The Psychology Behind Our Fascination with Retro Aesthetics


Have you ever wondered what drew you towards those 60s white go-go boots, or those low-rise 2000s jeans? You're not alone.

According to WSL, Gen Z spends roughly 40% more time browsing thrift shops than any other generation, and for a good reason, too. Read on to find out why we truly are fascinated with the "aesthetic" our parents grew up with.


What actually is "nostalgia"?

As defined by Merriam Webster, nostalgia is "a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition".

Do you ever watch children play in a playground, or listen to a song you remember as a childhood favourite, and wish you could return to that age again? This is called nostalgia. Nostalgia truly dominates our senses, much like when we smell freshly baked bread in a bakery, and takes us back to our pasts. Similarly, fashion is constantly recycled again and again as we fail to keep our own modern trends, such as soap brows, afloat.

When we ruminate on a past immersed in our own senses of nostalgia, we prolong this cycle, looking back on people who are also looking back, all of us yearning for a "golden age" that is long gone. As humans, our desires are insatiable; we always want something we do not, and often cannot, have.

Fashion, therefore, repeats itself as we try to relive the pasts we never experienced, and designers often use this as a muse, shaping it to fit the future by designing a season in advance. It may be said that they force the past and the future to merge, creating a present based on nostalgic instinct.

The 20-Year Trend Cycle

Do you ever stop to wonder why your favorite trends might be the same ones you find in your parents' closet from the 90s and 2000s? This is due to the 20-year trend. The 20-year trend cycle is a cyclical concept that states that, every 20 years, trends that were once popular will arrive at the forefront once more.

Have you noticed how y2k fashion, which incidentally first emerged 20 years ago, has recently been "in"? Or how grunge came back in 2013, 20 years after Perry Ellis took a leap of faith and released their grunge collection in 1992? This is all due to the 20-year trend cycle.

In 1937, British author and fashion historian James Laver came up with a timeline of how fashion styles are viewed over the years. This set of rules is known as Laver's Law, and states that if someone wears a popular style 1 year after its peak time, they will be considered "dowdy"; 10 years after, "hideous"; and 150 years after, "beautiful".

Although slightly altered, we still use this cycle in the modern age. Today, a trend starts with an introduction, which leads to an increase, which in turn leads to a peak, until it hits a point of oversaturation, decreases, and ultimately becomes obsolete. This, however, doesn't exactly mean that the trend will never come back again.

Romanticising the Past

Often, we look back and idealise the past, particularly the decades we did not fully experience, or experience at all.

As an example, I've always had an obsession with the 90s. However, until recently, I had nurtured an overly romanticised view of the decade, ignoring all the horrible things that happened, such as the normalisation of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I recently watched Dude, Where's My Car? and realised just how sexist the movie was, due to the overwhelming presence of jokes stereotyping women.

Although bad things occur in every decade, the media usually filter these things out, leaving our current generation with only nostalgic photographs and cool retro aesthetics. It's clear that we often romanticise the past to fit a mold which the media (or even we, ourselves) choose, despite it not always being accurate.

Instead of constantly looking back and romanticising our own or someone else's history, therefore, something that I am focusing on is staying in the present and focusing on my life now and how to live it as an individual.

Stephanie Congdon

Stephanie Congdon is a year 11 student in Western Australia. She is passionate about fashion, sustainability, human right advocacy and history. When not writing she can be found playing badminton, planning outfits or playing with her dogs.