How Fashion Satisfies Our Need for Nostalgia

By Michelle Weth
Photography by Simran Gvalani
Modeled by Maya Dengel

This article has been adapted for the web from our Unity/Uniformity Issue.

Fashion is demonstrative of an era and its values. When we think back to past fashion eras, they are characterized by the countercultures of the time, such as Woodstock of the 1960s or how the fashion industry capitalized on the grunge scene of the 1990s. The costumes of popular television shows or films set in the past can influence viewers’ personal styles. Thanks to the internet, images are more easily and readily shared, and allow access to types of fashion other than the prevalent high fashion and normcore aesthetics.


Though more readily apparent today, fashion has always been nostalgic by taking inspiration from innovative designs of the past. In her book Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France, Susan Hiner defines nostalgia as the “romanticized longing for an idealized past.” She writes that nostalgia often “over invests certain objects with emotional powers, and the object is thus fetishized,” exalting certain articles and incorporating them into the collective consciousness.


It’s indisputable that clothing is reflective of the values of a time, but our interpretations aren’t always accurate. It’s widely believed that corsets from the 18th century were laced so tightly that women either became ill or chose to remove their ribs to fit the body standard. This belief was actually disproved in an article by Michelle Honig for Bustle, who wrote that “A woman’s body is quite malleable. You can quite comfortably minimize the body without causing distress or discomfort." Much of the criticism surrounding corsets in our collective consciousness actually comes from male critics, demonstrating that even in the 18th century, women were incapable of escaping the male gaze.

Sometimes nostalgia for a bygone era’s fashion is warranted, though. Take into account the iconic leather jacket, à la James Dean, and its classic association with rebellion. Later incorporated into the grunge counterculture, leather jackets have become a mainstay in fashion with people of all ages, rebellious or not. The fact that clothing items have become such symbols only fuels the notion that society has fetishized certain styles because of their historical significance.

But what do we truly know about the past? People may think they belong in the 1920s or the 1960s, but these desires often come from a nostalgic look at fashions of the past. People may have an affinity for bohemian fashion and think that they would fit right in with the hippies of the 1960s, with the perception that they lived for love and freedom.


Although identifying with the past often involves a romanticized version of history, it also allows people the freedom to embrace silhouettes across generations. The past exists to inform our future, so why not use elements of clothing from the past now? Perhaps take advantage of personal vintage items, or even secondhand pieces from thrift stores. Whether you take inspiration from the clothing your parents or grandparents wore or from style icons like Audrey Hepburn or Steve McQueen, experiment to find your personal blend of old and new to create a style that reflects your own values.