We tend to define decades by fads and fashions. You might look back on a favorite TV show with nostalgia, or cringe at your fashion choices. The 1990s are no different. It seems, at first glance, like a bland decade, destined to be little more than "the decade after the '80s." Even those who grew up in the '90s can be hard pressed to pinpoint the decade's character in a single word or phrase.
That may be by design: It's easy to see the '90s as a transitional period. Consider the world of the early 21st century — the ubiquity of the Internet, the diversity of styles, the things that are acceptable and mainstream that were once on the fringe. Many of those things began as fads of the '90s. It was the decade that rang out the end of the 20th century and all its cultural upheavals, all while ushering in the 21st century with a host of technological innovations.
Of course, some fads just faded and fizzled. For people who lived in the '90s, those fads are still with them. Even if they never wore their clothes backwards, they laughed at the idea that some people did. From piercings to flannel, "90210" to grunge, here are 10 of the biggest '90s fads. They helped shape your world, like it or not!
Grunge was both a musical style and a fashion choice. The music was generally defined by heavy guitars and overwrought, angsty lyrics; the fashion by flannel shirts, combat boots, muted colors and an overall blue collar aesthetic. If those elements seem a bit vague, that's because grunge was as much a rejection of other fads as a specific fad itself.
In the 1980s, popular rock music was dominated by flamboyant bands with teased hairstyles, neon spandex stage costumes, slick music production and a party-all-the-time attitude, like L.A.-based bands Mötley Crüe and Poison [source: Billboard]. An eventual backlash was inevitable, and it came initially from the Seattle music scene. There, a small indie record label called Sub Pop signed edgy bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana.
Nirvana's unexpected jump to mainstream success defined grunge and the "Seattle sound" as a whole. Indeed, many of the bands who are lumped together under the grunge label (Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden) have little in common other than their home city, a love of heavily distorted guitars and dark lyrics about serious topics. They all painted a stark contrast to the glam rock and hair metal that had come before, however. Of course, that meant that it wasn't long before you could buy fashionably grungy flannel in every mall in America.
Tattoos and Piercings
The grunge "revolution" brought about an increased interest in non-mainstream music, underground scenes, and a resurgence of punk rock. Some of the hallmarks of these scenes and styles were tattoos and aggressive body piercings. Initially, they were ways for people to set themselves apart from the mainstream. Like grunge itself, it didn't take long for the mainstream to co-opt these underground fashions.
It isn't necessarily correct to call them fads, because they never quite faded away the way pet rocks did in the '70s. Tattoos and piercings were so thoroughly absorbed into mainstream culture that today they're far more acceptable than they were 15 years ago. There are limits, of course. More extreme forms of facial piercing and obvious (or offensive) tattoos can definitely reduce employment opportunities. But there are plenty of school teachers and doctors with tattoos and piercings, and most of them are children of the '90s.
If tattoos and piercings challenged social norms, the Macarena was a fad with little long-term impact, aside from an intensely annoying tune that stuck in your head for days. Like "The Twist" from several decades earlier, "Macarena" was a simple song with a silly eponymous dance that exploded in popularity in the mysterious way that fads do.
A catchy tune from Spanish group Los del Rio, "Macarena" became a worldwide phenomenon in 1996, smashing records by staying at number one on Billboard's Hot 100 chart for an astonishing 14 weeks [source: Billboard]. The jovial, bouncy song (that repeats itself over and over and over again) had its own dance, making it two fads in one.
The Macarena had a convoluted journey to pop success. First written in 1992, its popularity spread gradually through Spanish-speaking countries. A remix with English vocals by the Bayside Boys is the version that became a worldwide sensation. The dance is easy for anyone to learn, requiring a few simple arm movements and a jubilant jump.
Los del Rio remains popular in its home country, but the Macarena had played itself out by 1997, rendering the song and the two men behind it only a distant memory in America.
The Waif Look
While they weren't exactly "full-figured," 1980s supermodels like Cindy Crawford were zaftig compared to the half-starved, heroin-chic look embodied by models like Kate Moss, who weighed in at barely 100 pounds (45.3 kilograms).
The heroin-chic aesthetic — gaunt bodies, as well as hollow, vacant eyes with dark circles beneath — was pushed by certain fashion photographers, notably Davide Sorrenti, who died of a heroin overdose himself [source: Spindler]. Calvin Klein ads featuring Kate Moss brought heroin chic the most attention, enough so that the public took the fashion industry to task for promoting unhealthy bodies and glamorizing drug use. Even then-President Bill Clinton weighed in with disapproval.
While the specific heroin chic trend has long since faded, fashion and pop culture magazines still alter photos of models to make them look unnaturally thin, despite constant outcry to depict models with realistic, healthy bodies.
Let's be clear: Hip hop music is by no means a '90s phenomenon. It has its roots in 1970s urban culture and broke through to mainstream success in the '80s. In the '90s, though, rap was heavily commercialized, just like rock music had 20 years before. On one hand, MC Hammer achieved massive success with the single "U Can't Touch This," a palatable, pop version of hip hop that didn't feel out of place on Top 40 radio. At the same time, edgier, so-called "gangsta" artists such as NWA, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur became household names and sold millions of albums.
If grunge was the inevitable response to commercialized rock, then gangsta rap was probably the inevitable response to pop hip hop. In rejecting dance-oriented songs in favor of slice of life vignettes that depicted the violent world of inner city life and chest-thumping machismo, gangsta rap artists created a gritty, often controversial form of hip hop that ruled the '90s. Although it's been decried for glamorizing drugs and violence and encouraging misogynistic attitudes over the years, gangsta rap hasn't gone away. Despite fading record sales, it continues to have a pervasive influence on urban culture [source: Jones].
Hip Hop Fashion
Rappers such as The Fresh Prince, Kid 'N Play, and Left Eye of TLC sparked a trend in wearing brightly colored, baggy clothing and baseball caps. Teens flocked to malls to recreate the look, with a little help from fashion lines like Karl Kani, Cross Colours and FUBU. Gangsta rappers took the trend farther, imitating prison inmates forced to wear ill-fitting pants with no belts allowed — wearing pants sagged well below the waist was a fashion statement and gave wearers a slouching gait, along with some "street cred" due to a loose association with prison culture. That particular fad has not faded in the least [source: Koppel].
A bizarre offshoot of the baggy clothes trend was the habit of wearing clothes backwards. This was primarily a gimmick for young rap duo Kris Kross, but it did catch on briefly — very briefly — after the group's debut album hit big in 1993.
Another '90s trend within hip hop, a focus on material wealth, affected fashion as well. It became popular for a while to keep the tags on newly purchased designer clothes to show off the ostensibly high price, thus proving your success. Ironically, hip hop fashion has become big business since the '90s, as clothing lines like Phat Farm, Baby Phat and Rocawear have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars.
Clothing manufacturer Generra created these fad-ready T-shirts in the late '80s, but they really caught on in 1991. The shirts were dipped in temperature-sensitive pigment known as thermochromic leuco dyes. Heat changes caused the leuco dye to turn colorless temporarily, allowing the base color of the shirt to show through. For example, a yellow shirt dyed with blue leuco dye would appear green [source: ColorChange]. Heated areas of the shirt would therefore appear yellow, since the blue dye becomes colorless. That's why most hypercolor shirts reveal a lighter color rather than a darker one when heated.
For the most part, the heat-activated color change was brought about by the wearer's own body heat, resulting in a semi-random pattern on the shirt. A friend could easily leave a hypercolor handprint, as well. Unfortunately, excessive heat ruined the leuco dyes, so washing your hypercolor shirt in hot water would permanently undye it. This fragility no doubt contributed to the fad's quick fade – Generra went bankrupt in 1992.
Virtually any popular TV show is a fad, since they all fade away eventually — if they're not outright cancelled. Several 1990s TV shows really defined the decade, though. You can't talk about the trends of the time without acknowledging the enormous influence these shows had on the kids coming up at the time — especially since the decade offered more opportunity to see themselves on screen than ever before.
"Beverly Hills 90210" was a soap opera about affluent teens at a posh California high school. It debuted in 1990 and its 10-season run perfectly bookended the decade. Ask anyone who grew up in the '90s who Brenda and Dylan were and you'll surely get a passionate reply. The show dealt with topical issues like drug use, teen suicide and abortion, but its breezy peek into the lives of privileged teens gave way to shows like "Gossip Girl" and "The O.C."
"Saved by the Bell" was "Beverly Hills 90210's" little sister. While the shows are unrelated, "Saved by the Bell" covered similar themes, but was aimed at a younger audience. The cast members are perhaps better known for their post-Bell exploits than for the merits of the show itself, and certain infamous moments (like Jessie Spano's amphetamine freakout) have become YouTube classics.
While "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" run extended beyond the '90s, it debuted in 1997, and the first seasons are its finest. It perfectly exemplifies another '90s trend: girl power. The heroine of the show is a high school student gifted with superpowers she must use to fight vampires and demons. The popularity of supernatural teen drama, manifested today in the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series, can be traced back to "Buffy."
Beanie Babies are simple, inexpensive plush toys filled with small beans instead of cotton stuffing. They became a fad in the mid-'90s when manufacturer Ty began "retiring" certain designs. This created a collector's frenzy, since a few early Beanie Babies had become highly sought-after and valuable post-retirement. At one point, you could find racks of Beanie Babies in virtually every store — whether the store normally sold plush toys or not — as everyone tried to cash in on the craze. Collectors scoured shelves looking for that one rare Beanie.
Of course, a fad like that will always burn itself out. A collector's craze causes the manufacturer to make huge amounts of subsequent toys to satisfy demand. Collectors buy them up thinking they will increase in value. Since rarity is determined partly by supply, the huge production runs render later toys worthless. Disillusioned collectors leave the hobby, and the market collapses (a very similar situation happened to comic books in the 1990s as well). Today, you can still find the occasional sad pile of sun-faded Beanie Babies collecting dust in store windows.
Internet Chat Rooms
Today we text and tweet with impunity, but in the '90s, text-based real-time computer communication (in the form of chat rooms or instant messaging) was new technology for most people. Internet chat rooms had been developed as early as 1980 by Compuserv, and users of internet bulletin board servers could engage in a form of nearly real-time chat once instant messaging spread to the masses in 1997. That's when America Online opened up its AOL Instant Messenger program to everyone — whether they were AOL subscribers or not.
Thus did the terms "buddy list," "IM me!" and "away message" enter the American lexicon. Late '90s instant messaging users could scarcely imagine that they'd be able to accomplish the same thing today from their smartphones, but the ubiquity of real-time communications in the '90s certainly paved the way for our current comfort with perpetual internet contact. No matter where you are, all your friends are only a Facebook update away.
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- Allmusic/Billboard. "Open Up and Say...Ahh!" Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.allmusic.com/album/open-up-and-sayahh-r15492/charts-awards
- Billboard. "The Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs (10-01)." Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.billboard.com/specials/hot100/charts/top100-titles-10.shtml
- Hallcrest Color Change technology. "Thermochromic Leuco Dyes." Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.colorchange.com/leuco-dyes
- Jones, Steve. "Can rap regain its crown?" USAToday. June 15, 2007. Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/2007-06-14-rap-decline_N.htm
- Koppel, Niko. "Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail." The New York Times. Aug. 30, 2007. Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/30/fashion/30baggy.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1327050904-7ol2EtB0oTaUVDnHCh9ntQ
- Spindler, Amy M. "A Death Tarnishes Fashion's 'Heroin Look'." The New York Times. May 20, 1997. Accessed Jan. 19, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/20/style/a-death-tarnishes-fashion-s-heroin-look.html?pagewanted=all