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Decade Decadence: What “Retro” Means in the 2010s

Updated on March 13, 2013
Gel candles are the ultimate ‘90s décor. For more fun retro party tips, read on!
Gel candles are the ultimate ‘90s décor. For more fun retro party tips, read on! | Source

It’s hard to admit that we’re getting older, but as we and our friends continue to pair off, find jobs, eat at restaurants with tablecloths instead of plastic counters, and become parents, it’s about time that we face the facts: we’re grownups now. And while ordinarily we would regard this development with solemn eyes or with newfound appreciation of our accomplishments, for the purpose of this article, only one thing matters—the fact that the styles of our decadent teenage years are now considered “retro.” This includes all the leggings, including stirrup pants, of the ‘80s are being rocked out alongside the plaid jackets that defined the ‘90s and the regrettable Uggs of the ‘00s. The revival is upon us, so we can either ignore it or embrace it. But if you care at all about planning an awesome retro party, you should embrace it.

The idea of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s being retro has been done to death. We know what people wore back then—we watch Mad Men, after all. Culture evolves so rapidly now that it’s about time we stop to contemplate what made the past three decades so fun. Was it the Legos we played with in the ‘80s (and the ‘10s, for that matter)? The first time we attended a prom and discovered that silver tablecloths exist? Our first car and first set of custom chair covers? Let’s examine the decades further to pinpoint just what you want to bring to the party and what you want to leave behind.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight: 1980s

The ‘80s are so often used as a pejorative that we often forget how fantastic they were. This was the decade that gave us The Princess Bride, aerobics class, and Depeche Mode, after all. Even the bad films from the ‘80s are worth watching just to rejoice in how spectacularly high-concept they were. And that’s essentially a microcosm of ‘80s culture—the notion that something is ridiculously over-the-top that we can do naught but to love it and parody it endlessly. (Except Depeche Mode. Leave them out of it.)

So how do you take this bright, frosted, garish decade and translate it into the perfect retro party? You don’t translate, you simply replicate. You rent a bright blue tablecloth and cover it with ‘80s memorabilia. Better yet, cover it with a bright pink table cover, or with a black lace table linen to evoke Madonna’s denim-and-black-lace period. If you want to be a bit more classy (well, as classy as the ‘80s can be), you can channel the faux-gothic decadence of music videos from that era—lavish candlesticks, classic white linen or black table cloths, and antique wooden furniture. The ‘80s were all about conspicuous consumption, so it makes sense that the era would pay tribute to the lonely, cursed royalty.

As for the music . . . do we really need a list of all the awesome songs the ‘80s are responsible for? The power ballads alone would fill hours. Once you add in rock classics like “Welcome to the Jungle” and pop essentials like “Love is a Battlefield,” you’ll have more than a full set list. And if you are tempted to play a round of ‘80s-only Rock Band, you’ll only appreciate the music, in all its synthesized glory, even more.

Food should be relatively simple. Pasta salads were popular (especially with sundried tomatoes), as were Doritos and pizza. Keep it casual, but be sure to use glass dinnerware, as you don’t want the pizza grease to stain your blue tablecloths.

One beverage you might want to look for is Pepsi’s “Throwback” soda, which uses the original, HFCS-free formulas of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. They also use the original packaging. Some say Mexican Coke is closer to the Original Coke formula, so if you can find it, you might want to try it out. If nothing else, your friends will be shocked at your commitment to era-appropriate sodas.

Come As You Are: 1990s

So many associate the ‘90s with the grunge look, which is odd considering grunge was only in for about three or four years. And really, the ‘90s were so much more than flannel and bad hair—they were the era of Divas, boy bands wearing matching suits, the X-Games, and more. It was the era of The Rachel and that weird center-parted, partially shaven look that boys favored. An era of Courtney Love and The Spice Girls.

If nothing else, the ‘90s were a study of contrasts, which makes it the perfect era to turn to for party inspiration. You can emulate the lavish drama of Melrose Place with all its chic white table linen parties or do casual get-together inspired by Friends’ Central Perk. Or better yet, you may order essential accessories like table linen in blue to re-create classic prom scenes from popular ‘90s teen movies.

If you go this route, the table linen should be colorful, but understated—past 1994 or so, the ‘90s aesthetic valued a sense of minimalism. You could find napkins folded into interesting shapes resting on tablecloths of blue, or maybe purple if your prom committee was adventurous. (You can also go full-blown, early-‘90s neon, with orange table cloths and pink accessories—it depends on which part of the ‘90s you prefer.). The ‘90s were a big quirk-fest, so you can tell your guests to wear whatever they want—to “Come As You Are,” so to speak—as long as their outfits reflect the ‘90s spirit. DIY was popular, particularly for those in the punk or alternative scenes. A few crafting websites might be in order, or at least inspire a few ideas.

Popular ‘90s prom favors were fairly era-specific, which is what you’ll be going for in any retro party. Those weird, bubble-gel, wax-free candles are a good example—table-appropriate, but still very much of their time. You don’t need to adhere to the prom look, of course—just grab on to anything “’90s” and set it around the table linen. If you’re leaning more towards toys, Hacky Sacks were popular for some reason, as were yo-yos and gyro rings and, of course, Beanie Babies. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can look for tablecloths that depict patterns reminiscent of these toys or other ‘90s elements.

For entertainment, you’ll need to pay a little more attention to your playlist in terms of what belongs and what doesn’t. While the ‘80s did see a wide range of musicians rise to fame, the music carried with it common elements, so you wouldn’t be completely horrified to hear, say, “Billie Jean” right after “Sweet Dreams.” The ‘90s were somewhat more diverse, so be careful not to group together artists that are incredibly disparate—don’t mix Pavement with 2Pac, for example. They’re both fantastic, but they sound odd together.

As for food, don’t even hesitate—you need to get Dippin’ Dots. Sure, they were started in 1987, but nobody remembers eating them before the ‘90s. Your non-dessert items should include bagel pizzas and other finger food. Anything that requires dipping is good, as long as you don’t spill Lunchables cheese sauce on your silver tablecloth. A sub sandwich platter is a cleaner option, or you could go with wraps or soft tacos.

Drinks are another story. Unfortunately, nobody makes Surge or Squeez-its anymore, let along Crystal Pepsi, whatever that was. But Snapple is going strong, and you might be able to order Zima from Japan if you want something a little more age-appropriate.

Hey Ya!: 2000s

The era of super-low-rise jeans and indie glasses would, at first glance, appear to be a mere extension of the styles popularized in the ‘90s. But the culture of the ‘00s is just as immediately identifiable as that of any other era. Ladies in previous generations could do the side-parted wavy hair with bangs, but never with the finesse exercised in the aughts. Nor could we see a Kardashian™ smoky-eye-pale-lip combination and think of another era. And while the internet was quite popular in the ‘90s, it was only in the ‘00s that it truly revolutionized our society through interconnectivity and cat videos.

Since we’re so close to the aughts, you have an advantage in that your guests will immediately recognize the elements of ‘00s culture you display. Think of Reality TV—you can spoof The Bachelor in all its cheesy glory with a fauxmantic dinner complete with white table linen, roses and desperation. Or better yet, Jerseylicious, with zebra-patterned black-and white-table cloths, eyeliner, and lots of pink (and orange).

Speaking of which, black-and-white was probably among the more popular color combinations in terms of fashion, but home décor was a bit more sedate. Think of those reed diffusers as the perfect example—understated, neutral, and slightly organic. This was the era of the beige couch and the muted silver table cloth. You were allowed a pop of color—maybe in a pale turquoise pillow or a green napkin—and the occasional graphic pattern, but nothing more. Countertops were available in varying shades of gray or black granite, and lamps hung from ceilings—some in swirling patterns of blown glass and others in chic, calm red or green. Now, this makes for lovely home décor, but it is somewhat dull when it comes to party ideas.

So if you want to look for inspiration elsewhere, do so. India-inspired looks were quite popular in the mid-aughts, so a red or orange table cloth with sequin, gold thread, or paisley detail would be lovely. If you’re looking for something more chaotic, the Harajuku-inspired theme of Gothic Lolita will allow you to stay within the black-and-white trend while adding fun textures like white crinoline or a round black lace tablecloth.

There are many reasons to throw a decade-inspired event, but chief among those reasons is to luxuriate in nostalgia. Think of who you were and how you’ve changed. Perhaps you think hats that feature a single cloth flower on the brim silly now. Maybe you still wear your Uggs when the temperature dips below 50. At any rate, a retro event will give you and your guests plenty to think about and even more to enjoy, so above all, have fun!


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