The rumors are true: Y2K trends — including low-rise jeans, whale tails, and corsets — are back, both on the runways and on social media. They might have terrorized millennials who lived through them (and survived to tell), but they’re sparking excitement among Gen Z who are looking at decades past for fashion inspiration.
We’re living through the early aughts all over again. #Bennifer started trending earlier this year as Ben Affleck donned the bracelet Jennifer Lopez bought him during their highly-publicized romance in the early 2000s. Zendaya channeled baby-faced Beyoncé with a vintage Versace dress from 2003 at the BET Awards. And Avril Lavigne joined TikTok wearing a suspender and tie combo that transported us to her “Sk8er Boi” era.
From the vantage point of the 2020s, the turn of the millennium — once deemed an era of pop culture disruption and the Internet boom — is a chapter now old enough to be considered vintage. According to Dawnn Karen, a leading fashion psychologist and the author of Dress Your Best Life: How to Use Fashion Psychology to Take Your Look — and Your Life — to the Next Level, these fashion moments point to a desire to exit our current circumstances. Our once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, climate change, economic crises, and extraordinary political and sociological disruptions are all conspiring to nostalgia for what appear to be the greener pastures of earlier times.
“Right now, we are trying to reach back to any decade,” says Karen. “Considering what we’ve gone through globally and simultaneously, we are looking for a healthy form of escapism.”
The Y2K adulation started gaining real momentum on social media last year, when quarantine caused Gen Z to resort to TikTok, where vintage fashion and pop culture thrive. “It's manifested with Gen-Z discovering Y2K trends on TikTok and their nostalgia for both the youth culture and youth fashion from the early 2000s,” says Marian Park, a youth strategist at WGSN, the global trend forecasting agency, adding that the forecasters were able to spot the return of the early 2000s aesthetic about five years ago.
The Hollywood party scene of the early 2000s provided a sugarcoated backdrop for plenty of fashion moments that have become synonymous with a recent chapter of history. Paris Hilton’s velour Juicy Couture tracksuits and Kim Kardashian’s Louis Vuitton Miroir tote bags are ingrained in the collective memory of this time. Last year, Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS capitalized on that memory by bringing back their tracksuit-and-bag combo with the release of its velour line in October. The numbers prove that Kardashian and Hilton are not alone in their nostalgia: According to Lyst, a global fashion search platform, Juicy Couture searches are up 179% this year versus last year.
While SKIMS may be capitalizing on its founder Kardashian’s past to sell new products, many fashion fans are looking for the originals. Gen Z’s knack for thrifting, upcycling, and reselling has become an important factor to consider in the return of early 2000s styles. According to Tradesy, an online resale marketplace, searches for Y2K-related queries have increased over the past year, including low rise (50%), baby tee (2,000%), and cargo pants (28%). The site has also reaped the benefits of the vintage resale market with an increase in revenue from the Prada Nylon bag and the Fendi Baguette in the last four years, with a year over year growth in revenue of 30% and 16%, respectively.
“Gen Z’s appetite for savvy thrifting and upcycled fashion is also driving the rise of the 2000s look, as much of what is available on resell platforms and sought after in secondhand stores are from this era,” says Park.
Archival fashion, particularly concerning items that trace back to the turn of the millenium, is having its moment as well. Bella Hadid dusted off a vintage Jean Paul Gaultier couture gown from 2002 to attend the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and Rihanna sported a vintage Dior slip dress from the house’s 2002 collection on the streets of where. On TikTok, archival fashion is going viral with users analyzing styles from the early 2000s with the hashtag #ArchivalFashion. There, fans chronicle designs from early John Galliano-designed Dior and dissect looks from series like Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, both of which are being rebooted by HBO Max.
“The 2000 aesthetic has gone from niche to big trend,” Bridget Mills-Powell, Content Director at Lyst, says of the recent explosion. She adds that searches on the platform related to Y2K have increased by 450% since last year, a phenomenon that she traces to the cascade of celebs donning archival fashion on the red carpet.
Back in the early 2000s, the Internet was still in its infancy. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram had yet to disrupt the culture (and our attention spans). Blogs and chat forums and ill-fated experiments like Friendster dominated online. In its infancy, the internet was still second to anything IRL, a bastion of all that was niche and experimental. It would be years before anyone would be inured to the harassment, body shaming, and overall nastiness that plagues online discourse today. Now, trolling is a fact of life and disinformation and extremism run rampant. There is a comfort to be found in running terms like “Kate Moss slip dress” and “Paris Hilton Bungalow 8” in our search engines.”
The Internet of today is also providing a second life to storylines that we once associated with the early 2000s. The battle over Britney Spears's conservatorship and the return of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s relationship are two examples that have guided our collective conscience to reflect on the events that led us to where we are today. According to Park, this has led a new wave of fandom, from #Bennifer stans to the #FreeBritney movement, as Gen Z-ers are familiarizing themselves with the news of yesteryear, and dressing up like it.
While fashion may be consistently cyclical (it wasn’t that long ago that Lady Gaga brought back shoulder pads and ‘80s glamour), the early 2000s comeback is a clear manifestation of how the social and cultural forces of our world infiltrate our closets and psyche, forcing millennials and Gen Z to dive deep into the Y2K vault in the middle of a worldwide crisis.Yet, it’s key to remember the escapism nostalgia provides is just that: a fantasy.