Is Retro Cool Or Costly?
Is Retro Cool Or Costly?

From fashion to photography, we break down the appeal of going back in time

If Back to the Future heroes Marty McFly and Doc Brown were to travel back to the future today, they’d notice things akin to the time they’ve left. From mom jeans to chunky sneakers to grainy Instagram reels, there’s been an aggressive push to dial back the clock to simpler times. But what’s been fueling this retro frenzy?  


An interview published by RedBull (yes, really) between writer Mark Bailey and Tim Wildschut, professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton, UK, narrows it down to the feeling of nostalgia and familiarity. Wildschut states that “individuals who experience nostalgia had higher levels of happiness and a stronger sense of purpose,” two things that were tilted during the Covid pandemic. 



No surprise then, as we started to step out of quarantine zones and into an increasingly uncertain world, the need to go back to something familiar was overwhelming. People yearn for a simpler time, and the numbers prove it too. For instance, vinyl records made up 1.7 per cent of physical music sales in 2011. This number went up to 50.4 per cent by 2021. Similarly, Polaroid, which was on the verge of shutting shop in 2008, has made a comeback, recording a reported profit of $750M per year.  



But nothing gives a more visual representation of retro revival than what people are currently wearing. Go out in any city, and you’ll see enough baggy clothing to stitch up an impromptu tent right outside long-cued bars. The staple of affordable early ’90s clothing has made a comeback in Rs 5,000 extra-extra-oversized t-shirts. Bell bottoms are no longer an eyesore, but skinny jeans will get you cancelled.



Delhi-based designer Sahil Aneja adds to this, “The trend is part of a cycle of any fashion; it’ll keep surfacing every few years. Skinny jeans are out now, but they’ll make a comeback in the future.” When asked if there’s a deeper meaning attached to it, Aneja resonated with Wildschut’s comment, saying, “I’d like to believe there’s a deeper connection. I think the inspiration for the retro design comes from our earlier memories of non-digital references. For instance, you’ll see a lot of Woodstock-inspired clothing coming back today.” 



Besides hippie fashion of the hedonistic sixties, even Y2K icons like New Balance dad sneakers have made a mainstream comeback, thanks to their collaboration with Aimé Leon Dore, further prompting Nike to revive many of its past silhouettes and colourways. Not to mention Oakleys, which graced the noses of elite athletes, now sit on the face of us, commoners. 


Speaking on the phenomenon, Mumbai-based stylist Akshay Tyagi shared his point of view, saying, “Retro is popular now because vintage shopping is popular. While Gucci and Valentino can be credited for bringing it back, it’s about having an individual’s point of view.” Tyagi’s comments track when you look at the rise in thrift shopping we’ve seen in the last couple of years. 



But it isn’t just the sense of familiarity you’re giving into. In a mass-manufactured world, old-school items still carry a sense of character. Nishant Mittal, music archivist, and vinyl record seller says, “The act of going out to dig for records, stumbling upon new and unknown albums, buying them, cleaning them, and putting them on your record player is something else. I listen to albums in full when it’s on vinyl,” which he insists is the correct way of listening to music, adding, “The skip button is too tempting when I’m listening to music on streaming.”



Film photography is making a comeback too. Yash Yeri and Aditya Tawate of Zhenwei Film Lab note how their sale of 350 prints a month (100 clients) has nearly doubled in the past couple of years. And it’s not just the boomers who have the patience for all things non-processed. A 27-year-old, Anahita Grewal, an environmental politics student from Mumbai remembers her decision to switch to film cameras, saying, “Analogue forms force us to take it slower and simplify the process.” The allure of older things extends beyond fashion, music, and photography. Tech-makers like Motorola revived the Razr flip phone with modern touches. Capcom’s almost 30-year-old IP, Street Fighter, opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews for its sixth instalment.  



While romanticizing the past can be tempting, the human conditioning for looking at red flags through rose-tinted glasses cannot be ignored. During an interview with CNN, Elena Caoduro, a lecturer in film and media at Queen’s University Belfast, states that nostalgia for old things isn’t new. However, it’s also driven by a longing for an imagined past, saying, “We want to bring back to the present something that existed in the past, or at least imagined they existed in the past.” 



Many remember Michael Jordan wearing the ’84 Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” for his final game in New York as a Chicago Bull. But how many know that the same shoe was eating his feet inside out, prompting him to say, “I couldn’t take those shoes off fast enough.” This romanticization of the past has allowed capitalism to extend its dark and ugly fingers into today’s retro trend. For instance, Saint Laurent will now sell you a retro-themed Nirvana t-shirt for almost $4,000 (approx Rs 3.2 lakh).



The OG Motorola Razr, which sold for $449 (approx Rs 36,000), now retails for $1,499 (India price – Rs 1.25 lakh) today. Of course, the updates are incremental, but what you are paying for is nostalgia. Similarly, how many are willing to spend on a Vinyl player, which costs upwards of Rs 12,000, or expensive film rolls, which are notoriously infamous for not being reliable? Today, to look cool is to go back in time, but it comes at a cost that only a black titanium card can pay for. 


Image credits – Nike, YSL, Gucci, Unsplash, daguerreologue, New Balance

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