9 Fashion Rules That Millennials Can Learn from Gen X

Overalls, slip dresses and those big black boots

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gen x fashion rules universal
Kevin Mazur Getty Images; Gareth Davies Getty Images

Psychologist Jean Twenge observed that the "birth year boundaries of Gen X are debated but settle somewhere around 1965 to 1980" and states that this slender little generation has since its youth prized individualism and creativity. While it’s not as populous as the behemoth demos of the Baby Boomers (wearing their conservative shirtwaists and navy blue blazers) and the millennials (clad in a pastiche of sheer tops, sweatpants and the umpteenth revival of the going-out top), Gen X really made a splash with its own quirky and resonant style. Coming of age from about 1980 to 1995, we dipped our toe into a varied stew of fashion influences, from yuppie chic to goth to grunge. What’s to be learned from this age of fashion experimentation? I’m Gen X, so I polled my peers for a rundown on what to take away from the MTV generation, and how to style it for the social media age.

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gen x fashion rules victoria beckham
Gareth Davies/Getty Images

1.   Zebra Print is Cool

Like so many Gen X style loves, this print was popularized by older musicians like David Lee Roth and Debbie Harry, then worn by their teenage admirers and Gen X performers like Victoria Beckham. This animal print is a little more rock ‘n’ roll, graphic and overall extra than the usual cheetah spots used as a fashion print. Wear it head-to-toe for a sleek look, with simple accessories, not the arm full of bracelets or hair bow that would have  been paired with it in Gen X’s time.

Gen X fashion rules: Kate Moss wearing a slip dress
Kevin.Mazur / Getty

2.   Slip Dresses Are for Layering

The ‘90s innovated minimalist slip dresses, with or without a T-shirt layered underneath and a sweater thrown over top, or two lip dressed worn one atop another. That formula holds strong today, with slip dresses in materials from swishy silk to durable poly blends, embellished for evening or simple-stitched as day wear. The slip dress poster girl? Kate Moss. She wore slips with chunky boots, skimpy sandals and high heels. If you’re even in doubt of how to rock a slip, ask yourself WWKMD?

Gen X fashion rules: Runway show of neon outfits
Lindsay Wilson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

3. Treat Neon as a Neutral

Generation X’s New Wave music scene embraced neon T-shirts, shorts and accessories as a modern, urban signifier. And honestly, we’ve always had a soft spot for the glowing green, yellow and orange pieces, although it’s come in and out of widespread style since then. Today it’s decidedly in—A fashion designer friend told us to think of neon as a neutral these days, and wear it with khaki or colorblock it with other neon pieces. Avoid pairing it with black, she said, since that was the style in the bygone disco era.

gen x fashion rules makeup cyndi lauper
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

4.   Crazy Makeup is an Anti-Depressant

Thanks to MTV, which debuted in 1981, Gen X was the first to welcome wild style musical artists like Boy George and Cyndi Lauper into our homes. We copied their heavy eye makeup, contoured cheeks and blood-red (and sometimes black) lips to varying degrees of success. Today, the beat goes on (witness the viral popularity of Euphoria’s glittering looks), but the trend is to stick with accenting one area, like the eyes or lips, and downplaying the rest of your makeup. Unless you’re headed to see Taylor or Bey of course, and then, all controls are off.

Gen X fashion rules: Fugees wearing denim
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

5.   Overalls Are Always a Good Idea

Gen Xer Lauryn Hill layered her oversized overalls over a T-shirt and a long-sleeved button-neck shirt; today the look is still oversized, but more likely to be belted. Case in point: When actor Sadie Sink wore overalls in Stranger Things, the hit sci-fi show set in the 1980s, she looked perfectly period. Today, she told Vogue, “I’m embarrassed to admit how much I wear these… think I wear them a little bit too much.” The millennial loves them so much, she inspired her stylist Molly Dickson to design a pair in a new collab with Madewell. As for how to rock overalls in 2023, Sink pairs them with a bucket hat and creepers.

Gen X fashion rules: two images of grunge runway models wearing boots
Thomas Iannaccone/George Chinsee/Robert Mitra/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

7. Chunky Boots Create a Long Leg Line

While chunky boots and slip dresses were the height of early ‘90s grunge, such as in this Perry Ellis collection designed by Marc Jacobs in 1993, today Gen Xers wear the look with leggings and skinny black pants. And—hot take—a fashion designer Gen Xer we spoke to recommended pivoting from the ubiquitous Dr. Martens brand to paratrooper jump boots with a zip on the inside. Not only is the look less punk rock and more utility chic, the inner zip makes getting into and out of the boots faster than the old iteration of big black stompers.

Gen X fashion rules: Diana in jeans
Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

8. Respect the Mom Jeans

In the shifting fashion sands of time, some designs have mercifully drifted away: Case in point, the late ‘90s trend for micro-rise jeans that showed the then newly-ubiquitous G-string undie when the wearer sat down. Instead, millennials have wisely looked to an early Gen X fashion silhouette, the mom jeans, for revival. These high-waisted pants might have front pleats in the front like a trouser or flat control panels, nip in toward the waist and out over the hips then ease downward in a tapered leg. Extra stye points if your jeans are acid-washed, perhaps one of Gen X’s most divisive innovations.

Gen X fashion rules: Spinderella wearing Tommy Hilfiger
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

9. Workout Wear is Everyday Wear

Generation X suddenly woke up one day and we were all wearing hot-hued Lycra leotards. Well, not exactly but pretty close, because a perfect storm of Olivia Newton-John’s Physical video (1981) and the Jane Fonda Workout (1982) propelled America into stretching, sweating and then just hanging out in body-revealing stretch clothes. Today the look even has a name, athleisure, and it’s a monster fashion category that’s forecasted to become a more-than $330 billion business. While micro-trends in the category come and go, best to leave the 80s’ penchant for tights underneath leotards in the historic videos, and instead embrace today’s more relaxed streetwear looks that include lightweight sweatpants, butt-flattering leggings and for fun, the occasional graffiti-patterned crop top.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...

Why You Should Trust Us

PureWow's editors and writers have spent more than a decade shopping online, digging through sales and putting our home goods, beauty finds, wellness picks and more through the wringer—all to help you determine which are actually worth your hard-earned cash. From our PureWow100 series (where we rank items on a 100-point scale) to our painstakingly curated lists of fashion, beauty, cooking, home and family picks, you can trust that our recommendations have been thoroughly vetted for function, aesthetics and innovation. Whether you're looking for travel-size hair dryers you can take on-the-go or women’s walking shoes that won’t hurt your feet, we’ve got you covered.