Who Owns '90s Nostalgia?

With the '90s revival spirit animating fashion and certain sectors of the Internet notably populated by individuals too young to have been there the first time around, some people are asking what it means. And whether the appropriation of a decade is comparable to the appropriation of an individual look.

Who Owns '90s Nostalgia?S
Gwen Stefani attending the MTV Awards, 1998.

Over at Refinery29, 16-year-old blogger Emma (of a blog called the Emma Edition) "trace[s] the connection between the Tumblr aesthetic and how it translates to IRL runway style" and notes some particular similarities between Jeremy Scott's recently unveiled fall collection, and the images being shared by '90s-obsessed teen girls on their Tumblrs.

Jeremy says that his collection was inspired by the Internet, which is evident in his emoticon and mouse-clicker prints, but looking at the pieces was also a lot like looking at my Tumblr dashboard: girls with Kool Aid hair, bindis, and chain nose rings...I think there is something to be said about the "coincidence" of Jeremy calling upon the influences of his '90s Gwen Stefani-worshipping club days and today's Tumblr girls who have been re-appropriating these very images of bindis, Unicorns on Acid, Lisa Frank, The Simpsons, and Kool-Aid hair on the Internet for years now.

Who Owns '90s Nostalgia?S
Left: '90s-themed images from the Tumblr Arvida Bystrom. Right: Jeremy Scott's fall winter 2012 collection. Both collages via Refinery29.

Emma doesn't allege that Jeremy Scott is ripping off something these girls created. But she does suggest that these teenagers may feel like they have a different, deeper claim on this source material than the designer Scott — by dint of being younger, by dint of being largely female, by dint of sharing and posting these images in a non-commercial context. Grace Miceli, an artist, says, "It feels a little strange to see an older man commodify certain imagery, especially Lisa Frank's, which does have strong meanings for a girl who grew up in the nineties."

Does it? I grew up in the '90s, but I didn't grow up in the United States — Lisa Frank was something I learned about during the much more recent '90s revival. Maybe that means I'm not qualified to comment, or maybe that makes me an impartial observer. I don't know. I do understand that feeling — so particular to the early teenaged years, when a select handful of commercial spaces are pretty much the only social spaces that seem to truly welcome you — of identifying to an almost pathetic extent with your things. A combination of limited funds and limited avenues by which to express yourself can lead each of your brand-new consumer choices to take on outsized importance, and things can be a neat way to anchor your own shifting, adolescent identity. (I had a school uniform, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the significance of the buttons I pinned on my backpack.) But I think even then, I understood that things were not everything. Nobody truly believes they have a unique and privileged connection with a commercial artist who puts glitter unicorns on stickers and t-shirts, do they?

Jeremy Scott is, of course, just doing what designers do: responding to the wider culture, and nudging it along. The element of the culture he is most inspired by right now just happens to also be an object of interest to a community of dreadfully sincere teenaged girls; that throws up some interesting juxtapositions, but it isn't wrong.

Who Owns '90s Nostalgia?S
Photo via Color and Chaos, Ms. Fitz' blog.

There is someone who might have reason to feel a little put off by Jeremy Scott's latest collection, however. Not mentioned in Emma's piece is the stylist and accessory designer Ms. Fitz, who last month drew attention on her blog to similarities between the overall look of Scott's models — sparkly bindis, unnaturally colored hair, nose rings and facial jewelry — and her own. I was inclined to think this was likely coincidental — until I realized that one of the pictures of Fitz that looked most like show in question was taken last September. At the after-party of none other than Jeremy Scott.

Still, Fitz herself isn't looking to claim credit — "I didn't invent nose chains and face paint," she wrote in an email — so much as to point out the complexities inherent in the situation. Fitz's own aesthetic is heavily influenced by digital culture. In a way, it's almost appropriate that a major designer should emulate her signature look as simply as one might Cntl+C and Cntrl+V, or hit "Share" on Tumblr. (Or whatever verb it is people do on Tumblr.) "It's very meta," says Fitz. Still, Fitz isn't "just" a teenager with a blog; she's a designer in her own right, and that complicates things. She argues that just "because my work is spread all over the internet doesn't make it any less valuable." Was Scott referencing Fitz, or stealing from her? Is he referencing teen Tumblr culture, or pilfering from it? Is all this academic given Ms. Fitz and Jeremy Scott and teen girls on Tumblr who like "the 90s" all seem to be appropriating elements of Indian culture?

It strikes me that the questions of who owns a decade and who owns a "look" are not so dissimilar. Does a decade belong to the people who grew up in it, had their first kisses in it, and sneaked into their first R-rated movies in it? (Oh, American Pie.) Does it belong to the people who feel deeply like they identify with its themes or prevailing cultural trends? Perhaps it can simply belong to whoever most wants to claim it.

Was Jeremy Scott A Little TOO Inspired By Teen Tumblr Bloggers? [Refinery29]
Inspired! [Color and Chaos]