2003 Unbearable: Y2K Fashion is More Problematic than You Remember


Karolina Grabowska
Instagram, shop windows, and street style all shout that the 2000s are back: baggy low-rise jeans, baguette-style purses, paisley halter tops. But what happens when the decade in vogue is neither new or nostalgic to us?

Instagram, shop windows, and street style all shout that the 2000s are back: baggy low-rise jeans, baguette-style purses, paisley halter tops. But what happens when the decade in vogue is neither new nor nostalgic to us?

Sarah Bochicchio

“Research has shown that when people engage in nostalgic thinking, they actually show improvements in mood.”

Shakaila Forbes-Bell

Last February, Vanity Fair unveiled a cover featuring Nicole Kidman sporting a Miu Miu micro mini skirt. It was made from what appeared to be a thin wool, the kind used for men’s suiting, here stripped of any convenience or wearability. Barely grazing Kidman’s thighs, the micro mini was frayed at the bottom, its pocket linings poking out from beneath the hem. Every detail emphasized that something short had been made even shorter. A matching top—a still more miniaturized version of the skirt, belt loops and all—announced that, had there been any doubts, the midriff-forward, daring styles of the aughts had triumphantly returned.

Beyond this high-profile example, Instagram, shop windows, and the street style of the West Village all shout that the 2000s are back: the baggy low-rise jeans, baguette-style purses, paisley-halter-tops, the Juicy sweat-suits, the itty bitty mini skirts. Walking through SoHo last week, I spied a signboard declaring “Vintage & Y2K” with a bright red arrow pointing towards racks of light pink and magenta spoils. It is not unusual, of course—we understand the fashion cycle’s endless churn, recycling past decades and styling them anew for the present moment. The march of Fashion Time insists that everything comes back around, rebranded as “vintage,” if not as something entirely new. But as someone born in the 90s, who grew up seeing and wearing 2000s-era styles, I feel deeply repulsed by the idea of wearing those trends again. What happens when the decade in vogue is neither new nor nostalgic to us?

The sartorial past is usually portrayed as something idyllic, brighter, and more beautiful than the present (like when Mad Men’s Don Draper calls nostalgia “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”). “Initially, it’s really a tricky [question] because a lot of studies talk about nostalgia in fashion being so popular because of the positive benefits,” explains Shakaila Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist and author of Big Dress Energy. “Research has shown that when people engage in nostalgic thinking, they actually show improvements in mood. You’re more likely to pick up the good parts when you’re looking back, so I think that's why we always see this cyclical nature of fashion. And now with social media, fashion history content is more accessible, and it’s easier for us to do that.”

While I still like the clothing from my very early childhood (and from decades that I have not lived through), the fashions from my middle school era seriously trouble me—the Abercrombie graphic tees, the baby doll tops, the preppiness, the cap sleeves, the Victoria Secret sweatpants with “pink” over the rear. One issue is the fact that I have not, of my own accord, decided to call up these memories. Behavioral Psychologist Professor Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, says, “Evidence suggests that when people are asked to be nostalgic, they tend to remember a positive event, but when they are presented with a reminder of the past spontaneously (they haven’t thought of it themselves) they are just as likely to feel sad as happy.” In my case, this negative feeling also seems to stem from a mixture of how I have been primed by the fashion system, my own associations with the awkwardness of adolescence, and larger unease with the ideals that are inextricably tied to these clothes.

The fashion industry trains us to see certain fashions as “dated,” to no longer love the thing that we wore a certain number of seasons ago and to emotionally reject them. I was already, once, subconsciously persuaded to stop loving my yellow velour hoodie, my boot-cut jeans, and UGGs. “We’re hardwired to want something new,” says Forbes-Bell. “That’s maybe a reason why you have that negative side of the fashion cycle. Because you’re just searching for that novelty.”

Familiarity destroys the trend’s intoxicating novelty, and since I have already experienced it, the past becomes harder to idealize. The Cut’s Claire Lampen has noted, for example, how Y2K fashions are her “back-to-school nightmare” because they are impossible to “untangle from the mortifications of being a teen.” The mid-2000s were when my vision of how I could dress was limited to what was visually and physically available to me; it was the only decade I knew, rather than a choice I made as I was dressing myself. I wore a tank top layered under my already-long shirt because I saw other people doing it, even though my torso was uncomfortably swaddled.

Sarah Bochicchio

Shop sign in Soho, New York

As a middle schooler, I was distinctly not in charge of how I envisioned myself, merely receiving and processing information about how I should look, dress, and act. My classmates and I started to see who was hewing toward conventional views of femininity—and who wasn’t. I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand what was going on, but I could feel the anxiety of expectation, yet another form of people-pleasing.

When everyone more or less adheres to the same trends, the notion of “who wore it best” becomes harshly visible. This external pressure to compete was made worse by the fact that the low-rise, form-fitting silhouettes put the body on display. With the return of these styles, a recent article declared that abs are now an “accessory” (“cleavage is over.”), an indication that these clothes implore the wearer to mold their body to fit the clothes. The tiny clothes could also be infantilizing; most t-shirts were literally called “baby tees” (my friend, Marcy, calls this aesthetic “sexy baby” à la Taylor Swift). Professor Kelly Colvin, a historian of gender and fashion at the University of Massachusetts, notes that, when looking back on these experiences, “the same tension remains, the amount of pressure that you face, either in terms of shaping your body in a specific way or knowing that you’re going to be critiqued if your body doesn’t look a certain way.”

“We talk about this [in history] but is fashion the marker or the maker of societal trends?” queries Colvin. The 2000s were the era in which Britney Spears began her conservatorship, Paris Hilton was the victim of Revenge Porn, and the media seemed to take inexhaustible pleasure in calling women fat. The media dictated and distributed what Constance Grady has called “Bubblegum Misogyny,” when a supposedly post-feminist society taught us that “there was no right way to be a girl. There were only different ways to fail.” The clothing of this period cannot be separated from that background thrum of misogyny—and my inability to combat it as a tween.

Who actually benefits from this trend? “Probably not young women,” notes Colvin. “It’s again the tension of whether it is a form of liberation for women to expose their bodies. Or is it yet another form of disciplining the body? We are still negotiating certain questions about women’s lives that we may have thought were settled.” My consistent worry is that young women imagine themselves in ways that are still primarily inflected by the male gaze, under the guise of freedom. Digital presence and permanence unintentionally invite many gazes, only some of which may be unwanted, all of which will shape how we see ourselves, for better or worse.

“We perceive clothing to keep up with societal advancement,” reflects Allison Morgan, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer, “but what clothing could ever truly be au courant if society itself continues to regress?” Within 2000s fashion, there are layers of issues around gender, race, and class—problems that continue—and to glorify those clothes seems to forget what they represent.

On the other hand, wearing them again provides the possibility of editing their associations. Forbes-Bell notes that one positive effect of revivalism is that women who were previously excluded from these dialogues now have a chance to join and shape the conversation. “Especially as a Black woman, there were so many things that were not invented for me. But now people have come and paved the way and reclaimed a lot of things that have been appropriated.” Particularly with the expansion of Tik Tok, more women have access to a platform to adopt and experiment with trends. “When I am seeing a lot of these trends revived, I'm seeing it on curvier women, I've seen them on Black women, I'm seeing women who I can identify with.”

Within psychology, she highlights, there is always room for individual differences. “Everyone has to dress according to their personal feelings and emotions. It's really about doing the internal work to figure out what meanings you’re ascribing to certain clothing and how they’re having an impact on the way you act and behave.” Whether fashion can be separated from the time in which it was created depends on the person who wears it.

In the 2000s, I did not have sartorial agency; for someone else, this revival may be a time to reclaim a negative memory—or, in fact, to celebrate styles they may still love. Fashion is intensely personal, a reflection of our own inherent contradictions, as well as societal ones (my own worries are just that—my own). Maybe the fashion cycle, more than anything else, serves as a checkpoint, to see where we stand in relation to our individual, past selves.

What matters most is that if we bring back micro mini skirts, velour tracksuits, and butterfly clips, we leave the Bubblegum Misogyny behind. Hopefully one can exist without the other. Though I suppose we won’t know for certain until Y2K comes back for its third run.

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

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