‘Saltburn’ seduces us with ’00s nostalgia. Why does it affect us so much?
12 mins read

‘Saltburn’ seduces us with ’00s nostalgia. Why does it affect us so much?


Whether you’ve seen Saltburn yet or not, I’d hazard a guess that you’ve heard about it by now.

Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell’s second title has been described both as a modern take on The Talented Mr Ripley and a “period piece” set in the ’00s. Think MGMT and Bloc Party leading the soundtrack, those side fringes, and flashes of covetable Harry Potter hardbacks (remember the hysteria?).

Set in 2006 and 2007, largely within the opulent halls of a English country estate, the film follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) as he’s drawn deep into the world of the uber rich and privileged, first at Oxford University and then at his friend Felix (Jacob Elordi)’s family home.  

The power of nostalgia in Saltburn is as seductive in the film as Linus Sandgren’s cinematography. From the characters’ outfits to the lack of social media, it’s hard not to feel a longing for the mid-2000s when you’re watching. Fennell wrote in Empire that setting the film during this decade “had the crucial effect of undercutting the glamour and humanising everyone,” from Felix with his popped-collar polo shirts and eyebrow ring to Venetia (Alison Oliver)’s Kate Moss Topshop vibes.

“2006 was the time of sideburns, patchy fake tans, bad hair extensions, BlackBerrys and tiny glittery scarves,” Fennell wrote. “No matter how sexy or rich you were, it was hard to pull off.”

A young man in a polo shirt with an eyebrow ring smokes a cigarette intensely.

Jacob Elordi as Felix.
Credit: Amazon Content Services LLC

But there’s more to Saltburn’s nostalgia than just the cringe factor of previously fashionable hairstyles, statement accessories, and Cold War Kids. Nostalgia can also be comforting and humbling when we see it onscreen. Psychologist Dr Ree Langham describes it as “a form of emotional engagement, which is very powerful when triggered by films or cultural elements that resonate with individual experiences or memories.”

Let’s break down the allure of Saltburn’s nostalgia. 

Saltburn’s soundtrack is a ’00s masterpiece

A young woman in bright pink sunglasses and a tinsel jacket swigs Champagne on a tennis court.

Alison Oliver as Venetia.
Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios

First up, Saltburn‘s soundtrack is a masterpiece of 2000s throwbacks. From the heady haze of MGMT’s 2007 hit “Time To Pretend” booming as Oliver, Felix, and Venetia swig champagne on the tennis court, to Sophie Ellis Bextor’s perfectly picked 2001 kitchen disco banger “Murder on the Dancefloor”, nostalgia oozes from every song choice.

Bloc Party’s “This Modern Love” swells as Felix and Oliver’s friendship forms in their university pub, colouring the scene with romance, no two ways about it. Indie sleaze anthems like Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up To Dry” and The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” are straight-up dopamine hits, then there’s the euphoria of one of the decade’s biggest pop songs, Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground”. And when we think we’ve reached peak British cheesy culture, The Cheeky Girls’ festive song “Have A Cheeky Christmas” plays.

Saltburn‘s music supervisor Kirsten Lane told GQ that she worked with Fennell to pick songs from artists that truly defined the time. “They aren’t necessarily artists that are around now. But they meant something then,” she said.

While making sense as the songs that would have been blaring from pub and personal speakers at the time, many of the film’s needle drop moments feel like they’ve been selected for their mix of hopeful, romantic lyrics and rhapsodic production. Carving out literal “time to pretend”, they play on our nostalgia for simpler times, while complementing the overarching themes of love, obsession, and hedonism in Saltburn’s story.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the power of the throwback on Fennell’s intended audience. Being a millennial herself, the director’s choices resonate hard with those of us also within that generation, whose teen and tween tastes were formed by the more wince-inducing elements of the Noughties. 

Saltburn‘s ’00s wardrobe will take you right back

A young woman in a pink halter top and starry blue leggings sits looking intimidating.


Credit: Amazon Content Services LLC

Noughties fashion staples like ballet pumps, Juicy sweatpants, studded Miss Sixty belts, “peasant” style blouses, bejeweled hoop earrings, Jane Norman and Tommy Hilfiger references and low waisted bootcut jeans make an appearance in Saltburn, as the characters lounge around flashing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hardbacks — and all of it anchors the film firmly in 2007.

As Mashable’s Kristy Puchko writes in her Saltburn review, “Gen Z can bring back ’00s fashion without irony, but Fennell reminds us how impossibly uncool even the hippest of fits from this era was.”

Elordi’s Felix exudes the “rugby lad” vibe of the time, with the charm of his checkered shirts, chinos, and Ralph Lauren polos channelling Prince William and Harry’s student wardrobes, heavily influenced by preppy clothing brand Jack Wills. Our female fashion nostalgia counterpart has to be the troubled Venetia’s ensembles, which, as reported by Vogue, channel celebrity style from the likes of Kate Moss, Sienna Miller, and Keira Knightley, but also include pieces actually worn by Amy Winehouse.

Saltburn costume designer Sophie Canale used our frenzied and obsessive use of Facebook in those years to track down authentic outfits, with the attention to detail paying off in spades. What we see on screen isn’t a vaguely themed imagining of the Noughties from 2023, it’s an alarmingly accurate array of costumes secured through our own forensic documentation of ourselves on the internet.  

Why does ’00s nostalgia in Saltburn matter?

Two young men and a young woman sit beside a grand estate pond.


Credit: Chiabella James

So why does it feel so good when we’re gifted these little nuggets of the ’00s interwoven through Saltburn? Research has found that nostalgia triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brains that contributes to us feeling pleasure and motivation. This can translate to how we connect to certain time periods as well, with Fennell’s film evoking this effect through the heady, coming-of-age “school days” era of the film — whether or not we went to Oxford like our protagonist.

“When we look back at school days, we often think of shared experiences or a sense of belonging to a particular community or era,” psychologist Dr Sarah Bishop explains to Mashable. “It’s like a thread that weaves us into a tapestry of social connection, fostering deep fulfilment and strengthening our bonds with others.”

A young man smiles in an Oxford blazer as the academic buildings loom behind him.


Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios

The political and social landscape of the mid-2000s also adds to the nostalgia of Saltburn’s specific cultural throwbacks. In the UK, this particular decade stood as part of the New Labour era, pre austerity, pre Brexit, and pre-COVID. As we continue to navigate a cost of living crisis today — amongst other economic and social hardships formed in the last two decades — it’s not surprising that jumping back to 2006 might be attractive to a director like Fennell.

“Here was this happy period of 2000s Britannia,” Tom Novak, a behavioural analyst specialising in cultural insights, tells Mashable. “Well, at least according to so much contemporary pop cultural revisionism. The late 2000s was the age when the internet hadn’t yet been commodified and social media was just being born: Facebook was this innocent cool kid and MySpace was reaching the peak of its cultural influence.”


“The late 2000s was the age when the internet hadn’t yet been commodified and social media was just being born: Facebook was this innocent cool kid and MySpace was reaching the peak of its cultural influence.”

In Saltburn, Fennell explores power, privilege, money, desire, and sex, but doesn’t fully explore the period that its set in. However, its what that time period makes us feel that is significant and impactful.

“The movie doesn’t really examine the late Noughties England, but simply romanticises the period with intricate visual splendour,” Novak explains. “We are bombarded with superficial signifiers of Noughties nostalgia, while reckoning with the misogynistic legacy of the nasty Noughties or New Labour’s Iraq catastrophe is mostly absent.”

Two boys in tuxedos sit on an old stone bridge.


Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios

According to Langham, nostalgia can “provide a more meaningful outlook on life and is also said to boost our sense of social connection”. In particular, she says the ’00s “represents a time before the social media explosion, which can be particularly compelling as it indicates a simpler and more connected time.” 

The idea of Saltburn taking place during a social media age is both interesting and almost laughable — not only would we be robbed of its stylistic ’00s specific charm, certain ways in which characters (ahem) construct their identity would’ve been near impossible due to the exposing nature of social media. So in both style and substance, nostalgia works in Saltburn’s favour here.

Nostalgia for a time you don’t remember

A young man without a shirt on lies on the grass looking at the camera.

Barry Keoghan as Oliver.
Credit: Amazon Content Services LLC

While Saltburn’s decade-specific nostalgia may feel largely limited to millennial audiences, ’00s enthusiasm has manifested itself in numerous ways this year — especially on TikTok. Gen Z has helmed trends such as “older brother style” and are recommending digital cameras for nights out, and they’ve even found ways to revive the later 2014 Tumblr aesthetic. Nothing, it seems, stays in the past.

“It’s not just millennials who are longing for this simpler and more carefree period. Gen Zers are also drawn to it,” Novak says. “Many young people have turned to the early 21st century for inspiration, revelling in the authenticity that corny, early-internet pop culture had to offer.”

He suggests that this could be an impulse to convey “post-ironic value signalling”, where younger generations want to appear both knowledgable and authentic about an era they never truly knew in real life, it could also be for a slightly darker reason — the discomfort we feel within the time period we are living through now.

“We’re all drowning in nostalgia because many have given up on the future,” Novak says, citing anxiety over global threats such as climate change and geopolitical instability as reasons to indulge in escapist nostalgia.

A grand estate and a pond where two people sit lazily in the sun.


Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios

So is there a way that nostalgia, particularly in the entertainment sphere, can be used to push a more progressive, forward facing narrative, not just through stylistic messaging?

Novak cites Netflix dramedy GLOW as a great example, Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan’s series about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling in ’80s California.

“It puts a feminist spin on 1980s female wrestling spectacle, providing biting commentary on misogyny and race of the period, as well giving us plenty of high-leg leotards and big hair,” he says. “The most subversive nostalgia remixes familiar motifs with contemporary elements that not just deconstruct the past but provides us a path forward out of our contemporary capitalist realist loop…Unfortunately, we don’t see much of that in contemporary pop culture.”

We don’t. So as we acknowledge the truly seductive and powerful nature of Saltburn’s nostalgia, and how it makes us feel, we must ask how it might be used next to influence not just style, but substance too.

How to watch: Saltburn is now streaming on Prime Video.





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