When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hit television screens on September 10, 1990, young viewers weren’t just howling with laughter at the smart humour of the NBC sitcom; they were also awestruck at the fashion looks sported by Will and his cousins. Costumed by Judy Richman, who also outfitted A Different World, the show helped afrocentric street style become mainstream, and its influence in the fashion scene is still felt to this day.
While Will’s fashion influence on the show can’t be denied, we can’t forget the immense impact of another Fresh Prince star—‘90s fashion icon Ashley Banks. Played by Afro-Panamanian actor Tatyana Ali, Banks was arguably one of her generation’s it-girls, and not just because she was the sweet-cool girl in the mansion next door. Her cropped denim jacket and mom jeans pairings inspired young people across race, culture, and class.
Throughout the series’ six seasons, Bank’s character evolved from the silly youngest sibling enamored by her cousin from Philly to a self-assured young woman with an eye for trends, and her wardrobe reflected this transformation. In the series’ early years, Banks sported bold-printed sets and baggy, colourful outfits that reflected her cheerful personality and interest in hip-hop. It wasn’t until the fourth season that little Ashley became a major fashion inspiration. In it, we see her in the midst of teenagehood, forming her own personal style separate from the playful patterns of pre-teen clothing and homogeneous school uniforms. With her babydoll tees, mom jeans, tennis skirts, and combat boots, Ali’s character (and the actor herself) set the tone for ‘90s fashion. When Banks performed at a talent showcase in the first episode of the fifth season, “The Client, Part 1,” with a black bra top, cropped dark denim jacket, and light-wash mom jeans, the outfit—which reflected the decade’s fashion zeitgeist—immediately became one of Banks' most memorable looks and outfit inspiration for young viewers entering adolescence. Banks’ style after season four showcased the character’s growth as an individual and as a musical artist.
Like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz, and other fictional fashion icons of the time, the actor behind the role of Ashley Banks became a major trendsetter, too. In the music video for her melodic hit “Boy You Knock Me Out,” from her 1998 album Kiss The Sky, Ali showed us how to perfectly rock a cropped tank and a pair of loose-fitting bootcut jeans. And let’s not overlook Ali’s red carpet looks, such as the iconic pastel purple ensemble she wore for the 1999 Teen Choice Awards or the black mini dress layered over a white tank she wore for a Kids’ Choice Awards orange carpet.
At a time when teen magazines like Teen Beat and Bop were filled with white pop stars and models, Ali’s role as a ‘90s fashion icon was particularly meaningful for young Black girls and women, especially Afro-Latinas who rarely saw themselves on-screen or on the pages of popular glossies. As an actor-turned-singer, Ali’s rise to fame coincided with the entertainment world’s so-called “Latin Explosion.” However, unlike the white Latina stars of that era—namely Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and Christina Aguilera—Ali’s massive popularity didn’t secure her spot in this Latinx pop culture detonation. So for many Afro-Latinas growing up in the mid- to-late ‘90s, Ali was a breath of fresh air—someone to emulate in the worlds of TV and pop music who actually looked like them.
For many Afro-Latinas growing up in the mid- to-late ‘90s, Ali was a breath of fresh air—someone to emulate in the worlds of TV and pop music who actually looked like them.
Although The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired its final episode on May 20, 1996, Ali and her peers continue to sway present-day style trends, especially as Gen Zers take on ‘90s fashion. As a Gen Zer myself, much of my wardrobe choices take inspiration from the outfits worn by my favourite ‘90s and early 2000s television characters, such as Ashley Banks. When I watch episodes now of a series that aired at a time before I was conceived, I’m energised by the pieces worn by Ashley and her older sister, Hilary. I can often be found scavenging the racks of thrift shops and thumbing through Depop listings in search of the best matching tank and cardigan sets or ‘90s waistcoats to layer over everything from button-downs to plain white tees and turtlenecks. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I also notice how ‘90s fashion trends have infiltrated the closets of my generation––with their babydoll tees, tennis skirts, and excessive-yet-chic layering.
While the cultural impact of Will’s funky, print-filled closet is easy to spot in today’s street style, Ali’s fashion picks, both as Ashley Banks and the actor-singer behind the role, continues to inform the styles of fashion it-girls of the new millennium—and for that, she deserves all of her flowers.