The diaphanous dress with the soft pink flower motif and ruffled shoulder straps on a thrift store rack called out to Kayla Marie.“Put me on,” the dress seemed to say to the 27-year-old video editor. Paired with a brown shoulder bag and some ruffle ankle socks, the item of clothing could make her feel as confident as Jenna Rink, the teen character magically transformed into an adult portrayed by Jennifer Garner in the 2004 romantic comedy 13 Going on 30, Marie thought.
“I knew it would make me feel like I was living in a rom-com,” says Marie, who regularly posts videos of her outfits on TikTok. Marie is among many people now embodying the growing fashion trend called rom-com core, which involves curating outfits to make everyday moments look and feel like a scene from a movie. In one video filmed in her pink bedroom in central Virginia, Marie wears ensembles inspired by characters from films like Clueless and When Harry Met Sally.
During the heyday of rom-coms in the 1990s and early 2000s, Marie wasn’t yet old enough to appreciate them, but now she considers herself a die-hard fan of the genre. When she dresses in flowery outfits influenced by iconic characters, she feels like she is the center of her own story.
On TikTok, #romcomcore has amassed more than 68 million searches, and the new take on style is predicted to define 2023. After years of dressing for video calls, many people now want to romanticize their lives by pulling inspiration from their favorite nostalgic movies. However, rom-com core is more than merely an excuse to wear slip dresses and cardigans. According to psychologists, the aesthetic can also be a way to positively affect mental health.
“We’ve known for a long time that what you wear has an effect on how other people perceive you,” says Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist and vice dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Columbia Business School. “What you wear also affects how you see yourself.”
It’s a psychological phenomenon called enclothed cognition, which Galinsky helped to coin in a 2012 study. Enclothed cognition explains how the clothes we choose to wear can affect perception through their symbolic meaning. With rom-com core, throwback fashion like crop tops and cargo pants can help people channel their main character energy.
Strong and feminine female characters defined the rom-coms that debuted 30 years ago. Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) in 10 Things I Hate About You reads Sylvia Plath and eviscerates male suitors but can’t suppress a smile when the high school bad boy serenades her from the bleachers. Dressed in a green satin blazer, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde responds to her ex-boyfriend’s question about how she got into Harvard Law School by deadpanning, “What? Like it’s hard?”
“These leading ladies weren’t afraid to be bold and go after what they wanted, which many of us admire,” says Caroline Vazzana, a fashion stylist and editor who sees the recent resurgence of ’90s and ’00s fashion intersecting with the rise of rom-com core.
Hikari Fleurr, a 29-year-old lifestyle and beauty influencer from New York, noticed an uptick in audience engagement whenever she uploaded videos inspired by nostalgic rom-com fashion. The self-proclaimed “girly girl” followed the lead, posting videos of herself donning dupe ensembles from Mean Girls and Clueless.
“Sometimes, I put on these outfits and think about the movies, and I just get so hyped,” Fleurr says. Reaction to her looks — whether online or IRL — is almost always positive, so she usually experiences a self-esteem boost. “I feel like I’m that cool girl,” she says, “that I always wanted to be.”
Galinsky notes that a warm glow of confidence from rocking threads inspired by rom-coms from the ’90s and ’00s can be attributed to enclothed cognition because how people treat you can change the way you see yourself and, in turn, “it becomes self-reinforcing,” the psychologist explains.
Enclothed cognition is also tied to feelings of authenticity. Ultimately, rom-com core is about giving yourself permission to be the lead in your own life. When you dress the part, you act the part. Deep down, Fleurr has always known she’s a cool girl even when she couldn’t express herself growing up in a strict household. Now, when she slips on a tank top and plays a balloon guitar to channel Lindsay Lohan’s character in Freaky Friday, Fleurr is connecting with her true self.
The predictable storylines in many rom-coms can provide a comforting escape. There is almost always a happy ending, and the fashion is fun. But there are strands of seriousness as well. In a defining scene in 13 Going on 30, Garner’s character gives an endorsement of nostalgia while she’s dressed entirely in pastel pink. The impassioned plea brings a crowd to tears.
“I think all of us want to feel something that we’ve forgotten or turned our backs on because maybe we didn’t realize how much we were leaving behind,” Garner’s character says. “We need to remember what used to be good.”
The speech is particularly prescient today. After years of the pandemic and social and political upheaval, the world has been collectively looking backward in search of comfort. Trends like clutter core and rom-com core are grounded in nostalgia because the future is so fraught with anxiety, according to Dawnn Karen, a psychologist who studies how fashion impacts everyday life. “We’re lacking control, especially during the pandemic when there were so many restrictions,” Karen says. “Rom-com core gives people a sense of control.”
Karen, who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology, feels like she’s stepped back in time to the ’90s and ’00s when she’s on campus. She says she’s seen students wearing tie-dye and lining their lips. “They’re bringing the past to the present,” Karen says.
It’s not cosplay. The point of rom-com core is to step into the power of the clothes and the associated identities of these iconic leading ladies — not to live in them. “Don’t get lost in the sauce,” Karen warns, “and trapped in a 1990s rom-com.” In other words, if you are not wearing any of your other clothes and are always channeling Cher from Clueless, it might be time to practice what Karen calls “fashion situational code switching,” which is a fancy way to say change your style.
To achieve a rom-com core look, think: feminine pink, satin slip dresses, tube tops, and cardigans. Marie suggests looking for articles of clothing within this aesthetic that make you feel completely at ease. She often updates the era’s penchant for shorter-than-short crop tops with baby tees paired with high-waisted jeans.
It’s important to keep in mind that the rom-coms of the ’90s and ’00s were not perfect. The romantic relationships portrayed were frequently toxic. The casts often lacked diversity. And the fashion was unapologetically skin-baring. A major tenet of rom-com core, however, is revision, not reiteration. “You’re celebrating that feeling of the ’90s and 2000s,” Marie notes, “but in a way that is comfortable and authentic to you.”
Lynda Lin Grigsby is a Southern California-based writer who has contributed to NBC News, Parents, PopSugar, Scary Mommy, SheKnows, and Pasadena Magazine.
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