Seventies parties were staples of my college years. The prospect of raiding my closet for some new combination of bell-bottom jeans, platform shoes and shirts with wild prints—items stolen from my mother’s wardrobe years earlier—made me giddy. For the finishing touch, I combed out my naturally curly hair into a big fly Afro, stuck a fist pick in it and was ready to go.
Born in the ’70s, we ’90s college kids felt a connection to that decade even if we only knew it from old pictures and TV shows. Older associates I met during internships and at my first job were perplexed when we newbies told them about these events, failing to understand what made the ’70s fodder for a theme party.
“How could they not know?” I thought. They lived through it. The ’70s seemed so cool—who didn’t love to boogie?
Almost two decades later, when I was in my late 30s, I unearthed a photo I’d taken with a group of friends during an internship in the late 1990s. My son’s babysitter, Grace, a college student in her early 20s, saw it sitting on the kitchen table.
“When was this?” she squealed.
“I think it was 1999.”
“I could totally tell by the clothes! I’m really getting into ’90s clothes and watching ’90s TV shows, and this totally looks like something from the ’90s!”
I raised an eyebrow. The denim shirts and floral-patterned skirts looked normal to me. I didn’t think the picture looked dated. It seemed like just a few years ago that we posed for that shot—not 16.
“Grace, when were you born?” I asked.
That was my senior year of high school.
Grace became my lens on 2010s college life, an ambassador to the world my close-to-middle-aged self no longer inhabited. During the next few months, I learned that ’90s nostalgia was now a “thing,” and ’90s parties, complete with music and “costumes,” were all the rage. That’s when it hit me. I had become those “older” co-workers I once mocked. I was working with kids born the same year I graduated from high school.
I should have realized this was inevitable. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, we had ’50s and ’60s days during school spirit weeks. By the time I hit high school, the new “it” decade was the ’70s, and everyone broke out the leisure suits, disco balls and Travolta-esque Saturday Night Fever garb to get funky in our dorms, sorority and fraternity houses and apartments.
“Old” people were shocked when we said we were born in 1975, ’76 or ’77, and we loved watching their reactions.
“1977? That’s when I graduated from high school!”
“1977? I was standing in line to get tickets for Star Wars then. When I was in college!”
They were so ancient, I thought. Just like my parents.
A decade later, the ’70s were ancient history. Eighties flashbacks marked my early adult years, complete with the big hair, neon, gaudy makeup and baggy sweaters that were the artifacts of the Reagan era. Unlike the decades I only knew through history books, I was old enough to remember the ’80s. I enjoyed celebrating memories of my early childhood and reminiscing about Madonna and Prince shocking polite society with their raunchy antics. Now they’re safe enough to book for Super Bowl halftime performances.
Although the re-emergence of ’80s lore should have warned me that the ’90s would also become nostalgia, I wasn’t ready for college kids throwing parties mocking the decade I entered as an awkward, self-doubting 12-year-old and emerged from as a confident 22-year-old ready to take on the world. Parties where college students donned their most grunge-tastic flannel shirts, cracked jokes from Seinfeld and waxed poetic about the booming, go-go dot-com Clinton years (Bill, not Hillary).
The ’90s were certainly not meant to be party fodder for kids in the 2010s, I protested to myself. I wanted to shake my fists and tell them to get off my lawn!
When the local university bookstore had a ’90s throwback event, I had to see it for myself. Wanting to look the part, I put together a mismatched ensemble of a few items from my teens and early 20s that still fit—an early ’90s flannel shirt, a late ’90s FUBU baby tee and a floppy pink Blossom hat with a big flower on the front.
Some of the students recognized the flannel, but not the other two pieces. Then I remembered they were born between 1993 and 1997 and only knew about the ’90s through a limited lens. I retired my beloved shirts and hat to the back of my closet in shame. They just didn’t get it.
A few days later, I commiserated with my coworkers about how young these kids were, and how crazy it was that they had no idea about the importance of key moments from that oh-so-important decade that defined my existence.
They nodded their heads and laughed. Just wait, my 70-year-old semi-retired coworker told me. It only gets worse.