BACK TO THE '90s
Marie Claire Australia|September 2021
Nostalgia for the ’90s has hit new heights thanks to its pop-culture power and fearless fashion. But could you really live there again? Alexandra Carlton ditches the digital world and steps back in time to find out
Alexandra Carlton

The year was 1997. I was in my first year of university. High heels, Botox and shellac nails weren’t part of my universe in any way, not just because I was a penniless student whose skin hadn’t been ravaged yet by stress, laptops and too many hangovers, but because no-one did any of those things back then. I wore parachute material pants and shell tops (maybe a fetching cowl neck if I was going out at night), straightened my dyed black hair with an iron (as in, an actual iron) and wore two-toned Royal Elastics sneakers around the clock. Makeup was mascara and nothing else. Earlier in the decade I was all about slip dresses and Doc Martens – as Courtney Love as someone could be outside of a Hole video. They key was never trying too hard; comfort was king. It was almost lockdown leisurewear, decades before any of us knew what a lockdown even was.

Looking back on the ’90s, there’s no question that it was a simpler time. You didn’t have anyone to compare yourself to on Instagram. You could buy a house and feel like you had at least a fighting chance of paying it off before you died. Delayed gratification meant life was dotted with measured surprises rather than on-tap dopamine rushes; watching your favourite show (hello, Melrose Place) was an event that you knew you had to do at 8.30pm on Tuesday or you’d miss it entirely, and you never knew how those photos of your friend’s 18th would turn out until you got them back from the chemist a week later. Instead of spending every spare second face-first in a phone – reading angry, polarised people yelling blindly for their team’s side on the news topic of the day – I used to take a coffee out to the rooftop outside my above-shop flat and listen to cheerful house music. I remember it being annoying that no-one could get hold of me unless I was at home next to my landline. But also … how good it was that no-one could get hold of me unless I was at home next to my landline.

It was with this giddy sense of nostalgia that I began my weeklong challenge of living like it was the ’90s, to see if I could recapture a little of that carefree magic. I couldn’t get the dewy skin back. I don’t have a landline. But the idea that I would be filling my days with something other than nervy scrolling was appealing and intriguing.

The first thing I did was ban myself from looking at social media, Google (for non-work purposes) and apps. It was impossible to detach myself from my phone entirely; in 2021, you can’t run a business, a family, pay for things or check yourself into venues using the CovidSafe app without one, so I had to be realistic. But I could force myself away from the pretty pictures of Instagram, and – this one felt the most jarring – the convenience of having the answers to pretty much everything at my fingertips.

The loss of the latter was thrown into sharp focus on the first night of my experiment when my husband called to say he’d be late home from work and suggested I order us something for dinner. Obviously the delivery apps were all out of bounds. If it were really the ’90s, I’d have a library of flyers for local Chinese, Thai and pizza places. That wasn’t an option either – RIP the messy menu drawer – but then a memory came back to me.

The 1990s Pizza Hut jingle. “9-4-8-1 double-1double-1. Pizza Hut Delivery!” The fact that I could remember that sequence of digits but can’t tell you my own husband’s phone number (thank you, iPhone contacts list) speaks powerfully to the long-term impact of advertising earworms.

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