The cult of the 90s 2
The British band Spice Girls were a teen pop 90s phenomenon. Image: United Archives/TBM/picture alliance

The cult of the 90s: Everything old is new again

Remember "That '70s Show"? Netflix has revived the hit TV series with "That '90s Show," a sequel that indulges in 1990s nostalgia. But what defined the era?
Torsten Landsberg | Jan 21 2023

The '90s: a decade when crop tops were in, casted boy bands were hot and the internet was still in the early days of making its way into homes. On-demand streaming services like Netflix were still a far-off dream. But the media giant is turning its focus back to the last decade of the past millennium with its new series "That '90s Show" — a reboot of "That '70s show," the successful teen sitcom that aired on US broadcaster Fox from 1998 to 2006.  

The original show focused on Eric and his girlfriend Donna, and many scenes featured the two of them smoking pot with their friends in the basement of Eric’s parents' house. The series launched the film careers of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. 


Fashion flashbacks 

In the sequel series, which starts streaming on January 19, it's 1996, and Leia, the daughter of Eric and Donna, is spending the summer with her grandparents. Their house, and thus the setting for the show, has remained unchanged — and a new generation of teens spends their time in the same basement, smoking pot and drinking alcohol.

But with the generational shift comes a change in fashion: '90s clothing trends included midriff-baringtops, leggings and distressed jeans. The show keeps the nostalgia vibe going by bringing back something that’s gone out of fashion for sitcoms: a laugh track to simulate the reaction of a studio audience that is not present.  

The fall of the Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded a new decade of optimism and prosperity. Image: Norbert Michalke/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Of course, a decade is defined by more than its fashions. The 1990s started on a wave of a general sense of optimism in the West, thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with those events, the end of the Cold War. For many people, it felt as if a new era had dawned, one that promised greater freedom, prosperity and peace.  

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 One cultural expression of this optimistic mood was the Love Parade, an annual techno street party that started in Berlin in 1989 and quickly grew not only in size but also in global fame throughout the '90s, drawing hundreds of thousands of revelers eager to dance and party through the streets. Despite its hedonistic vibe, the Love Parade was officially a political demonstration, as reflected in its annual mottos.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana were part of the "grunge" music scene that expressed disillusionment and an anti-establishment stance. Image: LFI/IMAGO 

The musical sound of the decade included other genres, too. Rap, which started out reflecting the lives of Black people in the poorer neighborhoods of US cities, went global. Disaffected young rock fans found expression in grunge with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Its adherents expressed a punk-inspired anti-establishment and anti-commercialism stance — only to see their preferred anti-fashion of flannel shirts and vintage cardigans get eaten up and spat out again by the fashion-industrial complex. 

Those two uniquely American music genres stood in sharp contrast to what was coming out of Europe in the 1990s. Inspired by techno, music producers gave electronic dance music a pop twist, resulting in something called "Eurodance," led by artists like Sweden's Dr. Alban, Denmark's Whigfield and the Netherlands' 2 Unlimited. Germany was represented by Scooter, whose tracks such as "Hyper Hyper" and "How Much is the Fish" have made them the country's third-largest musical export after Rammstein and Scorpions.

Take That
Take That from Britain were one of the most successful boy bands of the 1990s. Image: Michael Stephens/empics/picture alliance

The '90s were also the heyday of boy bands and girl groups like New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. Talented singers who usually didn't know each other beforehand were cast by record producers or talent managers into a single act, often over the course of a reality competition TV show. In 1995, singer Robbie Williams upset fans worldwide by leaving his boy band, Take That. The intense devotion that group inspired is comparable to the feelings felt by fans of K-pop band BTS — the South Korean music industry has perfected the art of the purpose-built band.  

The portable audio cassette player
The portable audio cassette player was a revolution in consumer electronics, allowing people to take their music with them, any time, any place.  Image: Frank Kleefeldt/dpa/picture-alliance

Music fans increasingly abandoned cassette tapes and the once groundbreaking Sony Walkman, as well as vinyl albums. Both formats were made obsolete (at least temporarily) by the compact disc. It was small, transportable, not quite as delicate as vinyl and the sound quality was better than with cassettes. But who back then could have dreamed that one day, people would be able to carry their entire music collections in their pockets? Streaming technology eventually superseded the CD. But in an ironic twist, the nostalgic urge has revived the once-discarded vinyl album, as people too young to have used CDs discover its warm, analog sound. 

'Jurassic Park'
'Jurassic Park' was released in 1993, becoming a cult classic — and a successful movie franchise. Image: Universal/Everett Collection/picture alliance 

The 90s film business was also eager to experiment with new technology. In 1993, Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" used the latest in digital special effects to tell a story about the dark side of reviving the past. It's since developed into a movie franchise, relying on nostalgia and ever-more realistic CGI dinosaurs to thrill audiences. 

'Pulp Fiction'
'Pulp Fiction' marked the comeback of '70s star John Travolta. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/picture-alliance 

Also thrilling audiences in the 90s was director Quentin Tarantino, whose "Pulp Fiction" from 1994 became a cult favorite. Part of its appeal stemmed from how it dipped deep into the nostalgia well, from the film's retro soundtrack to the comeback of one-time heartthrob John Travolta. The movie's famous dance scene between Uma Thurman and Travolta was a wink to the actor's star-making turns in the 1970s dance films "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." 

A new leading man took off in the '90s: Brad Pitt. That decade laid the groundwork for his global career, starting with a small but notable role in "Thelma and Louise." He went on to star in "Interview with the Vampire," "Seven" and "Fight Club." And he's still going strong today, including a Best Actor Oscar win in 2020 for Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

'Sex and the City'
"Sex and the City" featured some taboo-breaking talk about sex and dating. Image: Craig Blankenhorn/dpa/picture-alliance 

The 1990s also saw a shift in television, driven in large part by a boom in cable TV in the United States and deregulation in other countries. Starting in 1998, "Sex and the City" followed four women friends in New York City as they navigated dating, love and sex, which was often discussed in taboo-breaking ways. That winning formula resulted in two feature films and, in 2021, the first season of a series sequel, "And Just Like That..." which checked in again on the protagonists' lives as they navigate middle age.  

Typical 1970s clothes
These typical 1970s clothes would have been very in demand from the fashion-conscious in the 1990s. Image: Walter Rudolph/United Archives/picture alliance 

"Sex and the City" was also famous for its fashionable costumes — though the style trends of the 90s weren't entirely new. As nostalgia-driven retro trends fold in on themselves, we get revivals of revivals. The '90s were the decade of '70s-inspired fashion, including bell-bottoms and platform shoes. And they're making yet another comeback now, along with other '90s trends like hair clips, scrunchies and smoky eye makeup. As the saying goes, everything old is new again. So Netflix's "That '90s Show" is right on time. 

This article has been translated from German.