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Lithium The Y2K renaissance: fashion as pleasure

Nov. 23, 2020
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I’m in Los Angeles, and outside my window there’s a girl dressed in a bedazzled velour tracksuit. It’s not Juicy Couture, but it might as well be with the words “CUTIE” smack dab on her ass. She’s wearing those chunky Skechers sneakers, the ones girls at my middle school used to get bullied for wearing but are somehow fashionable now, and her sparkly lip gloss is so poppin’ that it’s worthy of a Lil Mama music video cameo. The girl is taking selfies while posing with a bejeweled Hello Kitty flip phone. 

I’ve seen this scene before. In Mean Girls or Clueless or Gossip Girl or any of those early 2000s teen dramas that I used to watch as a child. Or maybe it was on YouTube or MTV—a snippet from Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life or a Britney Spears music video. No, it must have been Blaque or Destiny’s Child or Missy Elliot, or another Black icon from my youth. It’s easy to forget that they were the pioneers of this aesthetic. 

I’m talking about low-rise jeans and belly button piercings. Platform flip-flops and bucket hats. Mini skirts, mesh tops, and satin slip dresses with baby tees underneath. Monochrome and terry cloth, skirts over jeans, chunky jewelry, and other relics from a strangely luxurious past life. I’m talking about rhinestones on everything: your flip phone, acrylic nails, the back pocket of your jeans. I’m talking about designer purses and graphic tees, cartoon characters and logomania splattered across suits and handbags, all decked out like the latest Bratz doll collection. I’m talking about “Y2K fashion”—early-2000s trends marked by their boldness, their glamor, their extravagance. An aesthetic that was sparked by the turn of the millennium—a time marked by prosperity and technological advances—which crashed with the 2008 recession, when it suddenly became uncool to flaunt your wealth. 

“People were dripping in gold. There was bling on clothing, jewelry, accessories,” said fashion journalist Christina Binkley. “Fashion had been really loud and it was a huge party, and then that shifted literally overnight.” 

While the wealthiest consumers continued to shop wherever they pleased, there was definitely a mainstream pushback against the luxurious looks of the early 2000s. Instead of flashy statement pieces, minimalism dominated the fashion industry, the average consumer opting for wardrobes composed of basic clothing staples and quality over quantity, according to Vox journalist Eliza Brooke. Think normcore and athleisure, mom jeans and ankle boots, and other subtle nods to the ‘90s. 

So you’d think that in 2020, a year plagued by many of the same economic uncertainties of the 2008 recession, Americans would gravitate toward the same frugal looks. But instead, we’re seeing a resurgence of the fashion trends that were rejected post-recession—plastered on billboards in major cities, lining the clothing racks of fast fashion stores like Forever 21 and H&M, and dominating Instagram and TikTok. But why? Why is a fashion era defined by extravagance suddenly having a resurgence during such a terribly un-extravagant time? I decided to interview some Y2K fans and fashion experts to find out.

“I think the reason it’s gaining more attention is because as teens and early adults we have more responsibilities and more things to worry about—so we love looking back on our childhood and remembering the simple things that made us happy,” explains Jocelin Alva, owner of @y2k.slut, one of the largest Y2K Instagram pages. “We all grew up watching Mean Girls and other high school movies where teens would wear mini skirts and platform shoes. Now that a lot of us are older, we’re bringing back Y2K fashion to finally have the chance to dress like we belong in Mean Girls or Legally Blonde.” 

This kind of nostalgic reminiscence makes sense, especially in 2020—when political turmoil, economic instability, and public health risk have continued to escalate under the Trump administration. To cope with the present moment, we look back fondly on “simpler” times,  perhaps with rose-tinted glasses, not always by choice but rather out of survival. 

“People naturally turn to nostalgia during difficult times, because memories can be reassuring and make us feel optimistic in the face of tragedy,” says Andrew Abeyta, psychology professor at Rutgers University. One psychology study, conducted by Ha Youn Kim and Yu Jeong, found that retro fashion can “overturn any concerns people may have about the gloomy future and the harsh reality.” 

In the case of Y2K fashion, this “overturning of concerns” is closely linked to childhood regression—not just reminiscing on past aesthetics, but actually embodying them.

“I think this generation is infatuated by other eras, more so than any other generation,” says Kaiya Shuntaya, Lithium writer and student at Carleton University. “Almost every fashion trend that’s popular right now is emulating an aesthetic from the past.” 

Our generation’s infatuation with past eras, coupled with the marketability of Black aesthetics when co-opted by white people, has created a breeding ground for the resurgence of Y2K fashion. And while the fashion industry is constantly repurposing old trends, it’s impossible to ignore the racial ramifications of this cyclical relationship or “reimagination” of clothing designs, especially when the original source of a trend is erased or obscured when a later designer repackages it as something “new.”

“I think it’s important for more people to recognize that a lot of 2000s fashion was influenced by the Black community, just as many other trends were and continue to be,” explained Erika Hallam, owner of @blondestuckinthe2000s, another one of the largest Y2K aesthetics pages on Instagram. “I think an emphasis on nostalgia in fashion can be negative when people fail to realize or acknowledge where the trend came from.”

As a Black woman myself, I empathize with this feeling—the frustration when white women get praised for dressing how women of color have been dressing for decades. I worry that people’s obsession with vintage aesthetics will obscure not just the cultural roots of certain clothes, but the oppressive structures of the era in which these fashion designs were created, too. 

But at the same time, I don’t blame people for latching onto clothing associated with better times and memories. Recently, my friends and I have found ourselves indulging more and more in fashion escapism—shopping vintage and returning to trends from our childhood. It’s like we’re desperate to hold onto the few moments of pleasure we remember, embodying an aesthetic of luxury that just doesn’t exist for us anymore and probably won’t for a very long time. 

My grandpa always says that our generation knows nothing but a world of pain. It’s true. Our generation grew up in a post-9/11 world—one plagued by inescapable climate change, racism, and war. We were born into an unstable world. But Y2K fashion gives us stability, even if it’s a false sense of it—fleeting materialism, the comfort of slipping into a bedazzled velour tracksuit or a mesh butterfly top, feeling free for just a moment. It’s imperfect, but sometimes that’s all we have.

Illustration by Emma Baynes