Parenting·5 min read

We’re Nostalgic for Back to School…Only it (Literally) Looks a Lot Different Today

Back to School Trends in the ‘90s vs Today
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images
Aug 11, 2022

“Back to school” hasn’t looked the same for the last two years, and we’re all desperate for a good old fashioned first day. It got us thinking about our own first days in elementary school — and all the excitement and promise that a new school year brings. But things have changed since the days of Lisa Frank and colorful gel pens (even if the ‘90s are so hot right now). Think about it: That day, our parents probably took our “first day of school” picture on a disposable or digital camera (and printed doubles to send to family). Today, parents take approximately 78 pictures (photo-ready sign included) and have one posted on Insta before their kid even gets on the bus. 

We chatted with Casey Lewis, a youth culture writer and creator of the newsletter “After School” about some of the back to school trends that were “da bomb” in the ‘90s vs now. Don’t worry: Classics never go out of style.

Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images

The coolest back to school gadgets: 

‘90s: Tamagotchis (must. keep. it. alive.), fancy mechanical pencils, and a super portable (riiiiiight) CD Walkman (shoutout to the first NOW CD that came out in 1998)

Now: AirPods, everyone gets a laptop (Oprah style), but the cool kids also have an Apple Pencil and Nintendo Switch

Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images

Back to school fashion:

‘90s: Your favorite Limited Too outfit, butterfly clips (at least 20 in your hair, but who’s counting), platform shoes (pretty much anything inspired by the Spice Girls), slap bracelets, and a Baby-G watch

Now: Gender-free clothing (see: oversized t-shirts and hoodies), high-top Converse (the brand that will outlive us all) 

Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images

What’s for lunch:

‘90s: Lunchables, or brown bags filled with PB&J sandwiches and a mix of Frito Lay chips, Gushers, Fruit Roll-Ups, Dunkaroos, and of course, milk (straight up)

Now: Chubby Snacks and Goodles (today’s healthy-ish versions of 90s ‘junk food’) 

Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images


‘90s: Passing notes in class and rushing home to AOL’s instant messenger (yOu KnOw YoU tHoUgHt LoNg AnD hArD aBoUt YoUr AwAy MeSsAgE)

Now: Texting and all the apps (Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, BeReal)...we’re probably missing a few, because kids these days

Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock & Getty Images

After School:

90s: Homework, rehearsing the dance from your favorite MTV music video with your BFF, and playing Manhunt until it got dark

Now: Clubs, sports, streaming YouTube, filming TikTok, and homework (like we said, some things never change) 


Kids getting ready for their first day of school won’t experience the rush of finding out who their teacher is going to be (via mail) and running to their friend’s house to find they’re both in the same class (score). Or the dedication it takes to memorize their friends’ phone numbers. But they do have the luxury of using tablets at school and never having to worry about sharpening a pencil manually in front of the whole class. And don’t worry: Jansport backpacks and composition books are still on the back to school shopping list

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