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The Eternal Appeal of 90s Minimalism

Published on
May 4, 2022
Written by
Sydney Russo
Published by
Aisling Gogan
Edited by
Aisling Gogan

They called her the Princess of Camelot.  It was a remarkably royal title for an American, and yet Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was more likely to be spotted in slinky Calvin Klein separates and her ubiquitous round-rim sunglasses than a couture gown or multi-layered jewels.  Even her mother-in-law’s pillbox hats and two-piece skirt sets seem extravagant alongside Carolyn’s headscarves and boot-cut jeans.  She was setting a new sartorial precedent, and the fashion world was acutely aware: the week after Carolyn married John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996, then-editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Liz Tilberis told the New York Times that ‘[Carolyn was] going to be an amazing symbol of American style’.  It was a prophetic claim.  Decades later, Carolyn is a Pinterest feed mainstay, and her aesthetic shorthand – red lips, unruly mane of blonde hair, bare face, monochromatic uniforms – has become the language of 90s minimalism.  

It is a fashion movement that has evolved beyond trend status.  In the aftermath of the pandemic – a time when the theatricality of Y2K and logomania reigned supreme – the quiet simplicity of 90s minimalism has gained new appeal.  It is a form of rebellion against the imperatives of a solely digital existence: after two years of presenting the wildest articulations of ourselves in the hopes of amassing likes or impressing Zoom call attendees, we are desperate to be perceived at our most eloquent and nuanced. Carolyn is hardly the only reference point.  Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss, and Winona Ryder are among other members of this elusive class of ‘style icons’, an often-retrospective term flung around almost carelessly in our algorithmic age.  And yet, there are few more worthy of the title.  In the aftermath of the 80s, a decade delineated by prodigious perms and neon Lycra, their exacting elegance was revelatory.  Revelatory in the same way as, say, a Jil Sander blazer and square-toed kitten heel can feel revelatory after two years of Blumarine butterfly belts and metaverse-bound Balenciaga bodycon.  


Gwyneth Paltrow captured in Who What Wear

The influence of the 90s has always been inescapable.  Now though, the street style paparazzi shots that were once the sole domain of People and In Touch have trickled into widely followed and meticulously curated mood board accounts like @simplicitycity, @ariannai_, and @cabmate.  The women in the photos are almost always on their way somewhere, mid-step, slightly blurry around the edges.  The effect is refreshingly frank – the antithesis of prefabricated social media feeds. Jackie Johnson, the curator of @carolyn_iconic, an Instagram page dedicated to Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, reaffirmed that while there has always been a collective belief in ‘90s is king’ amongst the fashion set, the decade’s sartorial staples have once again become cornerstones of mainstream style.  “I have noticed that the iconic pieces are coming back,” she told me.  “I think it started with monochrome and basic colours becoming staples again.  Sheer or silk party dresses… the loose fit jeans and flannels… chunky shoes… it’s all there”.  Bart Cage, founder of Cabmate, a 90s-inspired apparel brand and mood board dedicated to evoking a ‘Boyish and Classy Cool’, attributed our post-pandemic 90s revival to a disenchantment with excess: “Anti-movements are definitely a thing in fashion,” he told me.  “After years of media coverage of eccentric and over-the-top figures like the Kardashians, there’s a desire again for more subdued and down-to-earth individuals, reflected in the growing popularity of people like [Carolyn Bessette Kennedy].”

Somewhat ironically, the collective fervor for offline simplicity has sparked countless ‘Get the Look’ pieces in online magazines, all of which seem to miss the point.  Women are attracted to these displays of understated elegance because the clothes play a supporting role – the focus shifts to the wearer.  We want to be Julia Roberts in her white t-shirt and oversized men’s blazer or Gwyneth in her leather jacket and sidewalk-skimming silk maxi skirt.  They are roles we can inhabit, characters we can channel; we already have the clothes in our closets, can wear them comfortably all night long without the impetus for an Instagram photo-op.  It is, after all, a futile mental exercise to picture CBK with an Instagram account.  What would she consider worth sharing?  Walks in Central Park with John?  Mornings spent dog walking or picking up the newspaper in one of her beloved Prada coats?  Her Calvin Klein wedding dress?  Maybe that’s the crux of it: her wardrobe was never intended for gratuitous display, although she spent more of her life in the public eye than most of us ever will.  As we reacquaint ourselves with the non-virtual world, a similarly edited wardrobe can act as an invitation: it doesn’t betray your hand right away, rather it cultivates a cool mysticism that may prompt onlookers to bridge the six-foot gap. 

Julia Roberts captured in Who What Wear
Carolyn and John Kennedy Jr.


As is always the case, these street style trends have been both reflected in and informed by the high fashion world.  Contemporary brands like Peter Do, Nanushka, Theory, and The Row have taken cues from 90s style codes, and the resulting collections play on our desire for both nostalgia and modernity.  Do’s Spring 2022 show felt like a paean to streamlined 90s silhouettes, made intimate through coded references to the Vietnamese ao dai worn by his mother and grandmother.  In a way that is indelibly modern, Do remixed this traditional garment with all-American style sensibilities, emerging with pieces that would have been as at-home on the streets of a pre-internet Manhattan as they were paraded in front of a 2022 NYC skyline.  Meanwhile, The Row’s Resort 2023 collection was steeped in irony, and the garments were almost a parody of the Olsen twins’ minimalist inclinations: white button downs draped over the models’ wrists, the bags almost too large to tuck under an arm.  Both shows were proof that pared-back silhouettes needn’t be trite.  


Kate Moss for Calvin Klein
Jil Sander campaign 1990s

Perhaps Generation Z’s attraction to simplicity comes from a need to define ourselves from outside the shadow of a global pandemic and climate crisis and raging war. The 90s are viewed as a kind of pre-9/11 halcyon period – a grainy, warm-toned, analog age miles away from a dark reality that feels increasingly irreversible.  We see Carolyn strolling New York City streets, hand in hand with John, and we can almost forget how abruptly it all ended.  Still, is it so terrible to indulge in fantasies of an everlasting Camelot?  Fashion, at its best, can either direct attention or act as a glorious distraction, and at a time when our attention is in constant demand, escapism is a welcome prospect.  If it comes packaged in denim and cashmere, all the better.