Y2K Groundhog Day

Essay by Taylore Scarabelli
Art by Cole Kush

According to clickbait headlines and TikTok videos featuring low-rise jeans, Heatherette dresses, the return of Megan Fox, and the “Free Britney” movement—Y2K is back. Chalk it up to another trend cycle, or the nostalgia marketing complex so fundamental to culture-making and consumer habits. Yet this revival feels different. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time I’m living through the recycling of aesthetics I grew up with as a teen (though myself and many others would argue that the first Y2K revival happened in 2016). But most likely it has something to do with information access and the way that online trends have become evergreen. 

A recent NBC headline referred to the Y2K revival as a “nowstalgic” trend. Unlike nostalgia, a yearning for past experiences often tied to our early memories, nowstalgia is an emotional connection to a time one didn’t live through—like the way Gen-Z (1997-2012) teens obsess over the early aughts, even though they can’t remember them. Of course, nowstalgia isn’t entirely new, especially not in fashion circles where vintage silhouettes are consistently reappropriated. Most nostalgia runs so deep that we often reference the past by way of other revivals, like when we wear vintage from the 90s that references the 60s, or when a seller on amazon.com labels a retro Pucci print-inspired halter top as “Y2K”. 

If nowstalgia isn’t a new phenomenon, the way it propagates has changed. Unlike in the past, when fashion revivals were largely influenced by magazine editors and major brands, our current nostalgia trends are by and large a product of social media. Archival Instagram accounts, fit pics, and TikTok videos featuring butterfly hair clips and crop tops create new visibility for old fads, while e-girl historians provide context for the movement. TikTokers like @hellotefi have educated a new generation of teens on early aughts dramatics, like the feud between Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, while comedians like @carlyaquilino lift the veil on the unsavory styling of Disney Channel actors and D-list celebrities past, including outfits punctured by gladiator belts and dresses over jeans. 

Nostalgia may have become a bottom-up phenomenon, yet that doesn’t mean it exists outside of the old guard’s control. Not only have TikTok and Instagram become powerful marketing machines for vintage resellers and influencer-supported brands that hustle noughties-inspired goods, but they’ve also helped the rich and famous leverage the viral events of the past into future paychecks. For example, Kim Kardashian recently reunited with former boss Paris Hilton to recreate a heavily circulated photo from the early 2000s—only this time they were wearing SKIMS tracksuits instead of Juicy Couture (even Hilton herself has become a TikTok influencer, selling everything from lipstick to electric scooters). 

Paparazzi and Perez Hilton may have been swapped out for selfies and algorithms, but the way aspiring stars scandalized themselves onto the front page in the early aughts was the blueprint for how they meme their way onto our feeds today. In fact, it often feels as if the Y2K era never really ended. With topless selfies, grainy dance videos, and a hairstyle that hasn’t changed in years, Britney Spears’ current social media presence reads more like a time capsule to her heyday than it does a current comeback. And while MTV’s Cribs is no longer on air, there’s no shortage of YouTube influencers offering tongue-in-cheek tours of their McMansions. Social media celebrities like Trisha Paytas drive around in Barbie pink cars to realize their teen Y2K fantasies in adulthood. While even the Kardashians are indebted to noughties-era Paris Hilton for their reality TV success and fashion sense, like when Kendall Jenner wore a slinky homage to Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday dress on the day of her own legalizing fete, 14 years later.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that Y2K wasn’t that long ago, but it also points to a lapse in the development of American culture. Over the past two decades, technological innovations have rendered us more connected and educated than ever, yet this increased access to information has also had an unintended effect. When it is so easy to look to the past, it’s hard to imagine a different future, and nowhere is this more clear than in the fashion industry, where trends cycle faster than ever but offer little when it comes to innovation. Instead, looks from Gen-Z-coveted brands like IAMGIA and Miaou appear to have been stolen off the backs of music video vixens from the early 2000s, while major labels like Prada and Blumarine are forgoing experimentation in favor of reviving their own noughties-era designs. Even publications are getting Y2K-pilled, like when Vogue Russia recently published a video editorial featuring a lipgloss laden Paris Hilton lookalike accessorized with a Swarovski-encrusted Motorola RAZR and a bedazzled Prada nylon handbag to match. 

In his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argues that putting a price tag on old trends prevents us from creating positive associations with the past. Lasch believed that nostalgia could help inspire a better future, but only if that nostalgia was rooted in a deeper understanding of our previous successes and failures. Of course, one could argue that looking back on old trends could help us reinterpret the past, yet it is unlikely that most consumers of Y2K fashion are thinking much about the post-9/11 economy, or the sneaky subjugation of our privacy during the early aughts, when technology and anti-terrorist laws became a coverup for the violation of basic human rights. As a result, it’s easy to dismiss the current noughties revival as a vapid regurgitation of past trends. Perhaps that’s why it seems so ironic that Afghanistan has come back into the international lexicon at the same time that waistlines are getting lower and rhinestones are finding their way into the mainstream. It’s as if the revival of over-the-top looks and toxic celebrity culture has become a salve for the trauma inflicted by COVID-19.

But we can also think of the Y2K revival in a different way. If nostalgia has been replaced with nodes, each connecting us to consumer culture in ways we never wished for, then fashion revivals are no longer a simple ode to the past, but a symptom of the present — chaos and all. Put simply: when everyone is plugged into the metaverse, trends are no longer bound by time, but attention — and there’s no better way to get it than by embodying the frivolous fashions of yesteryear.