Scrunchies Are Little Rainbow Reminders That Millennials Are Old

There’s a reason the return of retro trends bothers so many people.

A pile of colorful scrunchies
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Two years ago at New York Fashion Week, I saw the future flash before my eyes. I was sitting inside a pink-walled storefront in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, watching the fashion brand Mansur Gavriel’s fall 2017 collection come down a runway. With seemingly everyone in the city’s fashion industry packed into the risers, willowy models strode the runway in simple, generously cut dresses and coats, carrying the handbags that had made Mansur Gavriel a cool-girl staple.

Fashion shows, with their thumping music and impossible-looking models and peacocking attendees, tend to be overwhelming sensory experiences. But one of the show’s tiniest details caught my eye—as well as the eyes of fashion media’s most powerful editors and Instagram’s most stylish women, based on the chatter I overheard after the show. Several models had their hair gathered into loose ponytails with abundant, colorful, ruffled scrunchies.

We all knew what this portended.

Scrunchies are now everywhere. They’re sold to wealthy women by Gwyneth Paltrow and stacked on the wrists of the coolest teens known to the internet, priced from $2 (Walmart) to $200 (Balenciaga). To a casual observer, the hair accessory’s ubiquity might seem baffling. The scrunchie gained mass appeal decades ago, and for years it has been dismissed as hopelessly passé. But the scrunchie revival was inevitable. You just had to know where to look to see it coming.

The scrunchie—a ring of elastic encased in loose fabric that forms a ruffle when twisted around a ponytail—was invented in the 1960s, but it wasn’t a thing until the Scunci brand launched in 1987. The brand’s hair ties fit in easily with the loose, colorful, casual look of the late ’80s and ’90s. For about a decade, the scrunchie was the default way Americans put their hair up.

Then the 2000s came, and everything got really tiny and tight, including hair ties. Nylon-wrapped black elastic cords became the norm. Any look will fade away after it hits critical mass, but the golden age of scrunchies had an unusually ignominious and decisive end: The style was the butt of a famous Sex and the City joke in the early 2000s that declared the scrunchie hair tie non grata for fashionable city-dwellers. Carrie Bradshaw found it hopelessly middle-American and middle-class.

The scrunchie was mostly relegated to the home, used to hold people’s hair in place while they slept or washed their faces. Now, those tiny, tight hair bands have been in favor even longer than their predecessors. Consumer restlessness is right on time, and the 1990s are the obvious choice for reconsideration, for reasons that run much deeper than hair accessories.

“We've reached that 20-plus-year marker that often ‘gilds’ a previous decade,” says Nancy Deihl, a fashion historian and a professor at New York University. “The hairstyles, the skirts, the earrings—it's all looking fresh again.” Far beyond the apparel world, the careful combination of nostalgia and novelty is frequently what makes a particular product a hit with consumers.  Scrunchies fit that rubric perfectly. “When a style went away too recently, it's because we had moved on,” Deihl explains. “But after a certain time things get revalued.”

Within hours of my personal scrunchie premonition, it became clear I hadn’t been the only one at New York Fashion Week nudged to revalue the stretchy, puffy hair accessories. Fashion publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar devoted entire articles to Mansur Gavriel’s scrunchies, which were made of vintage fabrics and would be available only at the brand’s New York City boutique. (They’ve long since sold out.) Mansur Gavriel is owned and run by two cool, young New Yorkers who already had one viral megahit under their belt; the brand’s bucket bags had waiting lists that stretched for six months in the mid-2010s. The pair’s blessing is exactly what a nascent, marginal trend needs in order to make its way to a broader audience.

Not everyone loves the idea of the scrunchie’s return. For the past two decades, it has been maligned as big, frilly, and objectionably retro-looking. Its opponents don’t see any reason to change their views just because two hip designers decided the scrunchie is now cool. That attitude is typical of throwback fashion trends. While the nostalgic thrill is precisely the draw for some people, plenty of others who lived through bell-bottoms or baby-doll dresses the first time would love to leave those items in their past.

Time, however, brings with it something that might be even more important than nostalgia: new shoppers. Gen Zers, currently in their teens and early 20s, are too young to have any horrible picture-day memories of their childhood scrunchie misadventures. Inexpensive retailers and fast-fashion chains that target young people, like Urban Outfitters and Zara, often release products that are nearly identical to those of more expensive brands, and the scrunchie’s immediate buzz was apparently enough for many stores to take the leap with such an inexpensive, easily manufactured product. Today, scrunchies are available in virtually every color, print, and texture you could imagine.

Gen Z, free of scrunchie baggage, has incorporated the hair ties into its own subcultures. The most prominent of them is the VSCO girl, a teen aesthetic marked by bright, feminine colors, oversize T-shirts, ugly-cool shoes like Crocs or Birkenstocks, conspicuous eco-friendliness, and—maybe most importantly—an armful of scrunchies. She’s beachy, she’s fun, she wants to put her hair up.

Trends like scrunchies, with their precise mix of nostalgia for some people and novelty for others, make shifting generational dynamics uncomfortably clear. It can sting to see a fresh crop of kids excavate your own youth with ironic fascination. For many people, revisiting an article of clothing is relatively easy, but it can be alienating to watch people who weren’t yet born when platform shoes or low-rise jeans were first all the rage adopt those things as their own.

Scrunchies reveal almost everything you need to know about how fashion trends rise and fall in America. They were part of youth culture in their first era of popularity, and that’s largely what they are again. It’s just different people who get to be young this time.