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Bootcut jeans, band T-shirts and chokers: Little Fires Everywhere has revived the best of 90s fashion

Reese Witherspoon's latest show is feeding our appetite for nostalgia and reminding us how we used to dress, writes Meadhbh McGrath

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Kerry Washington with her more relaxed look
beside Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires
Everywhere

Kerry Washington with her more relaxed look beside Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere

Reese Witherspoon in a skirt suit

Reese Witherspoon in a skirt suit

Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and Moody (Gavin Lewis) in 90s attire

Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and Moody (Gavin Lewis) in 90s attire

Reese Witherspoon sports “Ralph Lauren Americana” in Little Fires Everywhere

Reese Witherspoon sports “Ralph Lauren Americana” in Little Fires Everywhere

Kerry Washington in shearling-lined
denim jacket

Kerry Washington in shearling-lined denim jacket

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Kerry Washington with her more relaxed look beside Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere, which arrived on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, comes loaded with soapy melodrama, simmering racial tensions and sharp observations on motherhood.

Set in 1997, it's also a glorious time warp to the 90s, with scrupulous attention to detail in everything from the soundtrack (Liz Phair, Counting Crows, Fugees) to the pop culture references (Before Sunrise, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 90210's Brenda and Dylan) to the meticulous costume design.

The limited series is based on Celeste Ng's bestselling novel, which was adapted for the small screen by Reese Witherspoon's production company Hello Sunshine after earning a coveted endorsement from her book club back in 2017.

Witherspoon stars as Elena Richardson, a hyper-controlled, tightly-wound mother of four and local news reporter in the well-to-do suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where fines are issued if residents allow their grass to grow beyond six inches. Her picture-perfect existence is disrupted by the arrival of Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a bohemian artist and single mother to teenage daughter Pearl, who befriends the Richardson kids.

The show opens with Elena watching her sprawling mansion burn down, before flashing back to four months earlier, promising an explosive mystery just as addictive as Witherspoon's last hit book-to-TV adaptation, Big Little Lies.

Only where Madeline Mackenzie offered impeccable style in the West Coast elite mode - sunny floral minidresses with high heels, head-to-toe Lululemon - Elena Richardson embodies what the show's costume designer Lyn Paolo has described as "Ralph Lauren Americana": all red, white and blue, in the form of argyle knits, chambray shirtdresses and plenty of pearls.

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Reese Witherspoon sports “Ralph Lauren Americana” in Little Fires Everywhere

Reese Witherspoon sports “Ralph Lauren Americana” in Little Fires Everywhere

Reese Witherspoon sports “Ralph Lauren Americana” in Little Fires Everywhere

Elena is painfully Type-A, carefully measuring out her daily 4oz allowance of white wine and referring to her book club's latest pick only as "the Virginia Monologues". She clings to her thankless part-time job at the Shaker Times, while dressing for her dream gig at The New York Times in padded-shoulder skirt suits reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's Flotus days.

Off-duty, Elena wears spotless white polo shirts with the collar popped, tucked into a pair of faded 'mom jeans', a preppy Dooney & Bourke bag on her arm and her bobbed hair immaculately blow-dried.

And in bed, a series of long, shapeless nightgowns with wide straps and lacy bibs - no slinky slip dresses here. It's a sublime time capsule of the era and a refreshing change for Witherspoon, who appears on TV so frequently that her characters run the risk of bleeding into one another.

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It also feeds our seemingly endless appetite for 90s nostalgia. On Instagram, accounts such as @90sAnxiety, @90s.era and @90smilk draw hundreds of thousands of followers, sharing resurfaced snaps of celebrities from decades past - think Cameron Diaz in a slip dress and combat boots at the Cannes Film Festival, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow's matching haircuts, or Princess Diana on her way to the gym.

Witherspoon even joined in, taking to Instagram to post some throwback photos of herself sporting many of the decade's defining trends. Leather choker: check. Spaghetti-strap top: check. Brown lipstick, bantu knots and pencil-thin eyebrows: check, check, check.

It's no surprise, then, that Little Fires Everywhere's costume, hair and make-up teams turned to Witherspoon for 90s inspiration, with a photo of the actress wearing a head full of butterfly clips making a starring appearance on Paolo's mood board.

"We got to be sort of 90s consultants because we were teenagers in the 90s," Witherspoon has said of herself, Washington and Joshua Jackson, who plays her on-screen husband and shot to fame as Pacey in the ultimate 90s teen drama, Dawson's Creek.

Washington's wardrobe as Mia is just as evocative of the time period as Elena's, although considerably less polished. Paolo also worked with Washington on the hit political thriller series Scandal, dressing Olivia Pope in her signature pristine white coats, tailored trouser suits and Prada handbags. On Little Fires Everywhere, Washington's costumes reflect Mia's laid-back, free-spirited character. Her colour palette is much darker and more muted than Elena's vivid reds and brilliant whites, a visual nod to their clashing personalities and class differences.

Mia favours band T-shirts featuring the likes of the Velvet Underground, Bob Marley and David Bowie, that also hint at her nomadic lifestyle, checking out concerts in whatever city she happens to be living at the time. With items pulled from second-hand shops, her wardrobe mixes styles from different decades for a more bohemian, carefree look, with easy ribbed cotton tops, shearling-lined denim jackets and high-waisted bootcut jeans with back-pocket embroidery that may have viewers questioning their allegiance to skinnies. And in a rare - and realistic - move for prestige television, Mia even repeats her outfits.

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Kerry Washington in shearling-lined
denim jacket

Kerry Washington in shearling-lined denim jacket

Kerry Washington in shearling-lined denim jacket

Many of the items were sourced from vintage shops, but Paolo has said she also dug into the Warner Brothers costume department and her own previous work on ER, even recycling a cardigan Julianna Margulies wore on the show almost 30 years ago. As well as pulling archival pieces, she turned to catalogues from Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Brooks Brothers for inspiration when custom-designing pieces for the Richardson family.

The contrast between the two families is illustrated most clearly in the wardrobe evolution of Mia's daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), whose style undergoes a shift as she grows closer to Elena's children.

Initially, she dresses much like her mother, in earthy hand-me-downs in shades of brown, grey and black, but as the story goes on, she swaps the charity shop finds for colourful cropped cardigans, shirred blouses and an apron-front lace dress with lip gloss and a glittering choker for the high school dance.

At the same time, Elena's youngest daughter, Izzy, forms a bond with Mia, and gains the confidence to abandon her mother's hand-picked prom dresses, dainty florals and tonged curls for grungy checked shirts, dungarees and Doc Martens.

Their classmates, meanwhile, model a whole range of peak 90s trends, from chokers and puka shell necklaces to curtain haircuts and flat twists.

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Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and Moody (Gavin Lewis) in 90s attire

Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and Moody (Gavin Lewis) in 90s attire

Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and Moody (Gavin Lewis) in 90s attire

Those who lived through the decade will be keeping a close eye on the details, and Little Fires Everywhere takes care to ensure it gets them right, whether it's a bulky car phone, a supermarket teen magazine with the Spice Girls on the cover, or a pair of chunky flatform sandals - the last of which, coincidentally, was back on the catwalks for spring-summer 2020 at Simone Rocha, Fendi and Giambattista Valli.

As well as delivering some prime 90s nostalgia, Little Fires Everywhere reminds us that, in fashion, what goes around always comes back around eventually.


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