Illustration by Penelope Gazin
The 90s were perfect. That’s objective. Not even “the 90s”, really, but particular neon-gilded chambers of time within the 90s (like, super-ur-90s Sassy magazine before it began its slow death in 1995-ish) were perfect. This isn’t to privilege one set of nostalgics over another; the 1990s reverence felt by three small, semidiscrete generations (X, Y, Millennial) is, of course, no different from anyone else’s nostalgia for what came before, but seriously, the 90s were good for us. They were great sometimes.
I don’t even care about “better”. What’s better? Does better matter, is better relevant, is better possible? But one particular aspect of the culture that is definitely not better right now, and will be no better, is the translation of fashion to film, to video, to TV, to the internet.
I guess I mean this in an abstract and personal sense of “better”: There are a zillion dedicated segments and shows about fashion, on real TV and online, on blogs and the rest of it, that are doing what they set out to do, achieving everything they want to achieve. Every website I’ve ever been to (ever? Ever!) has featured a closet tour with some emerging or expiring It girl. Like the 90s, this is good and even great sometimes. And the epitome of 90s-fashion television, MTV’s House of Style, was revived last year, with ace model hosts and the familiar and correct cross-genre/high-low/daydreamy approach.
There is, though, a real and important difference in quality – in nature and the value of that nature – between all that and what came before. The possibilities of fashion x internet x committed curatorial perspective are still beyond us, but what is gone for real – forever – is a loose, unformed intent: Back then, fashion on TV was without the now-ubiquitous gloss, practiced and known backward and forward by teenage amateurs; the self-seriousness and ironic remove; the media training and branding and messaging. When fashion was for insiders, not for Target shoppers, there wasn’t any reason for it. That’s all fine; that is a gradual move of one thing to its nth-degree, advanced-capitalism self and it’s futile to be precious about it.
Fashion, though, lost something particular when that 90s-style who-cares vérité faded and then became impossible because of new media. What was abandoned, because it had to be, during the inevitable professionalising of fashion content on TV – brighter, tighter, more and more toward a style-smart and fully internetted audience that knew all the names and houses and cities and voices instead of just the faces – is the essential bedroom element, the nonregulation that once came through in an unstaged backstage (now impossible), a messy bed, homemade eyebrows. Fashion – style, actually – is forged in unmediated physical space and time, through posing and playing. For a hot minute, that’s what fashion was, and did, and felt like on TV, too.
In addition to House of Style, the 90s included the ad-hoc-ish era of Fashion Television, a Canadian show that was, improbably, exported everywhere else and lasted for like 25 years (and, much less significantly, there was Ooh La La, the sister show of FT, which looked like Party Girl and featured segments about, say, a girl selling smock dresses in her college-town backyard). “Cool” then passed through fewer regulating bodies, fewer people; content was more awkward, more comfortable with weirdness, frequently slow and often boring, an evocation more than a directive – such a decade, before three-minute music videos were truncated into soda ads – all of which lent itself specifically to the experience of creating and communicating identity, mutable and momentary, through fashion. This sensibility – where you were called on to engage, interpret, understand and be alienated and offended by mean models and nameless skateboarders – was captured in any number of other shows then, about fashion or not: like Sifl and Olly, the late-90s sock-puppet parfait on MTV, and Comedy Central’s Hi Octane, which was a barely there and now lost-to-the-ages car show (?) from 1994 that was mostly/actually about musicians (!) and hosted by then dilettantes Sofia Coppola and Zoe Cassavetes (!) with contributions from Thurston Moore (!!!). It goes on, too: The impossible, wantable in-jokes that ran on Sassy spines are nowhere now; everything is easy, available, clickbait.
That television has largely abandoned content and style that embrace amateurishness and risk is, you know, whatever-whatever-whatever, another whole thing. That fashion is, as a result, left without a similarly, necessarily random, uncomfortable, unknown and unknowable forum is culturally real, is felt and is dangerous: When the onus of effort and decision-making moves from the shows’ audiences to the shows’ creators, it’s boring for everyone. When you can see, know or be anything, instantly, it’s really not any better, is it?
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