of preppy fits, state your grittier mission with band and baby tees with cool girl vibes per Sofia Coppola and Kim Gordon. Just make sure you know some deep cuts, and Nirvana isn’t the only grunge band on your Spotify.


“What the hell is that?”
“A dress.”
“Says who?”
“Calvin Klein!”
-Clueless, 1995

By 1997, the glamour and excess of the early 90s had given way to a newer, more subtle form of luxury. Tailoring was crisp, colors were stark, and the overall impression was that far from getting strewn about in hotel rooms, the wearer of clothes might now wake up in a (terribly chic) board room.

Designers of the era proved that a seemingly simple approach could introduce layers of complexity while trimming away unnecessary fabric. A carefully chosen textile. A color. The unusual silhouette of otherwise nondescript boots.

Designers like Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein proved that Less was not just More, but Most. It was a global phenomenon that went beyond the Western world, too – Japanese designers favored an eclectic approach. 

Minimalism also offers a seamless transition to apply the design philosophy to the rest of your life. After all, what’s more sustainable than simply consuming less? Simple pieces can also be re-worn repeatedly without worrying about the changing nature of the trend cycle. Below are some of the trademark trends of this inspirational shift.

unusual textures

Bow Wow Wow’s 1982 cover of “I Want Candy” goes like this: I want candy when it’s wrapped in a sweater. Well, with a new decade comes new possibilities. What if, for instance, instead of wanting candy, you could be the candy? That was Helmut Lang’s tantalizing frame of reference when he debuted a hot pink latex dress for SS94. The otherwise simple design lends the ensemble a perceived accessibility, rendering it a tempting sweet treat. 

slip dress

Once a garment used to preserve a woman’s modesty, the decade brought the slip back as a chic assertion of female independence. Typically designed in lace and silk, the slip dress was spotted on everyone from Princess Diana to Kate Moss. These classic numbers are also highly versatile and can be paired with anything from beaten-up Converse and a leather jacket to kitten heels and a blazer. They also vary in style – from the understated slip dress on Julie Delpy in 1995’s Before Sunrise to the completely sheer ‘naked’ dress pioneered by Kate Moss. From before sunrise to after the party’s over, here is a downtown staple that has you – barely – covered.

kitten heel

Slow fashion, yes; high heels, no. Rushing from one place to another in 90s super fashion, imagine the inevitable PR debacle upon getting your stiletto lodged in a subway grate. Granted, a kitten heel might not allow you to tower over your peers. But it will save you from being a snail-paced sidewalk hoarder – and possibly from disaster, as we imagine it would be easier to dislodge.

the baguette

In addition to being debatably the greatest culinary contribution of a particular European country, the baguette is also one of the greatest ’90s bag silhouette. While regrettably inedible, it is more versatile than the original and can store lipstick and keys.

streamlined separates

Icons like Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy elevated unassuming basics like a black turtleneck or tee with chic accessories and luxurious tailoring. These pieces epitomize the notion of the modern woman, with no nonsense and no frills. She very clearly means business.

oval sunglasses

Rather than disguising your RBF with a fake smile, accentuate it with these specs. You will look impenetrable, like you have deep, dark secrets and are not to be messed with, regardless of the circumstances—precisely the energy you want to project on your morning commute.

rave / Club Kid Style

The Spice Girls and Gwen Stefani helped popularize (commercialize?) rave and club kid aesthetics

In the 90s, we were all apart, ripping everything apart and putting it back together again and letting all the scars show. –Walt Cassidy

The club kids are professional party creatures, who dress and coif themselves to fabulous extremes.
-Jay McInerney for The New Yorker

During the 90s, dance music culture hit the floor in unexpected places. Initially emerging in 1980s England, the rave scene spread to New York and LA, launching illicit electronic music dance parties in warehouses and fields. When law enforcement cracked down on raves, people took their love of electronic music to clubs like The Limelight in NYC.

Club Kids and the nightclub scene was run by the artists and creatives who drove the movement. They were fiercely experimental in what they wore and did not limit themselves to the ubiquitous nightclubs, either – at “outlaw parties,” Club Kids turned up in outrageous fits anywhere from parking lots to a McDonalds to The (pre-gentrified) High Line.

More than ever, clothes were a method of expression, but they didn’t need to be hoarded or curated to make an impact. Instead, Club Kids and Ravers embraced a deconstructive approach to fashion. A haute couture top might be paired with ripped jeans. A bold ensemble might come undone and be stitched together on a night-to-night basis. Signs of wear and tear were embraced, and a DIY ethos was integral. 

Rave culture embraced gender fluidity, but more importantly, doing whatever you wanted. The implication was that it didn’t matter, as people of all genders and identities gathered to rave the night away. Here are some trend suggestions drawn from the scene for your next dusk-to-dawn escapade.

realllly wide-leg pants

Think JNCOS or UFOS or another acronym that sounds like governmental code for the cover-up of a mysterious and threatening entity.

sporty vibes – bomber Jackets + Track Suits

Both quintessential ’90s silhouettes, a. bomber jacket can be paired with track pants for the perfect sporty ensemble. ’90s designers borrowed from other cultures to a sometimes questionable extent. Do better than them and imitate an athlete instead.

(seen here: Puff sleeve bomber jacket by Owen Gaster)


Worn in sandal form, you can boldly risk your feet being stomped on. In boot form, you can stomp on other people’s feet. To maximize audacity, opt for an obnoxious level of chunkiness. Regardless of choice, there are endless stomping opportunities, you brute.

mesh top

For hot nights at the club, bold-printed mesh tops make for a surprisingly practical choice due to the built-in ventilation. Also helps you exude heat in the metaphorical sense!

The corset

Although corsets have been in the public consciousness for centuries, they truly took the spotlight for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. Her Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra crystallized the vision for an era of newfound sexual freedom and expression. Both flattering and bold, the underwear-as-outerwear trend continued into the club scene.

–jayna rohslau