I recently went through several rolls of 20-year-old film that were taken on school trip, primarily because pre-teen me felt that it was absolutely necessary to document how cool she felt. In my Adidas pants, cotton tank top and khaki Gap bucket hat, I had finally Made It. I was 13, successfully interacting with the boy I liked and forcing everybody in my eighth grade class to pose for countless photos with me. Finally, I remember thinking to myself. I look just like Katie Holmes.
I'm sure you've already assumed that, reader, I did not look like Katie Holmes. I didn't know how to straighten my hair properly, wasn't nearly as tall or as nonchalant-seeming and when I tried to use the elevated language of "Dawson's Creek," everybody within listening range told me to stop. But, aesthetically, I wasn't too far off. Because while we currently tout the 1990s as being the pinnacle of fashion and personal style, it was actually a decade rich in ugliness. To truly revel in it, you must appreciate that for every floral dress, there was a ribbed cotton turtleneck, and for every pair of Skechers slides, there were khaki shorts that somehow managed to be both too long and too high. The costume department of "10 Things I Hate About You" is only a fraction of history.
To start, let's remember that every decade is equal parts very glorious and very ugly. No trend can transcend personal tastes, nor can it erase the legacy of our worst choices worn simultaneously. (Minus the noughties, which were, as a rule, heartbreakingly hideous.) Back in 2014, I believed I was chic — I was not — because I wore sneakers with large, oversized sweaters and graphic T-shirts, while as early as last year, I bought a vest, believing myself to be immune to the strange shape the garment created and always had. So, in the same way we are the sum of our parts, each decade is the sum of its best and worst. The thing is, as the '90s resurgence seems reluctant to die down, it's our duty to honor it for what it was: an amalgamation of contradictions, especially if you were just a tween.
For those of us who spent most of the '90s still young enough to make time for ABC's TGIF and to have once lined up outside the theatre to see "Never Been Kissed," "Dawson's Creek" embodied the type of wardrobe most of us were, frankly, allowed to wear — as well as what we could afford. Joey Potter's shapeless khaki shorts both abided by dress code standards and didn't rely on brand names (or brand name prices).When my aunts cleaned out their closets, I reaped the benefits by adopting pairs of their shorts I could easily wear with no-name, thick-strapped cotton tank tops. Unlike Abby Morgan or Jen Lindley, whose pieces were a little more grown-up (or, specifically, more fitted and consisting of synthetic materials), Joey's clothes reflected those of a young person still unsure of herself; someone whose parents still had a say in her wardrobe and whose teachers enforced dress codes reliant on short length and strap width. Her clothes were a blank slate, as she evolved into the woman she wanted to become.
This also reflects a precious '90s middle ground: aesthetic nothingness. Where 20-somethings and Cool Teens embraced pieces inspired by "Reality Bites," "Clueless" and even "She's All That" (Laney Boggs's overalls were iconic), actual children of the decade fueled the rise of the ubiquitous OshKosh B'gosh and now-extinct Canadian mall brand Northern Getaway. The rest of us found ourselves trying to bridge the gap between our fleeting childhoods and the futures we began to envision. We did so with pieces that took a few more risks, but didn't rock the boat at home, or mentally: carpenter jeans, ribbed sweaters, shapeless and logo-less fleece, running shoes. To have delved into the looks of "10 Things" or "The Craft" were still a little too risky, and too adult, and too scary (because that's what being a tween is, generally).
Instead, there were chains like Gap, or for those of us in Canada, Suzy Shier. And bless us, everyone, Delia's — I'm sorry, dELiA*s — a chain fluent in being non-threatening, but still very cool, thanks to dress code-appropriate takes on mini-dresses and jeans. Growing up in the '90s called for cultivating a look that helped hide the fact that many of us did not, in fact, feel neither cool nor chic, and could not star in our own cinematic vehicles. Clothes were an exercise in trying to figure out shit out.
This, however, rarely tends to heed beautiful results, because the in-between is not exactly glamorous. Typically, it's quite painful and weird and filled with poly-blend three-quarter-length tops you swear you saw worn by Melissa Joan Hart once. For at least three months of the eighth grade, I defined myself entirely by shopping at Suzy Shier, telling myself — and anyone who would listen — that I "got" style, that I had arrived and that, no, we did not need to talk about why my new hips made my mid-rise jeans suddenly look super, well, bad.
I bought a graduation gown with lace on it and told myself I looked like Kate Winslet in "Titanic." I thought a bucket hat made me look like Bianca Stratford. I believed more than anything that my bargain-discount Tommy Jeans tee cemented me as our class' bona fide fashionista. And I fell in love with the boys in my class whose graphic T-shirts, oversized turtlenecks and wide-legged jeans told me they'd graduated from wearing sweatpants every day. And while I never want to see any of these pieces romanticized and resurrected (I wore enough bell bottoms for all of us), I do want to see them acknowledged. The '90s were as ugly as they've become culturally relevant.
That just makes celebrating them as a whole even more important. Because without that godforsaken in-between — Dawson Leery's sweater vests, included — we wouldn't have the relationship with style we now do, even if that relationship is marked with a footnote stating that, for too long, some of us wore too-short Adidas pants. And that the boy we thought we were successfully interacting with was actually just going to ask you about how he should go about dating your best friend.
Homepage photo: Pietro D'aprano/FilmMagic