There has been a marked shift towards nostalgia-tinged dressing of late, and while the hyperfeminine aesthetic of the last several seasons is well documented, this kitschy, joyful strand of dressing goes much further than a smattering of frills here and a splash of Pepto-Bismol pink there. No, this aesthetic is reflecting so much more than a want for pretty things; it’s fashion as youthfulness, joyful resistance and female freedom.
2017 marked a shift in our collective consciousness about what pink stood for. Once the colour of choice for gender reveal parties – "It’s a girl!" – pink became the shade of resistance in a year that brought about a political awakening. Vibrant pink hats sat atop the heads of those protesting at Women’s Marches the world over, millennial pink was the signifier of a savvy fourth-wave feminism, and Tumblr- and Instagram-discovered artists such as Lora Mathis championed the candied hue's radical softness. This cultural shift made its way to the catwalks, naturally, with designers making their own rose-tinted statements for SS17. Celine’s Grecian draped jersey dress, Balenciaga’s skintight satin toe-covering trousers, and Rihanna’s entire Fenty by Puma collection turned the shade into a symbol of strength, rather than fragility.
It wasn’t just pink, though, which signalled an electrifying new current of femininity in fashion. A new school of designers including Shrimps strengthened an aesthetic already championed by Simone Rocha, Cecilie Bahnsen and Molly Goddard, one that had all the hallmarks of traditional womanhood with none of the amped-up sexiness we’ve previously seen under the male gaze. These puffed-up sleeves and figure-concealing ruffles are surely the antithesis to Hervé Leger’s infamous Bandage dress; but beyond the tulle and pleats, a heavy dose of nostalgia emerged within this new feminine aesthetic.
"Women are becoming freer to dress and act how they want, and not how men want them to," Batsheva Hay, one of the key designers leading this aesthetic, explains. "We are embracing our inner child to feel more like ourselves, rather than a sex symbol." Hay’s designs, which hark back to archival Laura Ashley in both print and cut, are all Anne of Green Gables meets Amish modesty, and have earned her a 52.4k Instagram following and stockists including Need Supply, Matches Fashion and Joan the Store. "Almost every piece I made comes from nostalgia," she says. "I want to make the sailor dress I had when I was a child – I always use details from my childhood wardrobe. My entire fashion fantasy is just an exaggerated version of my memories from childhood."
"Nostalgia plays a part in the design of my collections in many different ways," Bahnsen tells Refinery29. "I love the emotional appeal of traditional techniques like embroidery and quilting that have been passed down for centuries, and I am very inspired by how you can apply the handmade touch and couture techniques to modern ready-to-wear." It's not just the fabrications and cuts that evoke the past for Bahnsen, though. Her AW19 show in Copenhagen this year saw models move as one ethereal entity through the show space, like a group of haunted Victorian schoolgirls. "My grandmother used to make me and my sister matching dresses for school events and dance classes. I think this sisterhood way of dressing always inspires the collections and the mood of the shows."
This is the key difference with this current strand of hyperfemininity: the overtly feminine lens through which we’ve previously seen fashion has centred around sex in one way or another, but in an era in the West when exposed flesh or a sky-high hemline can no longer disrupt the narrative (thrown into sharp focus with this year’s Mary Quant V&A retrospective), the innocence and chastity of childlike style is far more shocking. Donning a kitschy cartoon cowboy print, a christening-esque gown or a floor-skimming hemline is as much a rejection of the feminine expectations placed on women as smudged liner and dyed green hair were in grunge’s '90s heyday.
When the contemporary politics of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right have polarised society, turning away from the aesthetics of modernity – Insta-saturated minimalism for example – feels like the natural swing of fashion’s pendulum. "There's been a move towards nostalgia, a time of freedom that has a feel-good factor," Suzanne Pendlebury, contemporary buying manager at Matches Fashion tells Refinery29. "The current, troubled geopolitical climate certainly has a big part to play in this shift," Alice Gividen, editor at trend forecaster WGSN agrees. "A return to a kitsch aesthetic is brought on as a real rejection from this current state of play, from Brexit to climate concerns. The 'rose-tinted spectacles' effect has become almost quite literal, as we look at aesthetics that remind us of better, easier times."
Hay and Bahnsen’s designs and homespun fabrications may evoke a 'simpler time', but they have an air of romance because we never actually lived through this illusory era – it’s a pre-industrialised America or an Arcadian England that never existed for us anywhere but through rose-tinted glasses. However, we’re not only seeing a chintzy, pastoral nostalgia here: there’s a more recent – and palpable – past being revisited through fashion. Many of us do remember a parallel strand of nostalgia that this new femininity is seeing: the 1990s. Look past the piecrust collars, prairie dresses and ditsy floral fabrics and you’ll find an aesthetic saturated in just as much femininity, albeit through much more familiar markers, from rainbow-coloured beaded bags to chunky velvet Alice bands.
Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – were children in the 1990s, and could probably hunt out baby photos of themselves wearing original versions of the pieces they’re shopping for right now. The designer leading the pack here is Susan Alexandra, whose handmade designs wouldn’t look out of place at a '98 school disco. Using colourful beads to make crafty strawberry earrings or cute-as-they-come patchwork box bags, her pieces have brought a much-needed playfulness to a contemporary fashion that lacked charm under the reign of normcore and minimalism. "All the pieces I make would’ve delighted my 5-year-old self," Alexandra tells Refinery29. "The colours, designs, shapes and textiles are more akin to the designs of toys than typical accessories. I want to make pure, unadulterated joyful objects."
While packaged differently, this ultra playful aesthetic can also be seen as an escape from the bleak realities of the world. "My designs are an emotional response – with all the heft and weight of the world on our shoulders, it’s such a nice relief to behold an object that doesn’t take itself so seriously," says Alexandra. A 3D cherry-embellished beaded micro bag is indeed the height of fun, and when millennials are constantly blamed and ridiculed for everything from being the boomerang generation to the avocado shortage, joyful fashion is surely the most pleasurable – and defiant – escape. "It’s akin to the hippies wearing tie-dye while protesting the Vietnam War," Alexandra says. "We become the counter culture by refusing to comply." In the face of Brexit, the housing crisis, mounting student debt and being called snowflakes, wearing kitschy, unserious pieces is the ultimate "screw you".
However, while this '90s kids aesthetic – see Seoul Import’s plastic hair clips, Shrimps' pearl bags and Prada’s padded Alice bands – was worn by millennials in their childhood, it’s not just 23-to-38-year-olds participating in this trend. "This youthful trend is being embraced by a far wider audience," Holly Tenser, womenswear buyer at Browns tells Refinery29. "If you looked around at London Fashion Week this February, you could see a mirage of women well into their 40s rocking Simone Rocha’s pearl hair slides, and the strong casting at Simone’s show really embraced women of all ages wearing her youthful designs." It’s true – it’s not just millennials wearing these playful pieces, in part due to the fact that most people in their 20s and early 30s can’t afford these designs.
It’s not financial stability that’s breaking age boundaries within this trend, though, it’s a seismic societal change that’s allowing women to express themselves in a way that is unbound by the male gaze. "I believe there has been a huge shift in how women are perceived within society – how we should dress, how our bodies should look – and we’re now embracing a woman’s power, choice and diversity." This is what’s allowing women to dress freely, whether that means donning that Hervé Leger dress and a pair of killer heels or wearing a pink fuzzy Shrimps coat over a babydoll dress made for a baptism.
Of course, this isn’t the only aesthetic permeating womenswear right now – a grown-up minimalism is flourishing too, thanks to the likes of Bottega Veneta and The Row. But whether it means investing in the childlike purity of Simone Rocha and Cecilie Bahnsen dresses, or experimenting with kitsch '90s hair clips and beaded bags, there’s no denying the sweet defiance and youthful joy of this nostalgia-tinged aesthetic. As Pendlebury says, "fashion should make you feel good, and these clothes do."