Bucket Hats, 1990s Sneakers And Mr Justin Bieber Channelling Faith No More: Why Gen Z Is The New Gen X
Kids, filming in Washington Square Park, New York, 1994. Photograph by Mr Gunars Elmuts
This past summer, in the spirit of post-lockdown revelry, I attended a couple of music festivals in London. Gala in Peckham and Peggy Gou’s Pleasure Gardens event were clearly aimed at a younger audience than me, but both felt reassuringly familiar. Partly, it was the line-ups – Mr Gilles Peterson, Horse Meat Disco, DJ Harvey, all fine artists who have been plying their trade since I could first legally go to nightclubs. But mainly it was that the crowd was a sea of people half my age, cosplaying my youth: Stüssy, Berghaus and Stone Island jackets, technical GoreTex fabrics, Air Max 95s, vintage England football shirts and capacious hoodies with cosmic motifs. Lots of people in an advanced state of refreshment.
Generation X is the umbrella term for the people who followed the baby boomers – Pew Research defines the generation as anyone born between 1965 and 1980. For Gen Xers like myself, who grew up in a time of right-wing governments, oversized grungy clothing and the cultural promiscuity triggered by rave, things feel strangely familiar in the cultural world populated by Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012). Mr Justin Bieber appears to be modelling himself on a member of Faith No More circa “We Care A Lot”. Teenagers are waiting for drops of Nike Air Jordans, while adidas is rebooting its EQT line. The football culture embodied by England’s team seems more akin to the E-fuelled progressive patriotism of the early 1990s than the overpaid and underachieving days of the 2000s.
Once you notice these cultural parallels, you start to see the whole Generation X period being replayed in today. Jay-Z recently posed with Mr Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting “Equals Pi” for a Tiffany & Co. campaign, while Mr Keith Haring’s art has appeared on clothes everywhere from Uniqlo to H&M.
Givenchy-collaborating artist Chito captures the same darkly comic spirit of the moment when graf first went overground. Designer labels including CELINE HOMME and LOEWE suggest “Glastonbury Festival, late 1980s” is a common reference point, while the skate scene around Palace and Supreme mines a cultural seam that will resonate with anyone who hung out at Slam City in the early 1990s or saw Mr Larry Clark’s film Kids.
Post Malone and Kid Cudi have both made deliberate tributes to Mr Kurt Cobain’s style in recent public performances, while TOM FORD, Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons are all nodding to his famous mohair cardigan this season. According to Mr Derek Morrison, general manager at fashion marketplace StockX, its data backs up perceptions of a Gen X revival. Sales of Madchester-style bucket hats are up 750 per cent year on year and sneakers originally from the 1980s and early 1990s, such as the Reebok Classic and Air Jordan 4, 5 and 6, are all in the ascendant.
“You’ve got the whole Matrix style. XXXXL jeans, as worn by Bieber, and big blazers at Balenciaga. You could also put normcore and Gorpcore into this. They reference what really average men wore in the 1990s”
A general spirit of edgy, irreverent creativity is afoot. After a decade hearing about millennials’ love of decluttering, teetotaling, horoscopes and mindful journalling, Gen Z seem to be more interested in the sort of anarchic roistering that defined their parents’ generation. Booze culture, unfiltered photo dumps and millennial-mocking memes are in, replacing a Kinfolk aesthetic and a sage-burning ritual.
A recent piece in Wired made the case that even the youthful disruption of TikTok feels very Gen X. “Immerse yourself in TikTok and you’ll see a raucous return of the old ’90s themes: self-savagery, acid disdain for the rich, anti-commercialism, open mental illness and every shade of irony,” it wrote. “In fact, TikTok is a Gen X comfort zone.”
Proving the point, there’s even a thriving #riotgrrrl subculture on the platform. “What we’re finding on TikTok is that mindset matters more than someone’s birth year,” says Mr Neil Boorman, head of TikTok’s Creative Lab Europe.
Crowds at Spike Island Stone Roses concert, Widnes, Cheshire, 27 May 1990. Photograph by Mr Dave Swindells
“This revival is definitely a thing,” says Ms Lauren Cochrane, senior fashion writer at The Guardian and author of fashion study The Ten. She described singer-songwriter Ms Olivia Rodrigo turning up to the White House in a 1995 Chanel suit as “the queen of Gen Z” and details other recent examples. “You’ve got people like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner going for the whole Matrix style. There’s the XXXXL jeans, as worn by Bieber, and big blazers at Balenciaga. I think you could also put normcore and Gorpcore into this. They reference what really average men wore in the 1990s.”
Cochrane points out that what makes this more interesting than a straight retro fad is the way that Gen Z are instead using Gen X’s most eclectic reference points as a jumping-off point. “Designers are researching in a digital era,” she says. “There are lots of theories about how Gen Z aren’t into a particular era, but in a collage of different references put together. I think maybe that’s why brands such as Gucci, which are all about putting different eras together, are so successful.”
Mr Joe Muggs, author of Bass, Mids, Tops, an exhaustive recent history of British sound-system culture, sees this eclectic, magpie approach to culture as also being what makes current British music so exciting and so redolent of a particular period in the mid to late 1980s. “The vibe that Sault, Jorja Smith, Greentea Peng, Swindle and Joel Culpepper come out of is kind of like the pre-acid house UK cities – where jazz, hip-hop, dancehall, dub, a bit of Latin and the shinier, funkier parts of post-punk’s legacy (including its feminism) created the fertile ground which Sade, Smith & Mighty, Massive Attack, Nightmares On Wax, Young Disciples and, most importantly of all, Soul II Soul came out of. What we have now is a very similar thing – it’s the same melting pot.”
Just as Gen X were there at the birth of the sampling aesthetic and weaved the history of analogue culture into something completely new, Gen Z are doing something similar with the information overload that marked the first phase of the digital era. “That was massively overwhelming and caused all sorts of cultural collisions, but also a paralysis of choice,” says Muggs. “But as Gen Z came of age, the understanding of how to navigate information overload by curating your own curators was there.”
Football fans at Wembley, 1990. Photograph by Mr Tony Davis
Through all these cultural niches, one common echo between then and now is a strong sense of optimism and positivity. Mr Seb White, head of operations at football magazine Mundial, talks of the recent European Championship and a collective emotion that strongly mirrored that of Italia ’90. “Just the feelgood factor,” he says, “but I also couldn’t believe the way that all these youngsters who weren’t even born back then were wearing the shirts from Italia ’90 and Euro ’96. There’s not much that surprises me in football any more, but that did.”
He sees a romantic view of a more optimistic time among the younger fans. “Thing is, back then we were cool. And right now, with Brexit and what have you, we’re not. In fact, everyone hates us. This hasn’t been a positive time for all kinds of reasons and so people are attaching themselves to something which is.”
At StockX, Morrison sees a similar dynamic at play. “After the crazy couple of years we’ve all experienced, I’m not surprised people are regressing back to when times seemed happier,” he says.
This self-generated positivity is perhaps the strongest thread running between Gen X and Gen Z and the one that explains why the two generations have so much in common (and also why it is the later, more upbeat part of the era that is largely being referenced, rather than the earlier unemployment-and-strikes years).
Gen X grew up in a time of seemingly unassailable right-wing governments who were engaged in a vicious culture war. Employment and economic prospects were poor. Formative years were lived in the shadow of disease (Aids) and existential catastrophe (nuclear war). And yet out of that came a world of streetwear, subculture, rave, zines, pirate radio, sneakers, street art, social liberalism, leisure travel, the restaurant revolution and radical protest.
It makes sense that even subconsciously, Gen Z – faced with many of the same challenges – are responding in a way that looks recognisable to those of us who did it first time around. This is a generation that, by any measure, has been dealt a remarkably bad hand. And yet in response they’re creating labels, filling galleries, setting up online radio stations, making magazines, solving problems, mercilessly mocking their elders and generally living for the moment. And if that doesn’t make you feel optimistic about the future, nothing will.