Words: Ruby Stirling (she/her)
Artwork: Sophie Aicken
Vinyl sales are the biggest they’ve been since the early nineties. Live-action Barbie is one of the most anticipated films of the year. Wired headphones are this season’s most memorable statement. In 2023, it’s nostalgia ruling our collective consciousness – and are you surprised?
We’re all too familiar with the 20-year trend cycle forecast, a model prophesying the rise, climax, and subsequent fall of a given fashion movement over a two-decade period. Until very recently, this model was gospel: waistline heights, skirt lengths, and the popularity of the nefarious double denim ensemble all suitably rose and fell in a predictable 20-year cycle. Following the upheaval brought by 2020 and its wake, however, the cycle seems to have imploded – across the board, consumers are abandoning the 20-year cycle in favour of fashions saturated with nostalgia.
The reasons for this implosion are trifold. Firstly, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown has rewound our cultural imagination backward; pandemic-age nihilism may have left little faith in choreographing the future, but did concede a rosier outlook on the pre-Covid past.
Secondly, the increasing prevalence of the microtrend – namely, progressively short-lived trends that enjoyed their 5 minutes on TikTok before being quickly brandished a faux-pas – accelerated the trend cycle at a rate unsustainable to even those creating the trends in the first place. It’s hardly surprising that we’re looking nostalgically to a time when our clothes weren’t branded obsolete by the end of the month – even if this was a time of mono-patterned galaxy print leggings.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s more and more difficult to justify subscribing to any trend cycle deeming clothing commodities as “in” or “out” considering material and environmental costs. It’s a tough pill that many are yet to swallow, but the nature of a new trend cycle is diametrically opposed to any meaningful movement towards sustainability; resultantly, we’re learning to turn to pre-loved fashions.
Reselling platforms are the primary force of expansion within the second-hand clothing industry – eBay, for example, is enjoying its second year as the official fashion sponsor of reality TV hit Love Island, in a move indicative of our cultural shift away from the accelerating modern fast fashion reel. Alternative platforms, too, are growing in prevalence: apps such as Depop and Vinted are now decidedly mainstream sites to source clothing, with Gen-Z’s “Depop girlie” term bringing the platform into the popular domain as a viral online bit. (For those unfamiliar with the term, it rightfully pokes fun at resellers charging extortionate prices on the platform for items typically sourced from pillaging their local Barnardo’s.)
Though these platforms can subject users to the ridiculous – I’m not sure Depop’s motto ‘keep it circular’ was coined in mind of those reselling the same Brownies t-shirt that I sported over a decade ago as a Girl Guide, described by the seller as a ‘slightly cropped y2k aesthetic’, even if it is for a modest £8 – there’s no denying these platforms’ unique role in injecting nostalgia into fashion. After all, who’s buying new, when you can buy your old favourites for a fraction of the price second-hand (though who am I to rule out the success of an Urban Outfitters X Girlguiding edit from my 2023 bingo card)?
The popularity of these platforms alone can’t explain our cultural embrace of nostalgia, but is certainly symptomatic of a society yearning for comfort and familiarity in a year characterised by a soaring cost of living, ongoing climate crisis, and still-fractured political domain. Relentless socio-economic turbulence is leaving us with little desire – and little pennies – for cultural experimentation, and whilst turning to nostalgia can’t cure us of our contemporary social ailments, it can offer welcome respite.
In this way, unselfconsciously embracing our familiar favourites feels like catching up with an old friend – admittedly, one you periodically hope you’ve outgrown, but learn you want to lean on in times of need. We’re welcoming back this old friend in more ways than one: current technology trends, too, somewhat paradoxically indicate we are nostalgically rejecting modernity and embracing tradition, with a marked revival of physical media usage.
The vinyl revival has been in full swing for the best part of a decade; thanks to this, the industry is continuing to struggle accommodating surges in demand, producing what Rolling Stone dubbed the ‘Great Vinyl Famine’. Regardless, sales continue to rise, notwithstanding the cost of living crisis. December 2022 saw the biggest week for vinyl since 1991, with over 2 million records sold in one week. This rejection of highly neoteric modes of technology is seen in more than just the vinyl revival; we’re seeing eReaders being shunned in favour of paperbacks, and Apple AirPods eschewed for their wired predecessors.
I’ve seen this popularity of physical media being explained through social media’s tendency to encourage performative consumption and aestheticism. Granted, it’s easier to craft an ostentatious Instagram post to show how well-read one is with a picture of a tastefully curated bookshelf, not a Kindle, but media displays have always been slightly posturing in nature, even pre-Instagram. Explaining the revival in physical media purely as a social media phenomenon ignores their implicitly non-digital nature.
Using nostalgia as escapism is nothing new, and is something the entertainment industry is all too well versed in. Following the success of Tim Burton’s reimagination of Alice in Wonderland in 2010, everything from the Lion King to Gossip Girl have been subject to reboot, admittedly with varying degrees of appraisal. In 2023, even Barbie is back on the big screen – she, too, is enjoying a tasteful revival, having had the Greta Gerwig treatment in the live-action feature set to make $31 million in its opening weekend alone in late July.
Characteristically, Gerwig has chimed into popular sentiment pitch-perfectly, recontextualising a familiar face within the anarchic climate of 2023. It’s nostalgia at its very best – Barbie now enjoys power and agency, all whilst sporting her eponymous pink colour that we know and love.
Surely these consumption patterns imply that we’re embracing nostalgic physical media forms to escape the increasing demands of digitalisation? Noise-cancelling AirPods may do a good job of blocking the physical world out, but this is somewhat negated so long as it’s connected to a regular stream of notifications. Whilst enjoying digging through an old CD collection doesn’t mean I’ll be deactivating my Spotify account anytime soon, the sense of nostalgia it provides offers valuable escapism for an hour or two.