Scrunchies Are Little Rainbow Reminders That Millennials Are Old

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.

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.

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