I’m old. Okay, maybe that’s dramatic. Let’s just say I’m old enough that the original Y2K fits of 2002-2007 are burned into my retinas. From the ages of five to nine, I would longingly gaze up at the teenagers around me in their sparkly lip glosses, low-waisted jeans and stretchy tube tops. Back then, it seemed that those girls in their daringly short skirts, strappy kitten heels and Juicy velour tracksuits had it all.
Y2K fits have made somewhat of a revival. Fashion is cyclical, after all. Many of you will have heard of the 20-year rule. All across Instagram and TikTok, low-rise pants are making a reappearance. Visible thongs are cool again instead of trashy. That one coat with the fur trim that Penny Lane wore in Almost Famous is back in every colourway you could imagine. But although trends are cyclical, the 2020 Y2K revival puts its own spin on old styles. Gone are the pencil-thin brows and the frosty blue eyeshadow. Gone are the uggs, the skinny scarves, the double denim, and the bedazzled everything.
Although I, like many other young adults, have enjoyed the Y2K revival and incorporated halter-neck and corset-tops into my everyday wardrobe, I couldn’t help but be nostalgic for the trashier side of Y2K. I wanted low-waisted mini-skirts, too-orange tans, diamante everything and colour-tinted sunglasses. Then it hit me—I may not have been an adult in 2003, but I was an adult now. I decided to tap into my inner Y2K princess.
My first foray into Y2K revival began with a pair of low-rise flare jeans that I found at the Wairau Valley Red Cross shop for $5. I paired it with a silver chain belt, a blue tank top, and a pair of blue-tinted sunnies from the two-dollar store on K-Road. I frosted the fuck out of my eyeshadow, and put some into my lipgloss for good measure. I felt like Lindsay Lohan transitioning out of her Disney phase… I felt good.
Notable reactions to my fit: many stares of abject horror at the chain belt as I walked down the street.
The next fit, however, changed how I thought about the Y2K revival. At the Red Cross Shop on K Road, I hit the jackpot—a low waisted, denim miniskirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. I paired it with a Penny Lane jacket, a bedazzled tank top, the ever-present chain belt, knee-high heeled boots and brown-tinted sunnies. For makeup: too-pink blush, a silvery smokey eye and lip liner—no lipstick—under my lipgloss.
Surveying myself in the mirror, I had one thought: I looked like a mid-2000s stripper.
I felt self-conscious too, walking down the street with my loud heeled boots. One man in a van hung out his window and gaped at me as I walked to Uni. My skirt kept riding up, and I realised for the first time that I was showing rather more cleavage than I was used to, thanks to my mid-aughts accurate black push up bra.
But I wear revealing stuff all the time, I thought to myself. I’d gotten worse—comments, catcalls, straight-up insults—in my regular clothes. Why was I speaking to myself in this outdated language? It’s 2021, destigmatise sex work already. And then it hit me.
What’s interesting about the Y2K revival in 2021 is that we seem to have collectively forgotten about the misogynistic narratives that ran rampant in the early aughts. Headlines about Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Snooki and Christina Aguilera would focus mostly on how “trashy” these women were. Our diet culture was awful, too. Tabloids would write obsessively about women’s weight. I remember fingering their glossy pages in the aisles of the supermarkets while my mum bought groceries. They would speculate on pregnancies and mid-size women would be called fat like it was an insult.
This diet-obsessed culture showed itself in the fashion, too. Early aughts fashion was made to display thinness. Think about our collective obsession with the torso.
Yet at the same time, the ‘provocative’ nature of early-aughts fashion could be said to stem from the third wave of feminism that came in the 1990s. One of the main focuses of the third wave of feminism was sex-positivity. The whale-tail and the midriff-baring styles of the early aughts came pretty soon after.
Fashion often reflects social values of the time—Y2K fashion wasn’t the first to respond ‘provocatively’ to positive strides in gender equality. After the first wave of feminism at the turn of the 20th century, flapper aesthetics rejected constructions of femininity in the prior age. In the middle of the 20th century, the “youth-quake” followed second-wave feminism closely, with Mary Quant being widely credited with bringing the mini-skirt into the mainstream.
Since the 2010s, the fourth wave of feminism has begun, a feminism that hopes to look more intersectional, more inclusive, and more diverse. It’s a feminism that recognises the diversity of marginalised experience, and looks critically at more aspects of the social structure. It’s also a continuation of sex-positivity—like the increasing emphasis on consent. The revival of sex-positivity in fourth-wave feminism is reflected in the Y2K revival, too. Whale tails and daringly short tops are back in fashion, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think ‘tramp stamps’ are cool. These trends all say: Yeah I have a body, and what about it?
There’s also another crucial difference. The media portrayal of young women during the early aughts was often controlled by the male gaze. The talent management that surrounded those starlets were often male. It’s hard to tell what fashion choices were autonomous decisions made by young talent, and what was insisted upon to drive media frenzy. Many iconique fashion moments were used by the media to slut-shame and body-shame these women.
Now, with the rise of social media, more and more content is produced by women, of themselves, for other women. The Y2K revival, in the end, is as much about empowerment as it is about nostalgia. It’s a rebellion against the diet culture and the misogyny that was hurled at women in the early 2000s. Women inspired by early aughts fashion in 2021 come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. They look good, and they broadcast it with self-made content. But most importantly, they take what feels good to them—the nostalgia, the fun, the fuck-you-this-is-my-body-attitude—and leave the rest.
The timing of the Y2K revival is not only about the cyclical nature of fashion trends. It’s also about the socio-political atmosphere. The Y2K revival is about reclaiming labels like ‘trashy,’ ‘slut,’ and ‘bimbo.’ It’s about including women of all ethnicities and sizes, and redoing the fashion of the aughts like it should have been done in the first place—without body shaming, and the rampant cultural appropriation.
That’s why I felt out of place in my period-accurate Y2K fits—they embodied the side of the early aughts that we were trying to leave behind: racism, elitism, classism, fatphobia, the list goes on. Putting on the outfits of my childhood dreams also brought back my childhood insecurities.
This experiment showed me that the reason I can ignore the stares, the whispers and the comments in my everyday outfits, is because I dress how I want—it’s an expression of my power.
And yes, some of the things I want to wear are inspired by, or directly copied from the mid-2000s. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—go hard on the Bratz aesthetic if it makes you feel good. But it’s not 2003 anymore. We’ve (hopefully) gotten past the idea that you need to look a certain way to wear something.
If there’s one thing to learn from the Y2K revival it’s that women should wear whatever they want. It’s not a new concept, yet it’s one that we are still coming to terms with. Society is still uncomfortable with women expressing bodily autonomy. In the early aughts, the 1920s and the 1960s, the expression of agency earned young women endless criticism from all sides.
With the rise of body positivity and intersectionality, maybe this time, it’ll be different.