On Instagram, there are over 445 million photos hashtagged with #tbt, an acronym so ingrained in our daily lexicon it needs no further explanation. Man Repeller’s second and third most-liked posts of all time depict Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt (pre-breakup) and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (pre-The Row), respectively. This past spring, Daniel Day-Lewis and Kim Kardashian West were both spotted using flip phones. Huji, an app that lets you turn your photos into grainy snapshots reminiscent of a disposable camera outtake from 1999, has over 16 million downloads as of July. A Blockbuster “pop-up” recently opened in London as a marketing ploy for Deadpool 2 (as you may recall, the video rental chain declared bankruptcy in 2011). Netflix has rebooted Full House, Wet Hot American Summer and Gilmore Girls, among other beloved entertainment touchstones whose fates were once relegated to off-network syndication. Vaquera and Calvin Klein paid homage to high school detention and graduation in their Spring/Summer 2019 collections, and Marc Jacobs sent out hall pass-themed invitations for a fete celebrating the brand’s new lunchbox-shaped box bags. Oh, and Pokémon Go just hit $2 billion in revenue.
That there is no bigger trend right now — culturally, aesthetically, commercially, socially — than nostalgia is unequivocally true, though I’ll admit labeling it a “trend” might seem odd. The word was coined a whopping 330 years ago by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer. At the time, nostalgia was considered a serious psychopathological disorder tantamount to paranoia (prescribed treatments for the condition included everything from public ridicule and bullying to leeches or “warm hypnotic emulsions” — the specifics of which I was unable to find on the internet, I’m sorry to report). And yet, despite this long-standing history, nostalgia is plainly having “a moment” at the moment, in the enormously fascinating albeit slightly absurd way that only things in 2018 can.
As Haley examined in her essay about wistfulness, there is an aspect of nostalgia that connotes pain — a sudden memory that takes your breath away, a ghost from the past, a former version of yourself pressing down like a thumb on the bruise of your present. The aspect of nostalgia that thrives in the belly of 2018’s pop cultural zeitgeist feels like another thing entirely, though: the product of a marketing strategy that began toward the end of the 20th century (wherein companies got very savvy about converting feelings into dollars) combined with social media’s special algorithmic sauce that turns things ubiquitous at unprecedented speeds.
The nostalgia trend of 2018 is the sweet candy shell that encapsulates the heartache-y core. It’s the impulse to invest in scrunchies, the thrill of rediscovering Vanity Fair’s 2003 “It’s Raining Teens” editorial, the cringeworthy delight of watching a movie you used to love but haven’t seen in a decade, the irony of Uggs and the ideal of something you might remember fondly if you could remember it at all. “We can cherry pick the best moments, movies, fashion, etc. (and leave out all the bad stuff),” Perry Van Laun, manager of the hugely popular nostalgia-based Instagram account @80s_90s_00s, told me over email.
It’s a powerful marketing ploy, as evidenced by Deadpool 2‘s Blockbuster charade, Netflix’s extensive investment in remaking old shows instead of simply creating new ones and the fact that I not only downloaded Huji this summer but also recently paid extra for access to premium features, which is more than I’ve paid for any app since the sea bass carpaccio I ordered at dinner a few weeks ago (you didn’t think I was going to write about nostalgia without sneaking in a dad joke, did you?). But the way people relate to and through nostalgia so palpably in our current climate indicates that its power stems from something more than that. Evidence of this interplay is abundant online, from the 3,500+ comments underneath Man Repeller’s aforementioned Olsen twin Instagram (most of which appear to be friends @-ing each other) to the apocalyptic Twitter frenzies and text threads that ensue whenever another popular show from the 90s is slated for a revival.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Human Research found that nostalgia does indeed “[foster] a sense of social connectedness” and increase our sense of empathy. It’s easy to understand why the past, in its previously digested, glossy, time-shrunken form, would provide a safer and more soothing medium for connection than the present, isn’t it? There’s an inherent comfort embedded in the certainty of what is “done,” especially compared to the uncertainty of what is still unfolding. Kate Nelson Best, an expert in fashion culture and author of the 2017 book The History of Fashion Journalism, spoke to Quartz about this phenomenon, remarking, “[We] look to the past as a way of either resisting what’s going on presently, or as a way of anchoring things in a more stable environment.” The collective desire to do so is wholly unsurprisingly given our current political climate, a point that has been articulated by Elle and Fashionista specifically in the context of cyclical fashion.
Jayna Maleri and Jenna Gottlieb, founders of the newly launched nostalgia-focused website Haystack Stories, cite this sentiment as one of the reasons why they wanted to create an online editorial space rooted in the past: “[Nostalgia] is sort of magical in that it’s a form of time travel, and right now a lot of people can really use a little bit of magic,” they wrote to me in an email. “It’s not always easy (or even fun—we often say that nostalgia is the happiest way to be sad), but it can be emotionally fulfilling to take a break and just park yourself in the past every once in a while.”
Interestingly, though, as much as nostalgia facilitates an escape into the past, it also does precisely the reverse. According to a 2013 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the scope of nostalgia extends into the future — and a positive future at that: “nostalgia […] fosters social connectedness, which subsequently increases self-esteem, which then boosts optimism.” In other words, if nostalgia elicits optimism and optimism, by definition, conveys a sense of hope and confidence regarding the future, then the imagined future our nostalgia paints for us is decidedly rosier than the present. That’s not to say nostalgia isn’t still a powerful cultural coping mechanism in the midst of 2018’s political and social upheaval, but instead of seeing it simply as a means of retreat, what if a heightened awareness of where we came from is what we need to figure out where we are headed?
I recently read an essay by New York Times columnist Carl Richards entitled, “Your Future Should Be Bigger Than Your Past. Here’s How to Do It.” Richards describes getting together with his two best friends from high school and suddenly shifting the conversation from reminiscing about their adolescence to thinking about the future, asking themselves what they wanted each of their lives to look like in three years. “Talking about high school was great, but this was so much better,” he writes. “You could immediately feel energy and confidence enter the room as we started scheming.
The future should always be bigger than the past (that is, in a sense, the primary indicator of progress), but if the recent proliferation of nostalgia says anything, it’s that sometimes we need to look back to energetically move forward, scrunchies and all.