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Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Eight: The ’90s

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The rise of the Internet, the fall of morality. Greed gets an overhaul. Grunge is good. Goth rules. BDSM goes mainstream—and a Presidential pop shot makes the ultimate fashion statement.

  Models of the Gods

In terms of fashion, the ’90s was a mixed, eclectic bag. Although there were major trends and passing fads, there is no single look that defined the times, which is perhaps one reason that the ’90s are known as the “anti-fashion” decade. Influences from the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of rock ’n’ roll, film, television, politics and the world stage, all had an impact on the styles of the era.

Various vogues that took root in the ’80s came into full flower in the ’90s. The fascination with Victoria’s Secret catalogues and the annual Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was taken to new heights, spawning spin-off TV specials and merchandizing mania.

It was the high age of the supermodel. In the mid-’80s, nameless mannequins swayed to the beat of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Christy Brinkley was best as the “Uptown Girl” (and future ex) wife of Billy Joel, but by 1990, glamorous beauties appeared, not only on the arms of famous rockers, but in their videos as well—and they didn’t have to marry them. High-paid clothes hangers such as Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Claudia Schiffer, Tyra Banks, and Linda Evangelista were elevated to the international celebrity status once reserved for movie stars.

  Getting Your Skinny On

Gyms across the nation had been transformed from low-rent, cinder-block sweat dens where 98-pound weaklings once bulked up with free weights, to high-end, fully-equipped-with-juice-bar-and-sauna meat markets. These designer muscle factories were peopled by a new breed of clientele, who were not only looking to buff up, but hook up, as well. As a result, thin was back in; however, in this incarnation, it was tempered with more than a tinge of athleticism, and was epitomized, ironically by Tomb Raider—Lara Croft, an ultra-buff animated videogame heroine (who was not made flesh until ably embodied by Angelina Jolie in the 2001 film directed by Simon West).

But healthy, like everything else, wasn’t a fad that held universal appeal. The flip side of the coin was a new age of heroin chic that reared its not so wholesome head in the mid-’90s, ushered in by waif model extraordinaire, Kate Moss. Moss’s signature look was a cross between high fashion and Edward Gorey’s doomed heroine Charlotte Sophia in The Hapless Child (think Twiggy if she’d been starved for a week, then dragged behind a bus for a couple of blocks). Tubercular is sexy. Who knew?

Other famously thin ’90s females included Calista Flockhart of Allie MacBeal renown; Twin Peaks’ Lara Flynn Boyle, and the ensemble female cast members of Aaron Spelling’s night time soap-fests Beverly Hills 90210 (okay, except Andrea) and Melrose Place. Interestingly, the mega-marketing and near unavoidable media saturation perpetrated by these shows that touted unrealistically slender role models has been blamed—at least in part—for having a devastating impact on a generation of young women who developed eating and body dysmorphic disorders—and were literally starving themselves to be “sexy.”

  Rock, Grunge, Rap

Using blatant sexuality as a major part of the equation, in 1990, one of the first (and most successful) icons to re-brand her image was chameleon-like Madonna. A genius, if not musically, at self-reinvention and personal promotion, Madonna shed her ’80s frou-frou shredded layers and cuckoo’s nest hairdo to retool her cool for the Blonde Ambition tour.

Juxtaposing a severe, tortured ponytail that conjured flashbacks of ’50s vintage trapeze artists and Vegas show girls with equally cruel yet relaxed looking curls, metallic cone bras and innerwear as outerwear, the Material Girl triumphed, setting herself on a pedestal of near unparalleled idol worship. (Did this literally over-the-top fashion trend lead to a loosening of morals and free sex for the masses? We hope so; however, there is no hard scientific data to back up the correlation—although, I’m sure there must be women’s studies class somewhere that shines a light on Madge’s long-term impact on contemporary culture).

Also ushered in the early ’90s—due largely to the influence of Curt Kobain and Nirvana—was the Seattle Grunge movement, which featured Salvation Army chic, unkempt hair, dubious personal hygiene habits, and fashion death by flannel. Anti-materialistic in its germination, Grunge, like any other trend in which spin doctors (no, not the band) sniffed the slightest potential for “Ka-Ching!” was hijacked and marketed to mall rats around the globe, eager to emulate their hand-me-down heroes by donning fashions manufactured to look tragically careworn and down-at-heel.

Was U2’s Bono channeling Sunny Crocket when he birthed a persona called “The Fly” (a character he described “as a man making a phone call from hell, but liking it there”) for the 1992 Zoo TV tour? Well, that’s my guess, but whatever the inspiration, loose leather jackets worn with bug-eyed shades was a look that walked the streets from Dublin to New York, L.A., and across the globe.

Rap and Hip Hop artists Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan, (P.) Diddy (to name but a few) had a tremendous impact, not only on music, but on ’90s fashion and sexual mores, as well. As baggy clothing, off-the-ass pants and bling became part of our cultural vernacular, the raw, violent, sexually charged, profane (and often misogynistic) language of rap lyrics challenged the standards acceptable content. Rap videos were notorious for scantily clad women gyrating their curvaceous bodies like so many moths drawn to the testosterone-fueled flame of a male “harem master,” as epitomized by Sir Mix a Lot’s 1992 mega-hit, “Baby Got Back.”

While labeled patently anti-female by many in conservative and third-wave feminist quarters, Hip Hop and Rap, however unintentionally, served as a long overdue kick-in-the ass antidote for anorexic chic, and actually paved the way for women of more generous proportions, such as J. Lo and Queen Latifah, to become sex symbols who would eventually be embraced by a world audience.

Another ’90s fashion trend that has roots in the music scene was body modification. Tattoos (especially the done-to-death, above-the-ass “tramp stamp”) and piercings of every imaginable body part—from belly buttons and tongues to nipples, cocks and labia—were glorified by Goths like Marilyn Manson, and notorious Hole frontwoman, alt rocker Courtney Love (who also influenced profound clothing befuddlement by bolstering the baby-doll trend).

While some bands, such as Green Day and the Meat Puppets (yes, it’s a penis reference) were of acolytes of cross-dressing onstage and in video performances, the effect was often less than androgynous. However, while these were clearly men in drag—or in the case of openly bi Billy Joe Armstrong, thong undies … or bare bollocks—the message of these fashion statements was just as unmistakable: “Whatever your sexuality, it’s cool. Go with it.”

  Small Screen, Big Impact

Television of the ’90s was also influential in eroding sexual stigmas and bringing gay and lesbian role models to the fore. In 1997, when Ellen Degeneres came out in real life, her sitcom character on ABC’s Ellen (These Friends of Mine), followed suit. Despite initial criticism for its stereotypical depictions of gays, NBC’s Will & Grace, which debuted in 1998, quickly became one of the most enduringly successful shows featuring gay principal characters.

As cable television took command of audience share, many standards and restrictions that had traditionally hogtied network TV, that had always been beholden to sponsors, fell by the wayside. Cable shows such as HBO’s Real Sex, a magazine format series that focused with explicit detail on sex trends and kinks of the day, and The Real World, in which audiences were treated a voyeuristic view of participants confabbing, cat-fighting and occasionally even fucking, pioneered the way for future TV fare in which nudity, violence and overtly non-vanilla content were no big whoop. In an effort to compete, a shining parade of bare asses—including that of Denis Franz, Jimmy Smitts, Rick Schroeder and Sharon Lawrence—titillated (or horrified, depending on the ass) viewers of ABC’s classic Steven Bochco/David Milch cop shop drama NYPD Blue, but these quickly flashing posteriors were no match for the envelope pushing power of cable.

While the ’90s gave us the first female captain of a Star Trek ship, Kate Mulgrew (sounding curiously like Jack Klugman on helium) as Captain Kathryn Janeway on the Star Trek: Voyager series, in terms of (questionable) female role models that had the most impact style and sex, the award has to go to Sex in the City.

In 1998 the mother of all fashion Petrie dishes premiered, and women nationwide found themselves pining for the wardrobes (and figures) of Carrie Bradshaw and company. In order to better identify with prime-time idols who blathered incessantly, wore over-priced shoes and silly hats, lived in apartments that no one in real life could ever afford, and were so perpetually “clueless but evolving” you wanted to shake them just hard enough so that their empty heads would pop off like discarded champagne corks, female fans downed copious amounts of Cosmos, and bedded pretty much anything with a pulse. Check, please! (Reality, check, that is.)

  A Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear

Another phenomenon of the ’90s—one that presaged the upcoming Blue Collar Comedy juggernaut—was the rise of the redneck, as epitomized by the Pro Wrestling boom (for about two years, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing an “Austin 3:16” T-shirt) and the “White Trash Makeover.”

The most stellar examples of WTMs (which is not to be confused with WMDs) were the fat-to-surgically-enhanced svelteness of comic diva Roseanne, who at least had the humor to lampoon her own metamorphosis during the opening credits of her eponymous sitcom, and the cautionary rise and fall of gold digger, Playboy playmate, and Guess Jeans spokesperson Anna Nicole Smith, who had the good sense to marry an octogenarian millionaire with a dubious last will and testament.

The very public weight struggles of Roseanne and Smith, along with non white trash icon, Oprah Winfrey, shed a spotlight on the issue of body perception and accepted standards of beauty. With Hollywood and the fashion media constantly reinforcing lean and slender silhouettes as the ideal, real women were faced with unrealistic goals and expectations.

In the ’90s, sex appeal became another commodity that could be bought, sold, and profited from—not that this was anything new. The pursuit of beauty has always been a moneymaker, and those in the industry have long played to women’s—and men’s—insecurities. However, in the ’90s, the proliferation of home gyms, fad diets, workout DVDs, and drop-of-the-hat plastic surgery became increasingly commonplace.

As we hurtled toward the new millennium, panicked by the prospect of a Y2K meltdown, jaded and sensually over-sated as a senate full of Romans at the empire’s end, we held our breath and waited for the future to descend.

“But at my back I always hear
Times wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.”—From “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvel



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