Scrunchies Are Cool Again. Hair's How They Staged A Comeback

Dec 16, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 12:26 am

Georgie Williamson's first scrunchie moment came the day she was born. In 1989 her mother was in labor, wearing a black velvet scrunchie with a bow. And the daughter grew up a believer — "a scrunchie gal," as she puts it.

For much of her adult life, this was an untrendy choice. The scrunchie became so uncool by 2003 that the zeitgeist TV show Sex And The City devoted a whole plotline to it: "No woman who works at W Magazine and lives on Perry Street would be caught dead at a hip downtown restaurant wearing a scrrrrunchie," asserted protagonist Carrie Bradshaw.

And so Williamson learned to laugh it off when friends kept giving her obnoxious scrunchies as a joke. "Joke's on them," she says, "because I end up using them."

But lately Williamson, now 30, has noticed something odd in her spin class: other women sporting scrunchies. Cue a low-stakes emotional roller coaster: "I'm not a trendy person," she says. "Do people think I'm trying to be trendy? Oh no. Am I not cool enough to be wearing a scrunchie now?"

In the past year, scrunchies sold eight times faster than the overall category of hair accessories and styling products, according to Goody, one of the oldest scrunchie brands. "Scrunchies Are 2019's Biggest Fashion Trend," announced a recent headline in Teen Vogue.

How does something so profoundly rejected by the fashionistas get to reclaim its cool? A surprising number of cultural themes brought the scrunchie its new mass appeal — boosted by an Internet teen subculture.

In the past year, scrunchies sold eight times faster than the overall category of hair accessories and styling products, according to Goody, one of the oldest scrunchie brands.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

It's the perfect timing for the revival of '90s fashion, says Tessa Maffucci, who teaches fashion design at Pratt Institute. Enough time has passed for the original wearers to feel nostalgic for the trend, and for the younger shoppers to discover it for the first time.

Sara Radin, who wrote the unofficial scrunchie history for Teen Vogue, traced the accessory's origin to a lounge singer in the late 1980s who wanted something to pull back her big poofy hair without damaging it while she played piano.

Today, that functionality and comfort speak to the modern generation of fashionistas. And for many designers, scrunchies now appeal as a good way to recycle or reuse fabric.

Add to that many women who have veered toward minimalist makeup, and "hair accessories are now I think more and more an important component of a look," says Marina Binichis Feldman, an executive at Goody's parent company Beauty By Imagination.

Lizzo, in a bejeweled scrunchie, poses with Lil Nas X at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards.
Kevin Mazur / WireImage

The scrunchie has been showing up on runways, celebrities and influencers. A huge scrunchie news cycle started when singer Lizzo posed backstage at MTV's Video Music Awards in a sky-high side-pony held up by a bejeweled $100 scrunchie, said to have 5,000 hand-applied rhinestones.

Even long-haired dudes got in on the trend. Aquaman actor Jason Momoa wore a pink scrunchie to the Oscars, along with a blush-pink suit whose design was based on another scrunchie he showed off in a YouTube video: "One of our hair stylists ... gave this to me — I freaked out because it was beautiful."

Actor Jason Mamoa wears a pink scrunchie on his wrist at the 2019 Academy Awards.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

As word of my scrunchie story spread, women kept telling me one more, simple truth about the bulky scrunchie's superiority to thinner elastic bands: It's gentler on hair. This especially aligns with today's growing focus on healthful hair care and the natural-hair movement.

"Those of us with curlier, coarser, kinkier hair have to think about the textures and materials that interact with our hair because it's more prone to breaking," says Khalon Richard, product manager at NPR. "So when I saw that there are scrunchies now coming out in silk, I was very excited about that."

Fitness studio manager Renata Kleifgen put her praise for the scrunchie directly: "When I pull it out, I don't see clumps of hair coming along with it."

For being just a few inches of fabric around an elastic band, a scrunchie can elicit a surprising amount of emotions and memories.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

But this gentleness didn't change in the years when the scrunchie fell out of fashion. So who decided scrunchies were now cool again? The same people who always know what's cool: teenage girls.

Specifically, it was the Internet subculture of VSCO girls, named after a photo editing app. The '90s aesthetic got rediscovered and re-imagined by a new generation that spread it all over TikTok and Instagram.

"Young girls are celebrating themselves," Radin says. And part of it is visual: a particular backpack and water bottle, plus a certain outfit that tends to include an oversized T-shirt, a puka shell necklace and a scrunchie, worn in the hair or stacked on the wrist.

Scrunchies joined the wider '90s and 2000s cultural throwback seeping into fashion and pop culture. In fashion, we've seen the return of the fanny pack, biker shorts, mom jeans, dad sneakers, jumpsuits, even Ugg boots. Film, TV, music and even gaming have thrown back with remakes, reboots and revivals.

In the 2019 season of Stranger Things, Eleven (portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown) pulls a half-pony with a yellow scrunchie.
Netflix

"I think that nostalgia makes people feel comforted in times of crisis," Radin says. "With such a gloomy aura around politics, the economy, the environment — people are really latching on to objects and clothing items that remind them of earlier times ... that they remember to be simpler, even if they weren't."

This is at the heart of the fashion cycle that churns ever faster in the age of social media.

"Designers love to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, elevating materials, shifting proportions, exaggerating importance," says Michael Fink, dean of the School of Fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design. But then, as the season's "must have" gets copied and hits mainstream, "we get bored and move on to the next thing."

At least, maybe, for another decade or two.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A scrunchie is just a few inches of fabric around an elastic band that can evoke a lot of emotions. The hair accessory was huge in the '90s. By 2003, it was so uncool that the show "Sex And The City" devoted a whole plotline to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX AND THE CITY")

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) No woman who works at W Magazine and lives on Perry Street would be caught dead at a hip downtown restaurant wearing a scrunchie.

SHAPIRO: Well, lately, scrunchies have staged a comeback, even showing up on holiday wish lists. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Georgie Williamson's first scrunchie moment was the day she was born. In 1989, her mom went into labor wearing a black velvet scrunchie with a bow, and the daughter grew up a believer.

GEORGIE WILLIAMSON: I'm a scrunchie gal. They still look good on my hair. You know, if I'm doing me, I'm going to wear it.

SELYUKH: '80s moms and '90s girls were all about the scrunchie. Big hair and sky-high ponytails lurk in many family albums from the era. As scrunchies fell out of fashion, Williamson learned to laugh it off when friends kept giving her obnoxious scrunchies as a joke.

WILLIAMSON: But jokes on them because I end up using them.

SELYUKH: But lately, she noticed something odd in her spin class - other women sporting scrunchies.

WILLIAMSON: I am not a trendy person. Do people think I'm trying to be trendy? Oh, no. Am I not cool enough to be wearing a scrunchie now?

SELYUKH: To answer this, I turned to the unofficial scrunchie historian, Sara Radin.

SARA RADIN: Right now, we're seeing a lot of 1990s and early 2000s culture coming back.

SELYUKH: Radin recently wrote about scrunchies for Teen Vogue. Story goes, they date back to a lounge singer in the late '80s who wanted something to pull back her big, poofy hair without damaging it while she played piano. But OK, it's now more than 30 years later. Who decided that scrunchies are cool again? People who always know what's cool, teenage girls, specifically the Internet subculture called VSCO girls, named after a photo-editing app.

RADIN: Young girls are kind of celebrating themselves, and they wear, like, a certain outfit, typically, like, an oversized T-shirt. They carry Hydro Flask water bottles, and they were puka shell necklaces, and then they always have a scrunchie on their wrist or in their hair.

SELYUKH: It's '90s nostalgia reimagined by a new generation. The aesthetic spread all over TikTok and Instagram. One of the oldest scrunchie brands, Goody, says in the past year, scrunchies sold eight times faster than hair and styling products overall. Radin says some designers like scrunchies because they're a good way to recycle fabric. For fashionistas, scrunchies represent functionality and comfort. And so the scrunchie has showed up on runways, celebrities and influencers. Singer Lizzo...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD AS HELL")

LIZZO: (Singing) I do my hair toss. Check my nails.

SELYUKH: ...Wore a bejeweled $100 scrunchie with 5,000 rhinestones at MTV's Video Music Awards. Even long-haired dudes got in on the trend. "Aquaman" actor Jason Momoa wore a pink scrunchie to the Oscars, inspired by another scrunchie he got from a stylist and showed off in a YouTube video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON MOMOA: I freaked out 'cause it was beautiful.

SELYUKH: As word of my scrunchie story spread, I also kept getting one simple message about why the bulky scrunchie is superior. It's gentler on hair. Khalon Richard, product manager here at NPR, told me the silk scrunchie has been great for her natural hair.

KHALON RICHARD, BYLINE: Those of us with curlier, coarser, kinkier hair have to think about the textures and materials that interact with our hair 'cause it's more prone to breaking.

RENATA KLEIFGEN: When I pull it out, I don't feel, like, clumps of hair are coming along with it, which does happen if you use, like, a smaller or a thinner elastic band.

SELYUKH: Renata Kleifgen is 26, so she's also on her second cycle of scrunchies being cool. She's learned wear what you want. The fashion will come back around.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF T'PAU'S "HEART AND SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.