In May 2019, Hailey Bieber arrived on the Met Gala red carpet in a backless, baby-pink dress. When she turned around, there lay the top of a pink satin g-string. The whale tail was back.
While this wasn't the first time late-'90s, early-aughts fashion had been resurrected (two years prior, Kendall Jenner donned a slinky silver dress which paid homage to Paris Hilton in 2002), it was one of the first instances of the Y2K fashion resurgence—convincing us all the fashion cycle had completed a full rotation. Yes, some early 2000s fashion had never really left (Ugg boots are still a staple, for instance, albeit no longer accompanied by pleated skirts and layered polo shirts). But a peek-a-boo thong—much like razor-thin eyebrows and glittery pastel eyeshadow—felt a step beyond.
Two years later, the Y2K revival is in full swing. Companies like ColourPop and BH Cosmetics have dropped turn-of-the-millennium-themed makeup collections, and you can’t throw a claw clip without hitting a TikTok on aughts outfit inspiration. From the content creators to the celebrities, it’s Gen Z-ers—defined by Pew Research as those born after 1996—and younger millennials who are driving the trend. But why? With the help of a few experts, I decided to take a deep dive into the origins of the frosted, neon-hued era.
What Is Y2K?
The original Y2K aesthetic emerged around the same time as the Gen Z-ers currently driving its resurgence—it spanned the very end of the 1990s through the beginning of the 2010s. Y2K, as it is generally understood by both fashion historians and TikTokers alike, includes everything from shiny, Matrix-inspired fabrics to the high-cropped designs Tina Knowles whipped up for Destiny's Child. If there was one through thread of the era, it was excess.
The original Y2K, much like its resurgent counterpart, emerged as a bit of a pendulum swing. Similar to the way the 2008 recession led to minimalism in the 2010s—and, in counter-response, 2020s burgeoning maximalism—a recession in the early 1990s was all about simplicity. “Even if one had money, wearing clothes that were overtly opulent, like what we’d seen in the 1980s, was considered tactless,” says Colleen Hill, curator of Costume and Accessories at the Museum of FIT. “Although grunge and deconstruction differed from minimalism in appearance, the basic premise behind all of these ideas was the same: they were a reaction to 1980s excess. As luxury started to return during the mid-1990s, it was quite provocative,” says Hill, citing Tom Ford’s sexy minimalism during his tenure at Gucci and Alexander McQueen’s “bumster” (aka low-rise) trousers, as examples. “That helped to set the stage for the Y2K fashion.”
As for what, exactly, Y2K fashion is, Hill offers a few touch points: "A broad description of the era includes a lot of accessories: statement hats, bags, belts, boots, etc., often all in one outfit; the use of bright colors, especially pastels; and embellishments of all kinds, including rhinestones and feathers. There was also a lot of experimentation with silhouettes and layering, such as wearing skirts or dresses over jeans, or pairing low-slung jeans and a crop top with a long cardigan."
In the early 2020s, the revival of Y2K fashion seems to be playing out in ways both explicitly referential and more evocative. TikTokers will share both what they would wear if they were a pop star in the 2000s and Y2K-inspired outfits of the day meant to conjure the era more than perfectly emulate it. Beauty—perhaps mercifully—almost exclusively borrows from Y2K color palettes while eschewing the techniques of the time. In the early 2000s, the average consumer was unlikely to be familiar with highlighting or contouring, and probably only filled in their brows if they were seriously sparse; today’s Y2K-inspired beauty looks exist in a post-Kardashian world, one in which adding dimension to the face with highlighter and perfectly groomed brows are non-negotiable.
When it comes to what’s driving the revival, the experts seem to generally agree: a mix of nostalgia, social media, and technological advancements.
Nostalgia, as defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” is something we can all relate to. In the 18th and 19th century it was considered a psychological disorder that afflicted groups such as soldiers and refugees—those feeling homesickness not just for the space they left, but also for the time before they left it. By the 19th century, in the throes of the industrial revolution, nostalgia had become a driving force behind Romanticism. Art and fiction harkened back to an idealized version of the past that seemed far less complicated than the present.
During the 20th century, nostalgia transformed yet again: this time, into a driving commercial force. In the 1970s, Happy Days ruled the television airwaves while movies such as American Graffiti and Grease played on silver screens. This cashed in on a romantic longing for a time—the 1950s—that felt, for most white Americans, far less in flux than the 20 years they had just lived through ( years marked by the Civil Rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the Vietnam War). "During tumultuous times, consumers often turn to the past in search of comfort," says Clare Varga, head of beauty for the trend forecasting company WGSN.
As it applies to garments and trends, fashion historians have long referred to this sense of nostalgia as the "20-year cycle": "Twenty years often provides ample time for past styles to look fresh and interesting again," says Hill.
After a global pandemic and half a decade of deeply entrenched racial injustice, the looming climate crises, and global inequality with renewed urgency—along with years of understated minimalism dominating both fashion and beauty—it feels deeply appropriate the 20-year cycle dictates the late 2010s-early 2020s be influenced by the maximalist excess of the late 1990s and early 2000s. "The fast pace of modern life coupled with the social and emotional strains of the pandemic have shifted consumer needs significantly towards escapism through the lens of nostalgia,” says Varga. “The turmoil of the global events of the last two years—in particular the pandemic—shifted consumer needs significantly towards escapism and products that reminded them of better, more carefree times, as well as friends and places."
“I would say that nostalgia is a pretty big force behind the resurgence of Y2K,” says YouTuber Joyce Sseguya-Lwanga, a Gen Z-er who has produced videos outlining the Y2K and McBling aesthetics. “Considering the world we live in, I believe that people want a form of escapism, and a lot of people taking part in the trend either lived through the early 2000s or wish they did.”
The turmoil of the global events of the last two years—in particular the pandemic—shifted consumer needs significantly towards escapism and products that reminded them of better, more carefree times.
Social Media & Technology
But it’s not just nostalgia—or a fashion cycle that arrives right on schedule—driving the resurgence of the Y2K aesthetic. The world has changed a lot since the Bush Administration; among those changes is the rapid progression of technology and, in part as a result of this technology, general demand for faster fashion.
In 2008, I had a Motorola Razr that stayed charged for days on end and played a Panic! At the Disco song when it rang. Ten years later, my phone largely functioned to connect me to my friends (through social media and text messaging) and to an incredible amount of accessible information. Since the debut of the iPhone in 2007, nothing in our world has been the same, and that extends to how we relate to fashion and beauty.
Mina Le, a Gen Z YouTuber who covers fashion history on her channel, notes that social media allows trends to travel wider and faster. “For one, young people are more easily and quickly exposed to new trends than ever before, and two, with the archiving abilities of the internet, we have more resources, too. I can easily go back and find photos of Paris Hilton from 2001 or Lindsey Lohan in 2005. There are also countless blogs and Instagram accounts that document their fashion choices as well as runway shows [of the time], so it’s easier for Gen Z-ers to make mood boards and scout for similar pieces for their own closets.”
This access to information—and the ability to connect with one another to share it—has also shaped the prism through which Gen Z looks at Y2K. In 2018, 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds (a significant portion of Gen Z) had access to a smartphone. Most identify as left or left-leaning, politically, and it is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history. Put it all together, and you have a cohort that isn’t just revisiting the early 2000s to source ‘fits—they’re also looking to call out some of the era's injustices. This particularly applies to artists of color who drove many of the trends, but were ignored or dismissed at the time.
“I think that now, we’re more aware of how many marginalized groups were at the forefront of many trends and aesthetics,” says Sseguya-Lwanga. “I always think of how Black women influenced many of those trends and how they were seen as ghetto and undesirable until it became popular. The Japanese gyaru subculture, and its subsequent appropriation via Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls, had a huge influence as well.”
While Sseguya-Lwanga believes that the modern take on Y2K is approaching topics like appropriation with “more nuance,” Le notes that there’s still a way to go. “What I’ve seen on the internet ... is that Gen Z Y2K fashion is extremely white-washed,” she says. “There were a lot of prominent Black celebrities who were hugely inspirational in fashion back then like Missy Elliot, Kimora Lee Simmons, and Aaliyah, but most of the mood boards going around are of Paris Hilton and Regina George from Mean Girls.”
“It mostly comes down to people not properly understanding the history of these trends, which I think is important, because Black artists have pioneered so many avenues in our mainstream culture, but hardly ever get the credit for it,” Le continues. “It’s good to remember that nameplate necklaces had origins in the Black hip-hop community long before they ended up around Carrie Bradshaw’s neck.”
It’s good to remember that nameplate necklaces had origins in the Black hip-hop community long before they ended up around Carrie Bradshaw’s neck.
Along with social media, the rapid advancements in technology has also shaped our overall cultural relationship with time. Simply put: We expect more, and we expect it faster. And that includes our clothing and makeup. As such, it’s understandable that designers turn to the last big thing when conceptualizing the next big thing. “The pace at which designers have to work is incredible—many of them are expected to produce six to eight collections a year,” says Hill. “There is little space for designers to create something brand new each time, so nostalgic styles have become increasingly significant.”
And as Miranda Priestley noted in “The Devil Wears Prada,” what starts on the runway will end up in a bargain store—or, in 2021, among the thousands of options users can scroll through on cheap e-commerce sites. “You’ll notice a lot of fast fashion [sites] are creating almost identical pieces to the ones popular back then—like the Emanuel Ungaro butterfly top made famous by Mariah Carey—to capitalize on and uphold the Y2K style,” says Le.
Will Nostalgic Fashion Last?
Though our feeds may be filled with micro minis, vintage Olson Twins, and macrame ponchos, Hill, Sseguya-Lwanga, and Le all emphasized the need to not overstate the reach of the trend.
For one, says Hill, trends don’t come and go in neat silos based on the calendar. “It’s important that we not get too caught up in the concept of the 20-year cycle. There are many styles and references that coexist in contemporary fashion—we're still seeing many 1990s fashions, for example, in addition to significant revivals of 1960s and 1970s designs.” One could argue the VSCO girl, for example, is as indebted to the 1960s counterculture movement as she is to Julie James and Helen Shivers. And many of the TikToks showcasing Y2K beauty trends are single entries in a series that will also cover other decades, or aesthetics like cottagecore.
Sseguya-Lwanga and Le both note that the very social media perpetuating the trend will also bring its downfall. “Social media has led to an oversaturation of trends,” says Le. “People are getting tired of seeing the same clothes over and over again on every platform, and social media is also giving the illusion that these trends are everywhere, when really, it’s just the aspiring fashion influencers who are posting this content. It’s definitely depressing for the environment.”
And Sseguya-Lwanga and Le aren’t alone in their observations: “Some theorists have also argued that the pace of fashion is so accelerated that we’ve moved on to a 10-year cycle,” notes Hill, which tracks with what Le has seen on her feed. “If you’re on Tiktok, you’ll notice that we’re already moving to the late 2000s, with Twilight-core and Abercrombie shirts creeping back.”
Of course, that’s not to say that we should all be covering our crop tops with graphic tees—or even wearing either. If you’d rather take your fashion inspiration from another era entirely, or mix and match a few, do it—and don’t feel beholden to any fashion cycle at all. Says Hill: “What I love about this ‘fashion pluralism’ is that it allows everyone to find a style that works for them.”
Defining generations: where millennials end and generation z begins. Pew Research Center.
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Weiss KJ, Dube AR. What ever happened to nostalgia (The diagnosis)? J Nerv Ment Dis. 2021;209(9):622-627.