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As Time Goes By
The big news in Amy Spindler's recent lifestyle piece in The New York Times was not her declaration that the '70s are back in fashion, films and interior design. The return of platform shoes and wrap dresses is as predicable as the tides. The surprise was the reason: a yearning for a more innocent age. "To me," Tom Ford, Gucci designer and a leading promoter of the '70s revival, observed, "what's attractive about the '70s is that it's the last period of pure optimism."
Optimism? Innocence? The era of Watergate and the Symbionese Liberation Army? Decades don't just keep repeating on us like a badly digested meal. They return as Edens, the childhood homes of the latest generation of culture makers bent on revisiting the idyll of "simpler" times.
As surely as the '70s became the '50s of the '90s, so will the '90s become the '70s for the next century's teens. So why wait 20 years for the inevitable? For those really ahead of the zeitgeist curve, the time for '90s nostalgia is now.
"You must remember, the '90s was a time in which people actually thought that profits could climb and inflation stay low forever," says Christopher Slash, professor of cultural studies at the University of Las Vegas and author of Postmodern Medici: Steve Wynn and the New American City. "They thought they had broken through some economic barrier to unlimited growth. There was an almost delusional optimism in the air, and there's a real yearning for that kind of feeling these days."
On the runways of the fashion houses, that yearning finds expression in models wearing Nike-style athletic shoes and collections featuring rainbows of beiges that harken back to the cool minimalism of Jil Sander. Even more in evidence in Paris this spring is the influence of Gianni Versace, the maestro of the safety pin, who took the Neapolitan streetwalker look off the sidewalks and put it into the closet of his fellow celebrity martyr, Princess Di. "It may look like bad taste," says Diana Freeland, fashion editor at The New Yorker. "But with Versace, bad taste was an expression of freedom. The same kind of freedom that allowed Diana to confess to the world that she threw up her food."
The omnipresence of the '90s in fashion and entertainment can be traced to the generation who grew up in that carefree period, when the whole family clamored into the leather-lined behemoth SUV and took off for the mall-gas prices be damned.
How else can one explain the crowds lining up at I Love You/You Love Me, a revue of songs gleaned from old Barney videos, which recently moved to Disney's Victory Theater on 42nd Street? "Barney is all about loving and sharing and caring," says Love You producer Max Bialystock. "I don't think a message like that ever goes out of style."
Tom Bored, the designer most responsible for dressing the fashion-forward crowd in Barney purple, emphatically agrees. "Barney is purple, and purple is a very emotional color. That's what the '90s were all about-emotion, wanting it, needing it, experiencing it everywhere and in everything. It was how you felt that counted. That's what makes the '90s so unique and yet so timeless."
The hunger for '90s style helps explain the box-office power of El Nino, the hit feature film about a weekend in the life of a '90s family forced to confront their demons when a freak weather event knocks out their computers, phones and cable TV.
For El Nin› set designer Phillipa Johnson, 34, re-creating the interior of the movie's postmodern Victorian was a labor of love. "The beauty of the period is that were so many styles. The real difficulty was settling on one. In the end, I went for a sort of distressed repro-Pottery Barn look, very eclectic, very layered, very filled with objets. I wanted to convey just how much these people loved their things." The little bead-shaded table lamps and the neo-French provincial sleigh bed featured in the film are vintage pieces, she says. "Believe me, it's not easy to find the real stuff. People are buying it up like crazy." Johnson is most proud, however, of the authentic home-theater setup in the great room.
For Bored, the appeal of the era lies in its innocence. "To me, what's attractive about the '90s is that it's the last period of pure optimism," he says. "It was the last decade before the millennium, which people actually saw as a significant, world-changing event. The Internet was going to save us! Computers would keep the economy running forever! We'd regulate the appliances of our houses by clapping our hands. And thanks to the magic of telecommunications, only seconds would elapse between our expression of a need and its satisfaction."
Two decades later, the world looks different from the one "imagineered" in the '90s. Yet in the face of modern-day complexities, the decade's naive energy exerts a seductive fascination. The '90s will be with us for a long time to come.