The 1990s and its icons don’t seem to show any sign of abating from our wardrobes. It’s like we’ve almost hit a point of exhaustion from the usual suspects: How many times can we reference Cher Horowitz’s checkered ensembles, Rachel Green’s underrated minimalism, or Carrie Bradshaw’s pre-haute-couture combos before officially moving to the early 2000s? Well, in 2018, fashion is taking cues from Square Enix’s 1997 dystopian video game Final Fantasy VII and its female protagonist, Aerith.
In Final Fantasy, Aerith is a flower seller from the slums of the industrial metropolis Midgar who is the last descendant of a mythical lineage that can directly communicate with the Planet, healing and cultivating it instead of plundering its resources. For the majority of her in-game screen time, she wears a pink button-front dress with a sweetheart neckline, chunky boots, a scrunchie-like ribbon fastening her braid, a choker made of a thin, black ribbon, and, lest we forget, a wicker-basket bag.
I started noticing similar dresses late last summer, when I stumbled upon one in Urban Outfitters, which came in a peachy hue. Nearly a year later, these dresses have become the darlings of so-called “cool girl” brands. Reformation had a pink-checkered version, Madewell had a button-front dress in a saturated petal-pink, and Mara Hoffman had the mauve Ophelia dress. The list goes on indefinitely, and expands to hues other than pink. Celebrities like Karlie Kloss and Dakota Fanning are fond of similar styles. Aerith herself, were it not for her late-’90s curtain bangs, might as well be the poster girl for Reformation, with its de-frumpified vintage aesthetic that combines retro silhouettes with minimalism.
Fashion and the Final Fantasy series have an ongoing love affair: in early 2016, Louis Vuitton used pink-haired Lightning, from Final Fantasy XIII, as its digital spokesperson, while the following fall, Lunafreya from Final Fantasy XV had her in-game wedding dress designed by Vivienne Westwood. In the case of Aerith, the reverse happened: thanks to its flattering and utilitarian look, a character’s in-game uniform became mainstream.
“It's notable that Aerith isn't dressed in the same type of clothes we usually see female video-game characters wearing,” fashion historian Lauren Boumaroun tells me, referring to the fraught territory at the intersection of video games and female representation. “On the one hand, there are a lot of female gamers who feel empowered when playing, and some awesome female avatars within the games. On the other hand, the female characters are often hypersexualized, with unrealistic body proportions and revealing clothing that’s impractical for fighting.”
Aerith is a great exception on several fronts. Unlike the majority of female characters, her body type is not overtly sexualized, nor does it have unrealistic proportions. Her outfit is feminine but practical, as, in the game, she is both a dignified demigod and can summon a spell so powerful, it’s able to stop the planet’s destruction. What’s more unlikely? Many female characters fall into the saint–femme fatale–tomboy child triad, but Aerith’s personality mixes strength with goofiness: she claps back at her captors with sarcasm; she coaxes sullen male protagonist Cloud into a cross-dressing scheme and bluntly asks him on a date. “A DA-TE, or haven’t you ever gone on one? No? Just a mixed-up kid!” she says once she detects his social ineptitude.
From a strict fashion-historic perspective, it makes sense for Aerith’s dress to be popular right now. For one, our interest in the ’90s has almost reached a point of saturation. “I can’t help but think that since the character was introduced in 1997, her look is likely inspired by grunge fashion,” Boumaroun says. “It makes sense that Aerith’s look would be considered ‘cool’ right now.”