Why Styles Return to Fashion Faster Than Ever

Two winters ago, fashion blogger Betsy Lowther did the unthinkable. She wore her prom dress to a holiday party, more than 12 years after the big night. Except this time, instead of being paired with a wrist corsage and cheap silver sandals, it was layered over a black turtleneck with opaque tights. "It's hard to get over the stigma that you did wear this during your unfashionable youth," says Lowther, who runs the blog FashionIsSpinach.com. "But suddenly it was cool again." (Article continued below...)

Though she loved the royal blue sequined minidress when she wore it to her 1995 high-school dance—she wasn't the only one; five other girls sported similar dresses—it was relegated to the back of a closet at her parents' house for years, deemed dated and too flashy. When variations of the dress started to pop up at retailers like French Connection, Topshop, and Theory, she couldn't believe it. "The dress could have been hanging on a rack in a store," she says. "It was pretty amazing to me that suddenly everyone was wearing my prom dress around."

Recycling fashion trends from eras past isn't a new idea. It was around in Napoleon's day, when his wife, Empress Josephine, wore filmy white dresses that harked back to classical Greece and Rome, says Beth Dincuff Charleston, a fashion-history professor at Parsons, the New School for Design in New York. "That has gone on for a very long time," she says. "It happens before the 19th century, but you see it in almost every decade of 19th century."

What is new is the pace. In the 1800s, designers often pulled inspiration from looks of a century before, Charleston says. In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, retro revivals cycled with about 30 years between the original trend and revisited fashion. Since the late '90s, fashions are going from in to outdated to in again more quickly, in less than 20 years.

Modern fashion, which Charleston estimates can be marked by the opening of the House of Chanel and the inception of sportswear in 1913, is shaped throughout its history by retro influences. In the 1920s, designer Jeanne Lanvin alluded to the romanticism of the 18th century with her "robe de style," a full-skirted feminine silhouette that relied on supports like petticoats and hoops to maintain its volume. From about 1931 to 1939, designer Madeleine Vionnet followed Josephine's lead, looking back to Greek sculpture for draped eveningwear. In 1947, Christian Dior debuted the "New Look," a cinched-waist, full-skirted style that Charleston terms a "total throwback to the 1860s." The hourglass silhouette kept women in corsets until 1961.

In the mid-1960s, a now-familiar fashion revival took hold: vintage. Previously, the past was resurrected when designers took inspiration from old styles. "There's a real change in the '60s where people who are setting fashion trends are actually wearing the older clothes, the actual garments, not just copying them," Charleston explains. Young people in London, New York, and San Francisco bought Edwardian jackets and vests in secondhand stores and boutiques until about 1969. From then on, innovative young people continued to rummage through secondhand stores for fashion inspiration, and high-end designers didn't stop borrowing from the past. A decade later, the strong shoulders of 1980s power suits were inspired by the 1940s, when shoulder pads got their start in Hollywood jackets and dresses like those worn by Joan Crawford. And the bell-bottom revival of the '90s is obviously 100 percent recycled '70s.

In this decade, it's been hard to ignore the signs of the '80s. Leggings returned starting in 2006, and a year later, strong shoulders showed up on the runways of designers like Balenciaga. Now neon is back, embodied by Marc Jacobs's fall 2009 collection, inspired by '80s designer Steven Sprouse. And since last year, jumpsuits from the late 1970s and early 1980s have been in style, Charleston says.

But the latest example of quick trend turnaround is the '90s influence in today's fashion. Sophia Amoruso has been selling clothes from the early '90s—floral dresses, plaid shirts, work boots—since she opened her online vintage store, Nasty Gal, two and half years ago. "It does seem like things are speeding up," she says. "People might be struggling for new ideas, trying to come up with new ways to reinvent what's been done. There's only so much you can do, so it's going to be interesting to see what happens over the next 20 years. How are we going to reinvent what was reinvented in 2010? How far back are we going to go? Start wearing togas, maybe?"

With the boom in the popularity of vintage shopping and retro-inspired dressing in the last decade or so, it's become more difficult to be unique, says blogger Lowther, who is also an editor at The Washington Post's fashion magazine. "Trendsetters are showing that they are really individual by referencing much more recent fashion, fashion that the average person might be like, 'Oh, I remember it, it's really out.' Maybe your mom's still holding onto it and it's got that stigma in your mind. But they're actually bringing it back much sooner," she says. Lowther points to MTV host and model Alexa Chung, considered a fashion innovator, who wears plaid and knee socks familiar from the 1995 film Clueless. "People are realizing [that] just because it's 10 or 15 years ago, it's still really viable," Lowther says.

If you're not ready to get back into your grunge gear, don't worry. "Fashion is very democratic right now," Lowther says. "It's the one time I can remember in recent history that, for example, you could wear skinny jeans, wide-legged jeans, bell-bottom jeans, boot-cut [jeans]. All of those things go, and so it's pretty much a hodgepodge of a ton of different decades." Jack Markus, owner of Cheap Jack's Vintage Clothing in New York City, says while he started getting requests for '90s items sooner than he expected, they're not shoppers' only option. "Every time there is an addition of an era, it's a new line," he says. "There's always a customer who wants [clothes from] the '50s, the '40s, '30s, '20s ... I have to make more room."

But while some call today's '90s-nostalgic looks a fast-paced resurgence, Bridget Foley, executive editor of Women's Wear Daily and W, says the '90s aren't back—they never left. "I don't think we can draw a divide. I don't have the clear mental image that distinguishes the '90s from the 2000s," she says. "Our increasingly casual lifestyle has made a pretty flowy dress under a cardigan a basic, a classic, an evergreen ... Things that are very extreme, like a major '40s and major '80s influence, that tends to come and go very quickly."

They may come and go, but at this rate, it's a safe bet they'll be back.