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The Decades That Defined Our Generations

Decades that defined our generations

It’s no secret that we all enjoy a trip down memory lane every once in a while, maybe reminiscing about a favourite film or fashion trend from our childhoods. The act of ‘retro-gazing’ (looking back on the past with nostalgia) has become especially popular amongst Millennials and Gen Zers.

But what is it that makes you a Millennial or a Gen Xer? Each generation has different collective memories and experiences of the past, from man first landing on the moon to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. In our latest campaign, we researched the top films, music, fashion trends and historic moments from each decade to find out how they influenced the characteristics of every generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z.

Read on for a journey through the past...

Get your 60s groove on

Those who remember the 60s might recall gathering round the TV, most likely with the very popular Angel Delight or sweets like flying saucers and spangles, to watch significant moments such as England winning the World Cup in 1966 and Neil Armstrong taking man’s first step on the moon in 1969. Also in 1969 was the first Concorde test flight, making it a year of aeronautical advancement, reflected in 1960s space-themed fashion trends, such as Pierre Cardin’s Space-Age Fashion collection and André Courrèges’ white ankle boots.

The 60s was an era of social change, led by Baby Boomers – those born in the baby boom after World War 2. Many reached their teens and 20s during this decade and were keen to create a more equal society. Marked by historic moments such as the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961 and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963, the 60s were a decade of fighting for more freedom as the gap widened between Baby Boomers and their parents’ generation.

Reflecting these feelings and the need to be independent from their parents, The Graduate (1967), with its famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel, grossed $104.9 million. In our top 5 films of the 60s, it was second only to The Sound of Music (1965). After all, we all enjoy singing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘So Long, Farewell’ at the top of our lungs even today. Coming in at number three was Funny Girl (1968) starring Barbra Streisand in her film debut, followed by Cleopatra (1963), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Fashion in the 60s followed the cultural move towards more freedom as clothing became more casual and youthful. The defining look of the 60s was Mary Quant’s miniskirt, which was a symbol of changing ideas around female beauty and sexual liberation. Other popular styles of the time include Hubert de Givenchy’s babydoll dress and Geoffery Beene’s minimalist designs.

"Paisley print was a fashion hit that first took hold on more modern times during the 1960s-70s as part of the eastern inspired trend kicked off by icons such as The Beatles. Originally it came from Kashmir Princes as a royal gift of friendship and if used well, it can add a touch of royal glamour to many an outfit today." – Philippa Brooks, Chums Fashion Buyer

Of course, we can’t talk about the 60s without mentioning Beatlemania. Taking our first three spots for top songs of the 60s with ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ respectively, the Beatles paved the way for a ‘British Invasion’ of the American music scene. Writing their own songs and incorporating sounds of different cultures and traditions, the Beatles were a global phenomenon whose music continues to inspire many today. Following this legendary band in our top five is ‘Tears’ by Ken Dodd and ‘The Carnival Is Over’ by The Seekers, both boasting over 1.41 million UK sales.

The 70s lowdown

The era of prawn cocktails and baked Alaskas, the 70s is often looked back on fondly for its disco music and flower power. It continued the legacy of the 60s in fighting for social justice and the advancement of technology, with the first IVF baby being born in 1978. The first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was elected in 1979.

Music was an important part of 70s culture, whether listening to it at Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 or during the infamous heatwave of 1976. The decade saw the rise of disco, funk, soul and glam rock, but sadly also the untimely death of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley, in 1977.

First place in our top five songs goes to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which had a total of 2.62 million sales in the UK, an innovative track which continues to influence music artists today. Following this is ‘Mull of Kintyre’ by Wings, and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John from the hit musical film Grease (1978), which features as number five on our list of top 70s films. The final two tracks ‘Rivers of Babylon’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord’ are by Boney M, a German-Caribbean band who offered a unique blend of disco, funk and biblical themes.

Those who lived through the 1970s may remember the bold colours and patterns used in men and ladies' clothing, for example on Diane von Fürstenberg’s wrap dress and Ralph Lauren’s polo shirts. Designers such as Bill Gibb created midi-length floral dresses, combining 60s hippie style with historic looks. Other notable fashion designs included Kansai Yamamoto’s ‘Tokyo Pop’ suit and Giorgio Armani’s reintroduction of the bomber jacket.

"Flares were an absolute iconic fashion trend of the ‘70s with global mega stars such as Abba, Tom Jones and Slade being photographed with their trademark flares. Saturday Night Fever showed how they could be seen as glamorous too and cement their place in our fashion history.” – Hayley Stockdale, Chums Fashion Buyer.

With fewer restrictions on what could be shown on screen, two of the highest grossing films of the 1970s were horror movies. Known for its theme song that starts with those two terrifying notes, Jaws (1975) was the first summer blockbuster and is considered a classic. The Exorcist (1973) is still regarded as one of the scariest films of all time and was even taken off the shelves in the UK after the BBFC deemed it unsuitable for home viewing. Breaking barriers with an Asian hero as the lead in a Hollywood production, Enter The Dragon (1973) was Bruce Lee’s most popular film. Of course, the top spot on our list is Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) which became a global cultural phenomenon and kickstarted the sci-fi craze that hit the 1980s.

Totally rad 80s

Remember when Snickers were called Marathon bars? Or when Arctic rolls were a popular dessert? Chances are you were around in the 1980s. It wasn’t the easiest decade, with mass unemployment, tragic events, such as the assassination of John Lennon in 1980, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, and industrial action including the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.

However, the 80s (which was when Generation X were reaching their teens and 20s) also saw the birth of some of the most iconic films, music artists and fashion trends of all time. Following the success of the 1977 film from the same franchise, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) were huge box office hits. Coming in at numbers four and five in our rankings are Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Batman (1989), both offering escapism through action and adventure. The top film of the 80s was E.T. (1982), which warmed everyone’s hearts and laid the foundations for future science-fiction films to be more youth-orientated.

In 1985, following the popular Christmas charity single ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ by Band Aid, which raised awareness of the Ethiopian famine crisis, one of the most successful charity events in the world took place. Live Aid was a 16-hour music event that took place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia with incredible artists such as Elton John, Queen, Madonna and David Bowie performing.

Although it missed out in 1984, ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! finally made it to Christmas number one in 2023 and has long been a festive classic. The other songs in our top five are reflective of popular 80s genres, including the rock hit ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor, R&B classic ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ by Stevie Wonder, and ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, in the synth-pop genre that became popular in the 80s.

One of the most iconic fashion pieces of the decade was Princess Diana’s crinoline skirt wedding dress, designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Taking place in 1981, Charles’ and Diana’s wedding was a key event of the 80s, attracting a television audience of over 750 million across 74 countries. Another notable fashion trend this decade centred on was women starting to wear less conservative clothing, as exemplified by John-Paul Gautier’s cone bra corset dress and Donna Karan’s line of body-conforming clothing. Other pieces in our top five include Miuccia Prada’s classic nylon backpack and Patrick Kelly’s mismatched button dress.

"Nothing screams 1980s like the shoulder pad, especially for women who took a more delicate masculine approach to their wardrobe as they left domestic life for the city. TV series Dallas was the epitome of shoulder pad heaven!” – Phillippa Brooks, Chums Fashion Buyer

The 90s were da bomb

If you were a 90s kid, you might remember that superior lunchboxes always included Dairylea Lunchables and Pringles in a sparkly case, or if you were really lucky, some candy cigarettes so you could pretend to smoke. The 90s is often looked back on fondly, especially by Millennials, who grew up during this era. Compared to the harsh economic climate of the previous decade, the nostalgia of the 90s offers a source of comfort for many people who grew up during that time.

For one thing, the 90s boasted some key moments which still have a huge impact on the world today. There were leaps in science and technology – Dolly the sheep became the first cloned mammal in 1996, and Google was created in 1998, becoming such a popular search engine it is now frequently used as a verb. In 1992, the Premier League was formed after it was decided a restructuring of football was needed. There were significant moments of social change too, such as Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990, marking the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Many beloved films came out in the 90s, so many in fact that we’ve included an honourable mention along with our top five – Forrest Gump (1994). Starring Tom Hanks, this heartwarming film sent a positive message of appreciating life as it is. In the same year, The Lion King came out. With beautiful animation and a legendary soundtrack by Elton John, it remains a classic. Science-fiction was still a popular genre in the 90s, with Independence Day (1996), the first film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), and of course Jurassic Park (1993), which pioneered the use of CGI in film. Also recognised for its computer-animated effects is Titanic (1997), which tops our list, grossing over $1.84 billion at the box office.

Some of the most popular music of the 90s featured in soundtracks, such as Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’ from Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ which featured in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and remains a popular first dance song at weddings. Pop and dance music were key genres of the 90s with hits such as ‘Unchained Melody/The White Cliffs of Dover’ sung by Robson & Jerome, and ‘Barbie Girl’, a europop sensation by Aqua, which topped the charts in many countries around the world.

Of course, this was also the decade of Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997. Shaking the nation, tens of thousands came to Buckingham Palace to lay flowers. To pay tribute to Diana, Elton John released a double A-side single with ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’, a rewritten version of his 1973 song.

"Denim has been around for a long time as a fabric that could take a tough time and still look good. But during the 1990s designers took on this fabric and took it to another level to create the ‘designer jean craze’. You just weren’t cool without a pair of black or stone washed jeans to wear!” – Hayley Stockdale, Chums Fashion Buyer.

Denim was a big feature of 90s fashion, but clothing classics went far beyond this too. Grunge became a popular style as men and women opted for more casual clothing, with Marc Jacobs designing a ‘Grunge collection’. Corset tops gained popularity during this time with pieces such as Vivienne Westwood’s portrait corset and Thierry Mugler’s ‘Harley Davidson’ bustier. Two of the designers of the 90s who created pieces that still influence what we wear today were Vera Wang and Gianni Versace. Vera Wang’s wedding dresses offered a modern, elegant look, while Gianni Versace pioneered metal mesh panels in clothing, which are still popular now.

Wassup 00s?

The world had entered a new millennium and survived Y2K. Like the 90s, your lunchbox was a sign of your superiority, especially if it contained the likes of Frubes and Fruit Winders. Many millennials came of age during this time and the first Generation Zers were growing up during the period as the internet became a part of everyday life. In 2004, Facebook was launched and in 2000, the first episode of Big Brother aired. The concept of reality TV was completely new in the UK and marked a turning point in television.

Sadly, the 2000s was also the decade of two high-profile tragic events. On 11th September 2001, the World Trade Center in New York was hit in a terrorist plane attack, killing 2,996 people. The impact of 9/11 and the actions taken following it still resonate around the world today. Then on Boxing Day 2004, the deadliest tsunami in history took place, killing 227,898 people across 14 countries and leading to mass injuries, destruction of infrastructure and economic damage.

The 2000s saw a diverse range of music emerge, from Taylor Swift’s Fearless album (2008) becoming the most-awarded country album in history to Shaggy’s reggae fusion hit single ‘It Wasn’t Me’, which sold 1.15 million copies in the UK. Rock remained a popular genre – Kings of Leon’s ‘Sex On Fire’ was the fourth best-selling single of the decade. The 00s also saw the release of the iconic ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ music video featuring numerous celebrities to raise money for Comic Relief. Pop stayed a key genre throughout the 00s, though we sadly said goodbye to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, in 2009. The top two best-selling singles were the dance pop single ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by Black Eyed Peas, and Will Young’s ‘Anything Is Possible/Evergreen’.

Many popular films came out during this time, and some still have large followings today, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), which made $1.14 billion in the box office. Fantasy was a well-loved genre as films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2003) and The Dark Knight (2008) did exceptionally well at the box office too. However, the number one spot is taken by Avatar (2009), which remains the highest-grossing movie of all time, making $2.9 billion at the box office. Renowned for its cinematography and 3D technology, people flocked to the cinema to watch it.

There were some iconic looks in the 00s, such as Alexander McQueen’s Oyster dress and the dress Michelle Obama wore for the 2009 Inaugural Ball, designed by Jason Wu. Y2K fashion favourites included low rise jeans, cropped tops, Hedi Slimane skinny ties and Calvin Klein military coats. Fast fashion also became popular during this decade, with high street copies of designer styles being produced quickly and cheaply. Some designers even collaborated with fast fashion brands, such as Karl Lagerfeld’s collaboration with H&M in 2004.

"Velour tracksuits were a trend born from California that was embraced by socialites such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, with baby pink being the most popular colour. Rap stars and gangsters, such as John Gotti were never seen without a velour piece on them during these years. However, it was probably most remembered for Juicy Couture with their trademark across people’s bottoms that caught the most attention!” – Phillippa Brooks, Chums Fashion Buyer

Each of these five decades have influenced generations, whether it’s through music, film, fashion or historic moments. In our research into this cultural history, we used a range of methods and sources. For our music and film picks, we chose the top five best-selling singles and highest-grossing films for each decade to see what people were watching and listening to. When deciding the top five fashion trends, we looked at the styles famous fashion designers were known for in that decade and how popular those trends are today. For historic moments, we selected our five most impactful moments from each decade, both in the UK and beyond.

Is there anything that we’ve mentioned that sparked a memory for you? Let us know using #DefiningDecade.

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