As society attempts to progress in the wake of a pandemic, fashion is looking back. From upcycling runway pieces to the 2022 Met Gala theme historically reflecting on “the Gilded Age”, these days, nostalgia is anything but outdated.
The grip of Y2K aesthetic specifically in Gen Z wardrobes is a strong and steady one that seems to only be gaining steam as summer promises an abundance of chunky sandals, low-rise pants and Olivia Rodrigo-approved tank tops. It’s arguable that, with an age range of 10 to 25 years old, the pandemic hit Gen Z at the most impactful and formative life stages of any generation at the time. I was 21 when the world shut down – I watched as all my friends’ college graduations became a distant dream and post-grad life an even more confusing experience. It’s only natural that our wardrobes would start to reflect such a jarring shift. Fashion recycling itself is nothing new – but Gen Z resurrecting Y2K indicates in a striking way my generation’s ability to contribute revitalizing perspectives to often outdated narratives.
In the past year I have seen firsthand how societal narratives are the bread and butter of trends. If you were on the same side of TikTok as me back in 2020, you learned that the uptick in zombie and fantasy movies post-2020 is the subconscious outgrowth of filmmakers and audiences processing the past two years of dystopian trauma. Similarly, Y2K fashion exhibits the characteristics of a generation that has lost a lot and in many ways has nothing left to lose. I have always had an unironic passion for fashion – but probably my favorite thing about Gen Z & Y2K fashion joining forces is how Gen Z manages to address harmful, traumatic stereotypes that perpetuated fashion long before Y2K. But if I’m gonna tell you how Gen Z is saving fashion from itself, it’s important that we talk about Y2K fashion at its core – and why it represents in a significant way where Gen Z is at today.
Y2K fashion embodies sexual liberation – harkening back to the 1920’s – where clothing silhouettes were created in direct opposition of the societal norms expected of women at the time. In the 1920s, corset-defying flapper silhouettes exploded; in the 2000s, the minimalistic, 50s-esque silhouettes of the 90s were replaced with colorful, loud pop-star it-girl looks of Destiny’s Child or Christina Aguilera. It’s also worth noting the historic erasure of Y2K trailblazing from Black artists like Aaliyah or groups like Destiny’s Child, & the credit that often goes to Britney Spears or Paris Hilton for looks that they did not originate. Y2K fashion is about extremes and juxtapositions of feminine with masculine tropes – the popularization of an edgier brand like Ed Hardy monopolizing skin-tight tank tops and low-rise flare jeans is a perfect example.
Unfortunately, nonconsensual hypersexualistion & body shaming was rampant in this era (not that it wasn’t in eras before or after, but it stands in history that whenever a female-identifying individual is comfortable showing their skin – men have found a way to make it about themselves.), especially in film. While the 2000s was the golden age of some of our favorite rom coms (think Maid in Manhattan, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Brown Sugar), it was also an archival goldmine of body-shaming, racist, fatphobic, and misogynistic ideals that specifically undermined and invalidated sexual liberation and social progress of women at the time. It was the culmination of all the years that Hollywood has subjugated women and erased non-white people from their stories, and is responsible for much of the trauma and toxicity that Gen Z is working to unlearn today.
Fast forward to present day – if the Y2K era was so traumatic, why is Gen Z embracing its clothing in hoards? The answer is simple – nostalgia is healing. Y2K marries nostalgia with self-expression, two things in high priority for Gen Z. In fact, Gen Z’s investment in emotional literacy is often described to their discredit, as if processing your feelings isn’t one of the best things you can do for your mind and body. But many psychologists would argue that allowing your emotions is a great trait to possess – with lifelong health benefits. Given the last few years, it may very well be a critical factor to personal success in the years to come as Gen Zers work through COVID trauma. And if there’s one thing that Gen Z is going to do, it’s express themselves. It’s giving, “wearing your heart on your sleeve”—literally.
COVID changed everything – including our wardrobes. It reminded us that life is too short to not wear what we want. When I talk to my friends about our hopes for life post-COVID, so often it is just to enjoy ourselves now – to make the most of the time we have. Y2K aesthetically embodies that shift in culture, “something akin to sartorial redemption through the lense of women’s empowerment,” according to the Zoe Report. It’s a return to our childhoods – reliving some of our best and comfiest memories – think Juicy Couture sweatsuits. It’s a reclaiming of our bodies – what we didn’t have the confidence to wear in childhood or were shamed out of wearing. It’s living in the moment – who can forget the eccentric Y2K night and party looks. When it comes to nostalgic trends, no one is doing it like Gen Z. And if we are talking trend predictions…can you guess the cultural reset that Gen Z has already begun resurrecting to make its bloody return? It’s only Twilight!
Gen Z has taken the best aspects of Y2K fashion and puts in the work to leave outdated gender binaries and objectification in the past. Gen Z understands that Y2K fashion can be for all bodies, not just a select few. Gen Z embraces nostalgia as a place of comfort and safety in a return to childhood and self-expression. In 2022, Y2K fashion has given us the chance to be the main character in our very own rom com—but this time, we’re learning to love ourselves.