My mum loves anything that reminds her of the 1980s, especially the music.

Despite being born in 1986 and my keen interest in history, I could never quite understand her fondness for the era – the yuppie stereotype, the openly chauvinistic attitude towards women and homosexuals, the primitive audio-visuals in films and video games, the pastel/floral and neon/art-deco up-chuck that passed as interior design, and who the hell thought that perms, mullets or shoulder pads were an acceptable fashion choice? 

Then I began planning a 1990s themed party for my 30th birthday last year… and the nostalgia hit me harder than Homer Simpson on a case of donuts.  

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What was so great about the 1990s, you ask?

Well… I could attempt to summarise the pop culture elements, social progression, scientific advancements, political upheavals and major world events that encompassed the decade, but that would take two wasted days of researching and four useless drafts (trust me, I’ve done the math).

Or, I could just list the nostalgic triggers from my own 90s childhood.

  • Gangsta rap and R&B dominating the airwaves; grunge, country music and teen pop sharing the music charts; electronic dance music playing in every nightclub from London and Ibiza to Sydney and Miami, while the Spice Girls and American boy bands were playing at every tween girl sleepover; punk rock enjoying a renewed popularity while also spawning a new genre called pop punk, and alternative rock becoming mainstream
  • Cult films that unashamedly glamorised or satirised American stereotypes, especially California culture –  Clueless (the Valley Girl), Boyz n the Hood (the gangsta), American History X (the racist masquerading as a patriot), Saving Private Ryan (the soldier and the veteran), Clerks (the slacker), American Beauty (middle-class suburban families), Reality Bites (Generation X) 
  • Robin Williams (RIP) in some of his most iconic roles (Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire, Hook, Jumanji, the Birdcage, Good Will Hunting); Leonardo DiCaprio balancing his acting prowess in This Boy’s Life, the Basketball Diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with his heartthrob alter-ego in Romeo + Juliet and Titanic; dark, quirky Johnny Depp-Tim Burton collaborations gaining a cult following; Tom Hanks winning back-to-back Academy Awards; Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Mike Myers making the transition from SNL alumni to comedy superstars; and the abundance of teen movies

  • The Disney Renaissance (the Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), and the birth of computer animation with Toy Story

  • And while we’re on the subject of animation – the Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, Ren and Stimpy, Rugrats, SpongeBob Squarepants, Captain Planet, Sailor Moon

  • The evolution of writing and acting on the small screen. I could write a whole article just about television from the 90s (and very nearly did), but this one from does a much better job:

  • Fashion trends that were just as eclectic as the music. In addition to recycling styles from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, notable trends of the decade include the pixie haircut and the Rachel (bleached, with dark roots, of course); denim, and jeans embroidered in rhinestones; tattoos and body piercings; the Sexy Schoolgirl (tartan mini skirts, undersized sweaters and baby doll tees, knee high socks, chunky Doc Martins); matte lipstick in plum and burgundy tones; velvet; baby-doll dresses, slip dresses and skater dresses; scrunchies and butterfly clips; Seattle Grunge (plaid flannel shirts worn over graphic tees, ripped jeans, combat boots); leather jackets; bold, geometric prints in electric blue, orange, fluorescent pink, purple and acid green; platform shoes; the Goth (black trenchcoat, black combat boots, thick black eye liner contrasting with a pale foundation, an article of red or white thrown in); satin; metallic-silver/ frosted-blue eye shadow and glitter lip gloss; leopard print; boys with blond-tipped spiky hair or collar-length curtained hair; spaghetti straps and boob tubes; and Urban Hip Hop (oversized sporting name brand tees, baggy jeans that sagged to the knee, gold chains, baseball cap worn backwards)

  • Princess Diana, the launch of the World Wide Web in 1993, Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in 1990 and his election as President of South Africa in 1994, advancements in methods for recycling waste products such as paper and glass, Y2K, the World Health Organisation removing homosexuality from its list of diseases in 1990, the Columbine High School massacre, the Port Arthur massacre, the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky scandal, Wicca gaining recognition as a legitimate spirituality choice

Every generation believes that theirs is the greatest; but without question, the 1990s were a revolutionary era which laid the foundations for the progressive society we live in today.

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Although the 1990s may be the greatest decade of the 21st century (or in recorded history), the scientific explanation for nostalgia is far more personal.  

Life as an adult is not always what we envisioned when we were aspiring astronauts, explorers, princesses and doctors. Life can be tedious, stressful, overwhelming, and even painful.

As a result, we often seek out ways to alleviate the pressure: i.e amusing distractions and/or pleasurable activities. This search for pleasure often takes us back in time, to when fun was the order of the day and our responsibilities were significantly less – i.e. childhood and adolescence. 

And because our memories and emotions are most securely anchored when they’re tied to the historical events that coincided with them (and pop culture is one of the defining aspects of any decade), it stands to reason that we would find comfort in the films, TV shows, music, fashion and activities that gave us pleasure once upon a time.

Nostalgia also provides us with context and some essential perspective by reassuring us that our life is not as tedious or distressing as it may seem or feel; that there once was – and will be again – some sort of significance in our daily experiences.

A whole decade can slip past in the blink of an eye, and once you take stock of how much has changed in the time that has passed, it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re struggling to keep up with or accept the changes around you.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dance to some Spice Girls and TLC in my platform shoes and velvet slip dress!

Is there a particular era you feel nostalgia for, or wish you could have witnessed firsthand? What item of 90s pop culture would you like to see resurrected? Leave a comment below.

© Tara Jenkinson