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Fashion in the 1990s - Overview

The 1990s is sometimes called the 'anti-fashion' decade. Australians could choose from a diverse range of clothing trends, most of which were a reaction against the materialism and excess of the 1980s. In particular, young people drew inspiration from a variety of sources, rather than following one particular 'look.'

Many styles were subdued and minimalist, using simple fabrics and uncluttered designs. Grunge and retro fashion, allowed the wearer to express their individuality by choosing from an eclectic mix of styles. Grunge combined the masculine with the feminine and hippie with punk, while retro mixed new, modern clothes with items from previous decades.

Fashion was truly globalised in the 1990s, as new technology like the internet enabled fashion trends to rapidly disseminate between cultures. Dressing for comfort was also a key trend in Australia in the 1990s, as sportswear established itself as a mainstream fashion trend and new stretchy fabrics became widely used.

The decade of minimalism

Dressing down' became the key fashion trend of the 1990s. The cluttered, over-the-top glamour of the 1980s was rejected in favour of simple, understated clothes. Neutral colours like grey, brown, olive green and beige replaced the royal blue, bright fuchsia and emerald green of the previous decade. Countering the wide shoulders and frills of the 1980s, clothes in the 1990s were neat, slim fitting and casual and fabrics were softer and more relaxed.

Make-up was generally toned-down and natural and many women's magazines touted the 'less is more' philosophy. Jewellery, too, became more minimal, in contrast to the chunky, flashy accessories of the 1980s.

Office wear goes casual

The wide-shouldered 'power suit' fell out of fashion in the 1990s. Working from home became more popular and office attire evolved to become more casual, comfortable and low-key. Some companies, however, still required formal business attire.

Many women opted for the 'mix-and-match' look, for example, combining a tailored skirt with a stretch-fabric top and a smart jacket. Mens' office wear also relaxed; swapping formal suits and ties for casual, light-weight shirts and trousers.

Grunge fashion

The rise of alternative 'grunge' fashion in the early 1990s was one of the most significant trends of the decade. Grunge was an eclectic trend that combined two very different forms of rebellion from previous decades - the 1970s 'hippie' and 1980s 'punk' movements. Grunge-style clothing was often oversized, baggy and torn and featured dark, subdued colours. Hair was kept deliberately messy and un-styled.

The grunge movement was driven by a rejection of the consumerist, image-obsessed style of the 1980s and featured a diverse range of styles that soon filtered through to mainstream clothing. Typical grunge fashion for young women may have included long, straight hair and flowing, feminine skirts, combined with punk influences like heavy, black Doc Martens boots and body piercings. Young men also wore their hair long, and sported shabby, baggy pants, ripped t-shirts and flannelette shirts.

Grunge fashion derived from the Seattle-based grunge music scene which became popular in Australia in the 1990s. It was led by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam (refer to Topic 6, Chapter 2).

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Body decoration

Body decoration became popular in the 1990s, as young people sought to assert their individuality. Tattoos and dreadlocks became more common and many young people sported facial piercings - typically an eyebrow, nose, tongue or lip piercing.

Navel, or belly-button, piercings were also popular with young women. These piercings spurred the popularity of short cropped tops that exposed the midriff and trousers that were worn low on the hip, rather than at the waist.

The globalisation of fashion

In the 1990s, technology like satellite television and the internet enabled fashion trends to quickly spread around the world. Cheaper air travel also meant that people could more easily travel to other parts of the world and bring overseas cultural influences back to Australia. As a result, people in London or New York in the 1990s would likely be wearing similar clothes to people in Sydney or Perth.

Globalisation also led designers to borrow heavily from cultures previously absent from Western fashion. In particular, Chinese and Japanese clothing styles began to influence mainstream fashion.

Straight, simple Oriental-style dresses featuring short unfolded `mandarin' collars became popular. New embroidered Chinese fabrics and decorative beaded bags and purses also became readily available in Australia throughout the decade.

Retro fashion

Young Australians seeking to define themselves through fashion in the 1990s often turned to the past for inspiration. Retro, or 'retrospective' clothing, was popular throughout the decade. As mainstream fashion became more uniform and globalised, young people scoured market stalls and second-hand clothing shops to find unique, quirky items of clothing from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Retro fashion drew from the past to create a distinctive new look. Old tie-dyed shirts, knitted cardigans, polyester dresses and leather jackets would often be teamed with modern clothes like jeans and cargo pants.

Hairstyles in the 1990s

Hairstyles in the 1990s moved away from the big, bouffant, heavily-styled look popular in the 1980s, towards a more natural look. Throughout the decade, hairstyle trends varied considerably.

Some women wore their hair long and straight, others opted for a short, textured style. Others took inspiration from television and film stars. The long, sleek 'Rachel' haircut, for example, was the most widely-copied female hair style of the decade. The style was worn by Jennifer Aniston in the American sitcom Friends and was named after her character, Rachel Green.

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Sports clothing

Mainstream Australian fashion in the 1990s was heavily influenced by sports clothing, a trend that carried over from the fitness craze of the 1980s. Comfortable, stretchy clothing, like fleecy tracksuits, became common everyday attire. Clothing from brand-name sportswear companies like Nike and Adidas was considered highly fashionable.

The 1990s sportswear craze was also fuelled by the influence of American rap and hip-hop artists. Young Australian men flocked to wear back-to-front baseball caps and basketball jerseys like their favourite hip-hop stars. Extra-baggy trousers, worn low on the waist to reveal brand-name boxer shorts, were another hip-hop inspired trend.

Chicago Bulls basketball player Michael Jordan also helped popularise sporting attire in the 1990s by putting his name to products like Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes.

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Fabrics in the 1990s

Technological advances saw a number of easy-wear, easy-care fabrics introduced throughout the decade.

Lycra and spandex was mixed with other fibres like cotton and wool. This improved the stretch of garments, making them more comfortable to wear and helped to prevent creasing. These blended fabrics became popular in the production of everyday casual wear.

Plain, natural fabrics like linen, silk and cashmere were popular, reflecting the back-to-basics mood of the decade. A new, lightweight fabric called tencel, manufactured from wood fibre, enjoyed a brief period of success.

A revolutionary, yet short-lived textile fad in the 1990s was a heat-sensitive fabric known as Hypercolour. Hypercolour t-shirts and shorts contained a heat-sensitive pigment that changed colour, depending on a person's body temperature. The garments quickly lost their ability to change colour, however, especially when washed in hot water. While initially successful in Australia, Hypercolour clothes soon waned in popularity.


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