Nostalgia is one of those feelings that is quite difficult to describe and even more difficult to categorise as positive or negative. Many cultural theorists and sociologists, most notably Svetlana Boym and Bryan S. Turner, agree that it is one of the defining features of our reality today, especially visible in popular culture and fashion trends. And while it would be logical to conclude that fashion revivalism is an environmentally beneficial phenomenon, the issue appears to be more complicated.
Nostalgia then and now
The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from Greek nostos, meaning ‘return home’ and algia, meaning ‘longing.’ As Simon Reynolds, an English music journalist, writes in his 2011 book titled Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the term ‘nostalgia’ was invented by an Alsatian physician Johannes Hofer in the 17th century. He used it to describe the mental state of Swiss mercenaries on military duty, and thus away from home. We could say that ‘nostalgia’ was then what we now call ‘homesickness’ and therefore it originally constituted a spatial rather than a temporal longing. Up to the end of the 19th century, nostalgia was considered to be an illness and was treated by military doctors. The 20th century marked a shift in the way we understood it; not only did nostalgia become de-medicalised, but its meaning also changed by turning into an emotion felt both, on an individual level as well as by societies at large.
One could argue that nostalgia for the time gone is not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. After all, the Renaissance period was largely influenced by classical antiquity, creating Neoclassicism. Or that Romanticism took inspiration from the Middle Ages which manifested in the Gothic Revival. However, today’s nostalgia, nostalgia of hypermodernity, is different; it yearns for the time in the past you have actually lived through, something unseen in the previous epochs.
The rapid changes of hypermodernity
Mass migration, technological advancements, and socio-cultural transformations accelerated how quickly the world around us was changing; ‘… the world in which you had felt at home gradually disappeared. The present became a foreign country,’ writes Reynolds (2011, p. xxvi). Svetlana Boym, a Russian-American cultural theorist at Harvard University, explains in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001) that nostalgia is an inevitable defence mechanism that responds to the intensified rhythm of everyday life in the ‘virtual global village’ (Boym, 2001, p. xiv). Perhaps the most obvious example of how fast the world is changing manifests itself in technology. Think about the first mobile phone you had, and then take a look at your smartphone. How different are these two devices! The former allowed you to call someone, send a text message, and play Snake; the latter… is a machine, without which you cannot do anything these days!
Just a few years ago seeing people on the street listening to music with their wired headphones was the most normal sight you could think of. Today, they have become the new ‘it’ accessory as the title of the Teen Vogue proclaimed in November 2021. Wired headphones are now a technostalgic fashion item. But why? Why would you abandon arguably more convenient wireless headphones? The resurgence of the 2000s fashion observable in the last 2-3 years has definitely contributed to the adoption of this rather peculiar new trend. While the idea of turning wired headphones into a near-retro accessory seems somewhat ridiculous, I am afraid the time required for an item to be ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’ is only going to shrink.
The spinning circle of fashion and overconsumption
You might have heard of the ‘20-year rule’ regarding fashion – the idea that fashion is cyclical and that it takes approximately 20 years for a once-beloved trend to make a comeback. It seems as though the rule does not apply anymore. Firstly, more and more online creators are reminiscing over the 2011-2016 Tumblr era, galaxy leggings, and creepers. And secondly, Vogue and Elle, largely inspired by their observations of TikTok trends, have informed their readers that the 2010s trends are already back. In her YouTube video titled ‘tiktok is kind of bad for fashion,’ Mina Le, a Vietnamese-American Youtuber interested in fashion, sustainability, and pop culture, explains how the 5 stages of trend cycles (introduction, rise, culmination, decline, and obsolesce) have changed due to influencer marketing strategy squishing the first three into one. Not only has the ‘20-year rule’ changed into a ‘10-year-rule,’ but the dissemination and lifespan of a singular trend have also rapidly accelerated. Remember chunky dad trainers? Apparently, they are not ‘in’ anymore.
‘Nostalgia was once a disease, today … selling an image of the past brings big bucks’ states Charles Panati, an American physicist and author (Panati in Niemeyer, 2014, p. 6). If we can be nostalgic about our very recent past, then cultural artifacts and fashion trends from that time can be easily sold to us once again. The problem is … we have probably got rid of those creeper shoes we thought were ugly just 5 years ago. Not so long ago, we were told that we should not hoard things, that we should be minimalists, so we threw them away. And that is exactly how we keep the circle of fashion and overconsumption spinning, letting it destroy not only our budgets, but also our planet.
What is the solution?
What is the solution if you want to be trendy, but you are also aware of the immensely detrimental effect fast fashion has on the environment? You could buy sustainable clothes made from high-quality fabrics that are fairly priced. But ‘fairly priced’ does also mean ‘kind of expensive,’ and out of reach for many people. Instead, you could start buying second-hand exclusively. It is still better to thrift a fast fashion shirt than to buy a completely new one. You could stop throwing away clothes which are not fashionable at the moment. It is almost guaranteed they will make a comeback. Learn to sew! Or find a local tailor and a shoemaker! Most importantly though (and I am aware of how cliché it sounds), just abandon the idea of wanting to be trendy altogether. Mina Le suggests that a better approach to creating your personal style is to find your ‘aesthetic.’ She mentions ‘cottagecore’ and ‘dark academia,’ both largely popularised by TikTok and other social media platforms, as examples. I would also add ‘aesthetics’ focused on one particular decade, like the 70s or the 90s. If subscribing to just one ‘aesthetic’ does not sound like something for you, then maybe you should learn about the ‘seasonal colour theory,’ David Kibbe’s ‘archetypes system’ or John Kitchener’s ‘style essence theory’ which both help in defining what suits you, and as such, decrease your chances of making regrettable purchases.
The love triangle between fashion, culture, and capitalism
‘Somehow progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it,’ observes Svetlana Boym (2001, p. xiv). Progress, and by extension capitalism, has also found a way to monetise it and feed us with the constant reminders of our recent past. It is tempting to chase nostalgic trends. I have done it myself. Still, we should not get caught up in all the TiktTok trends and Instagram reels telling us what is ‘cheugy,’ what to ‘leave in 2021’ and which ‘nostalgic trend is making a big comeback in summer 2022.’
‘Fashion is the nexus between late capitalism and culture, where they intermesh,’ states Reynolds (2011, p. 421), and if we want to look at our culture and capitalism with a critical eye, we cannot underestimate the role of fashion.
Allaire, C. (2021), TikTok Thinks 2010s Style Is Coming Back, Vogue.
Boym, S. (2001), The Future of Nostalgia.
Hyland, V. (2021), Want To Feel Old? The 2010s Are Already Back, Elle.
Le, M. (2021) tiktok is kind of bad for fashion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR3z8lq2cNM
Li, S. (2021), Wired Headphones Are the New “It” Accessory — and We Should Have Seen It Coming, Teen Vogue.
Niemeyer, K. (2014), Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future.
Reynolds, S. (2011), Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.