Walk into Urban Outfitters today, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped through the doors of a time machine. Crop tops with dragon motifs; puffa jackets; wide-legged trousers; camo; heavy chains; chokers…and that’s just the clothing section. In homewares, you’ll find disposable cameras, vinyl players, old-fashioned radios and even cassette tapes. As this decade – the 2010s, not the 90s or early 00s – draws to a close, looking back at some of mainstream culture’s most defining moments drums up images that are eerily familiar. The generation growing up in the 2010s has chopped up earlier trends from every decade, including more niche styles like grunge, and made them their own. But how much truth is there to the idea that originality has completely died this decade?
While all decades see some throwbacks, the 2010s seem unique: many have written about the nostalgic culture of the 2010s, with millennials being dubbed the “nostalgia generation”, and Vogue calling nostalgia the biggest trend in 2018. Culture tends to be cyclical, but what’s perhaps different about the 2010s is that it appears to have had so little of its own – even the coolest e-girl and boy TikTok teens evoke images of the past, with backcombed coloured hair, and chokers.
Away from fashion, the past decade has been an era of “reboot culture”, with a massive uptick in the amount of recycled or spinoff material. In fact, nearly every single one of the highest grossing films this decade has been a remake or part of a franchise. Watching trailers in any given month over the last ten years may have made you feel like you were suffering from serious déjà vu. Many draw on older sources, but the MCU only really took off this decade after the success of 2008’s Iron Man. It’s down to $$$: studios know that the best way to get money is to hit an already secured audience. That means adaptations, reboots, and behemoth franchises. While some exceptions, like the recent Hustlers and rare original TV success stories like Fleabag, have proved that audiences still want original material
, it simply isn’t as dependable as churning out the same things audiences loved in the nineties and noughties, content that a new generation will love them just as much.
The gap between the first iteration of something and its comeback seems to have narrowed, too. For the most surprising example, we can look to alternative culture. The recent adoption of emo and scene by Gen Z kids has seen them picking up the style less than ten years after millennials dropped it. These once alternative trends have been dragged into the mainstream, too, with teenagers perfecting their cat eye and donning chokers to emulate a cleaned up version of the look. New emo bands often look like an uncanny valley version of artists we saw on Myspace a little over a decade ago. More innovative artists, like Lil Peep or Lil Uzi Vert, have chopped up aspects of the genre and melded it with rap and pop to create something new entirely; a controversial sound that older men turn themselves in circles calling “not real emo” despite being imbued with all the emotion of an early Taking Back Sunday record. But the way new artists transform an old genre isn’t indicative of a lack of originality; it’s the opposite. They’re utilising the internet to make something entirely new and share it for free.
Nostalgia is partly to blame, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Focusing on millennials, many of us are guilty of revisiting our pasts via 00s throwback nights, band anniversary tours, and “remember this?” posts on Twitter. Media outlets sell nostalgia back to us via anniversary pieces, forcing us to think about Friends over and over again. There’s little room to grow; we don’t need to discover anything new, as long as we can keep enjoying the things we’ve always loved. With the massive shifts in digital culture, we have every era in history at our fingertips: nothing gets left behind.
But, why then, do teenagers adopt older culture? The answer could lie in that the one thing that has changed beyond recognition is our relationship to the internet. We have immediate access to aspects of culture we might otherwise have forgotten, which means that teenagers can discover eras they weren’t even alive during. Sure, we could borrow our parents’ 80s albums or leather jacket, but Gen Z can pick and choose music, films and fashion from any decade they want without limits.
Our past may be accessible, but conversely, it feels more distant because of the massive cultural and political shifts of recent years. Limitless news sources and a constant news cycle reminding us of Brexit, climate change, assault, and everything in-between means that we can consume more news in one day than we previously would in a week. We live in increasingly turbulent times, and it’s no wonder, really, that even teenagers would rather cling to a simpler time before they were even born. Children don’t have the option to remain ignorant to political shifts or climate change, and nostalgia for even the recent past speaks directly to a fear of our non-existent future.
When the present is so terrifying and the future so unknowable, it’s completely understandable to want to curl up in the past. Even a seemingly Tumblr-era obsession with film photography and vinyl can be explained this way: when we are so dependent on our phones, constantly told of the dangers and permanent alterations to our psyche that smartphones are having on us, why wouldn’t we try to simplify our lives? A teenager taking a disposable camera on a day out might seem retro or faux-artsy, but dig a little deeper, and in many cases you’re likely to find a fear of their present.
There are exceptions, of course, and the one thing that has changed is digital culture: through TikTok, Tumblr and Vine, teenagers this decade have completely shaped online culture and humour. Originality still exists, whatever the cynics may say, and the ability to take something old and make it new is a creative skill in itself. Our dependence on the internet is double-edged – it enables us to create and share new culture, if we choose to, but it also enables us to stay stuck in our pasts. It can amplify the voices of minorities and oppressed people who are rarely given a chance in mainstream media, as in the case of YouTube and Vine. Many of the “new” cultural products of the 2010s were born directly out of digital culture – like Broad City, Insecure. How we use the tools we’ve been given is up to us.
Perhaps we are just too busy trying to fix the mistakes of the past to focus on new art. The climate crisis has imbued the latter half of the decade with fatalism; it’s incredibly difficult to consider being creative when we’re being told, daily, that the world is going to end. Young people are more politically engaged than ever. But what’s next? The exhaustion with the internet that’s been teased through the latter half of this decade is likely to reach a peak. More of us are checking our screentime and committing to digital detox breaks. If we manage it, that’s likely to impact culture greatly. The climate crisis is likely to impact culture, too. With pressure being put on the fashion industry to focus on sustainability and crack down on fast fashion, the clothes we wear are likely to be different than in this decade.
I spoke to Tora, aged 22, who works for streetwear website Hypebae. Tora loves to wear vintage clothes like the ones her mum used to wear, and she told me that she believes social media is the biggest reason for the recycling of older trends. “Fashion spreads so quickly and it is easy to post and browse on apps like Instagram,” Tora says. “For example, if you’re seeing your favourite influencer wearing a vintage Dior bag from the ‘90s, you’ll probably look into getting that same bag,” she says, adding that she believes it’s also down to affordability and sustainability. “Gen Z is very nifty and have turned to thrift shops, vintage and secondhand places to shop, which has also created a higher demand for old and trendy pieces. Sustainability is a big reason as to why a lot of my friends actually dress very vintage-based, because a lot of Gen Z kids are realising the impact fashion has.”
Eleanor, an 18-year-old ethical fashion blogger, agrees. “Gen Z are embracing fashion in a way that follows on from the principles and ideals of groups such as Extinction Rebellion. With the conversation of climate change and the rise in eco anxiety within the young, it is not surprising that there has been a rise in interest in sustainable fashion as both a cause and consequence of the activism which is positive,” she tells me. “It does create more of a sustainable cycle with clothes in the sense that trends are more likely to stem from second-hand clothing opposed to those high-street brands.”
While we have been guilty of recycling and revisiting old trends and cultural products in the 2010s, “the death of originality” is ultimately a myth. Audre Lorde, who died long before this decade, once said: “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” All we can do is keep using the tools we’ve been given to create what we can, while trying to save the world.
Plus, logging off every once in a while won’t hurt.