If you’ve spent any time on TikTok this past year, you’ll recognise this audio: Cher, circa 1996, telling an interviewer, "Mom, I am a rich man". It’s become a popular go-to for thirst trap transformation videos, allowing creators to show off elaborate makeup or sexy outfits on the beat drop. When 27-year-old Samantha Van Wie uses it, though, it’s not to reveal neon hair or an e-girl 'fit, as TikTok has become known for, but a glamorous cat eye and red lip, topped with her signature ‘40s pin curls. This, for the uninitiated, is vintage dressing for the modern age.
Samantha is far from alone. In bedrooms across the world, young women are donning corsets and creating Bridgerton edits (aka Regencycore), adopting transatlantic accents and their grandma’s pearls (‘40s and ‘50s pinup glamour), channelling mod queen Twiggy (‘60s), taking style cues from Stevie Nicks in bell bottoms (‘70s) or cosplaying John Hughes characters (‘80s). Fashion nostalgia is hitting Gen Z and millennials hard, and TikTok has become their go-to platform to share it.
Romanticising the past is nothing new – 2020, after all, saw us seeking comfort in the relics of our own childhoods, longing for a vague bucolic past, emulating Princess Diana and falling hard for the sepia-tinged dark academia trend. What sets these young women apart is the lengths they go to, piecing together historically accurate outfits from their lingerie up, joining forces on period cosplays, dedicating magazines to their favourite eras and even decorating their homes to fit.
While nostalgia proves a powerful motivator, and lockdown boredom is sure to play a part, conversations with vintage creators and experts alike suggest a deeper emotional reasoning. "I would think it’s more a result of the desire to be free from the control lockdown is exerting over us," explains Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, behavioural psychologist, author of The Psychology of Fashion and founder of psychology.fashion. "In this sense it is an excuse to act in a way that might be different to the wearer’s usual behaviour or what’s typically acceptable in their world. Like any sort of 'dressing up' we take on the characteristics associated with that type of 'costume'." Just as we wear business suits to feel more professional, evoking the glamour of these periods can offer a powerful escape. It allows us to exercise control — over our appearances and self-expression — at a time when we feel very out of control in many other areas of life.
Tannie, 26, who fell in love with pinup fashion nine years ago, echoes this, crediting the style with boosting her confidence. "The cut, silhouettes, the petticoats, the frills, how can you not feel good?" she tells Refinery29. "It's so flattering for all body types."
"Fashion is a way of negotiating our identity so when we play with our clothing, we play with our outward identity," Mair continues. "We can be whoever we want to be, especially on social media." With lockdown limiting our potential to socialise, she suggests that sharing period fashion on TikTok "is a way to align with a social group, albeit remotely, in a fantasy world where we are free to do as we like." Differences in period dress aside, this sense of community-building is strongly felt by the creators, a quality only strengthened by the TikTok algorithm — the app’s For You page is designed to create a feed curated to the individual user's tastes, making it easier to meet like-minded people and go viral, even with a small following.
"Like any aesthetic you could dress in, [vintage dress] provides a sense of belonging," explains ‘60s and ‘70s fan Emily, 18. "Self-discovery and acceptance is one of the biggest aspects of growing up. In lockdown social media is booming with a 'love the skin you're in' sort of movement. That too has encouraged people to find new ways to express themselves and find comfort." Tannie agrees, noting that prior to period dress, many of her friends in the community dressed 'alternatively', as former scene kids who simply switched from one subculture to another.
Like all other subcultures, period dress is not simply aesthetic but also strongly associated with pop culture. For Lilee, 17, it was music that drew her into the worlds of ‘60s psychedelic and ‘70s glam rock. Now, the combination of music and fashion has proven a rich world for self-expression, experimentation and fun — which, she thinks, also leads to freer gender expression. "[In the '60s and '70s] people began to express themselves in new ways through the looks they would wear on stage," she notes. "Men began to embrace femininity, while women embraced their masculinity. When I discovered this fearless outlook on fashion and self-expression, I became obsessed." For Gen Z, a proudly fluid generation, it’s not surprising why ‘70s rock stars are popular style icons. In a similar vein, Harry Styles wearing a dress for Vogue draws comparisons with Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Prince on TikTok.
Unsurprisingly, sustainability also has a hand to play in the rise of period dressing. According to global fashion shopping platform Lyst, in September 2020 alone searches for 'vintage fashion' generated more than 35k monthly searches on average, while online searches for secondhand-related keywords increased by 104%. "Gen Z and millennials are two of the most socially conscious generations," Shakaila Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist and founder of Fashion is Psychology, tells Refinery29. "Survey data from the North London Waste Authority found that 50% of Gen Z and millennial Brits bought secondhand, swapped or borrowed more in 2020 than 2019."
While all of the creators spoken to for this piece express concerns over fast fashion, a split emerges between earlier period dressers (19th and early to mid 20th centuries) and those from later decades (‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s). Emily, for example, credits a pair of hand-me-down bell bottoms with sparking her interest – "It was history from there!" – while romantic and pinup creators mention specialist vintage reproduction brands and authentic vintage sellers, both complicated by a lack of size diversity, accessibility and high price points.
Like cottagecore and dark academia before it — other trends which flourished on TikTok — a lack of body diversity and Eurocentrism are criticisms often levelled at the period dress community. While researching this piece, the number of white creators found far outweighed those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour); this can also be attributed to TikTok’s algorithm, the darker side of how the app works. Dubbed 'shadow banning', it can be pinpointed by incredibly unequal follower/likes ratios. It’s a challenge that Lauren, 30, a romantic, vintage-meets-cottagecore dresser knows well. "You don’t get as much coverage or opportunities as other creators. It is simply true that our content is just not pushed," she explains. "Often [BIPOC] content is removed due to 'violations' even when it's glaringly obvious there aren’t any." Things are changing though. With more scrutiny following 2020's Black Lives Matter movement, TikTok has promised to make the app more welcoming to Black creators.
Despite this, period dressing has also proven a powerful form for self-expression for many women of colour — one that they hope inspires even more diversity within the community. For Lauren, her whimsical style — which has "many nods to historical fashion, the Regency, Edwardian and Victorian periods" — is hugely empowering. "I love outwardly showing my femininity through my fashion. I also feel as a Black woman it is important to show the many facets of BIPOC and not allow us to be put into a rigid box," she explains. "Particularly when Black women have often been portrayed by the media as aggressive or hostile. We are not a monolith, we are soft and feminine and delicate."
The community has also come under fire for the kind of lifestyle or principles they might share. "Vintage style, not values" reads Samantha’s bio — an attitude shared by all the creators Refinery29 spoke to. "There is a portion of [white] vintage dressers who tend to romanticise all aspects of the past, which I think is a dangerous mindset," acknowledges Samantha. "The past was not a safer place and pretending like it was erases a lot of history." However, as she and the other creators point out, the vintage community is a largely positive and creatively liberating space. "There’s a good portion of the community who speaks up against that [thinking] however, and I believe this new generation of younger vintage dressers will continue to do so."
In fact, many creators use their vintage content to challenge these outdated values head-on. Samantha, for example, regularly promotes intersectional feminism via her vintage aesthetic, and Kennedy, 22, who only joined TikTok a few months ago, has already seen huge success for her vintage-style videos celebrating Black artists and actors. "I think if you choose to emulate vintage style you have a responsibility to learn about and firmly reject certain values of the past," Samantha notes. "I’ve definitely had people assume my political affiliations because of the way I dress, so I try to be as vocal as I can about how I really feel."
Kennedy believes that she is engaging so well because she is reimagining vintage media with a modern perspective. "The first POV video I made was a Mad Men scene back in October. Since then I’ve also made a Charlie’s Angels video," she tells Refinery29. "Having [other TikTok creator] Flynn and myself as two Black women in our version of Charlie’s Angels resonated with a lot of people, not only because Flynn and [other TikTok creator] Rose already have followings but because it can inspire other Black girls out there who want to engage in the vintage community but haven’t felt like they belong."
"Vintage style, not values" is perhaps the best way to sum up the attitudes of these creators. From the 19th century to the 1970s, each has a very 21st century mindset about their aesthetic and is eager to see the community continue to grow and become more diverse. For any vintage newbies out there, Tannie's advice is simply to go for it. "I hope they know they would be so welcomed. Whatever era, go for it — grab a top hat or petticoat and come live your best vintage-inspired life!"