The Power of Lip Gloss, Low Rise, and The Powerpuff Girls
Or why, in 2020, everyone’s suddenly obsessed with Y2K fashion, music, and aesthetics.
A collab piece by Kristin Merrilees and Molly Van Gorp.
It is a unanimous decision — 2020 has truly been a tumultuous year.
And yet through it all, or perhaps because of it, teens across the internet are seeking sanction and escape from the ever-present struggles we’re dealing with through a world of Juicy Couture tracksuits, Lisa Frank stickers, butterfly hair clips, and Britney Spears . . . a world of Y2K. This ever-growing obsession with the 2000s has transcended all corners of the internet, from Instagram to Twitter and TikTok. Yet even more fascinating is this obsession’s roots. Rather than being pioneered by a single celeb or group of elite few, the Y2K resurgence has seemingly sprung up from an omnipresent nostalgia for simpler times, felt by Midwest high school students and the Kardashians alike.
It is a subconscious rejection of the internet-centered, fast-paced rhythm of today — a plea for a simpler time, void of overwhelming social media influence and nonstop digital connectivity. Because, after all, the 2000s were not very long ago, but within the past few years, so much has changed in terms of the way we communicate and are influenced, making Y2K feel much more foreign, vintage, and distanced than it really is. This “morphed perspective” closely associated with Y2K may be the allusive, intangible element that makes this era so attractive to Gen Z. It is neither far away nor close by, giving it a distinctively whimsical, fanciful aura that is simply irresistible to the self-proclaimed “big dreamer Gen Zers.”
Additionally, accessibility and affordability play an undeniably important role in its resurgence, especially on the fashion side. For many, thrifting is the best, most sustainable, not to mention, affordable option for cultivating a uniquely individual and personalized wardrobe. Presently, the clothing and accessories people are donating and reselling to thrift stores are from the recent past: Y2K. Voila! The perpetuation of rhinestones and low rise continues.
The Y2K Styles and Aesthetic
So… what is Y2K? Well, it’s actually a little more complicated than you might think. What is officially known as the Y2K aesthetic dates from 1998 to 2003, consisting of “tight leather pants, silver eyeshadow, shiny clothing, Oakleys, gradients, and blobby electronics.” Y2K aesthetics “relied on the use of technology and slick futuristic looks, signaling the optimism of a new era as people approached the millennium.”
In 2003, this gave way to what’s officially known as the McBling (a term coined by architect Evan Collins in 2016) aesthetic, which lasted until the Great Recession in 2008, and consisted of expensive labels, brand names like Juicy Couture and Louis Vuitton, and flip phones.
However, these eras tend to be blurred when we think of Y2K today, and the Y2K label is used by many (including us in this piece) to refer to anything from the late 90s to about 2008, encompassing both the “official” Y2K and the McBling aesthetics.
As we remember it today, Y2K involves pink — so much pink — and pastels. It’s also short skirts, crop tops and camis, kitten heels, and low rise jeans. Beloved Y2K brands include Juicy Couture (especially for their velour tracksuits), Louis Vuitton, Dior, Playboy, Von Dutch, Prada, True Religion, and Murakami.
Accessories include mini purses (known as baguette bags), tiaras and lots of bling, bandanas, butterfly hair clips, mini pink-tinted sunglasses, trucker hats, and flip phones. Makeup includes pastel eyeshadow and tons of lipgloss, and you can never put too many rhinestones on anything.
Pop culture references include the Bratz dolls, the Powerpuff Girls, Clueless, Mean Girls, Hello Kitty, and Legally Blonde. Socialite Paris Hilton is most often associated with Y2K and the early 2000s, but other celebrities include Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Destiny’s Child.
Y2K was all about glam and glitz, celebrity culture, and taking risks.
The Return of Y2K
Recently, Y2K style has begun to come back in full force.
Inklings of the Y2K era have been in the workings for a while now, but it seems that spring 2020 was when Y2K really took off in the mainstream fashion world. Now, it is one of the most in-demand styles there is, with people clamoring to thrift shops and onto Depop to buy Y2K items and onto Pinterest to create Y2K aesthetic boards.
The most popular Y2K trends that have reemerged are Von Dutch bags, Juicy Couture tracksuits, mini skirts, tube tops and satin, lingerie-style camis, cropped button-up cardigans, brands such as Louis Vuitton, and the color pink.
Why is Y2K becoming popular again?
When my bestie and favorite co-write, Kristin, and I began toying with the concept of writing an explorative piece on Y2K, the first reference that popped into my head during our brainstorming session was an Elle Magazine article from this year’s March issue entitled “Past Perfect: What qualifies as ‘vintage’ is becoming ever more recent” by Sloane Crosley. In her piece, Crosley retells the tale of her Y2K “Chloe prancing-horse skirt,” drawing on its symbolism to communicate her take on the origin of Y2K’s distinctive spike in popularity. She claims that like her Chloe skirt, for many (notably, for celebrities), Y2K evokes carefree, almost innocent energy as there is “something lighthearted and sly about drawing from the more recent past. . . . The decades in question also represent a generally rosier time.” As a 2000s, Year-of-the-Dragon baby I can’t claim to personally grasp this proclaimed “rosier” time of Y2K, but the dozens of times I have watched Clueless, Mean Girls, and Legally Blonde have emblazoned in me a distinctive emotional attachment to this era. I could not agree more with Crosley: Y2K is simply more superficially fun than today. In the pandemic-plagued present, we seek playful fun more than ever before. Flinging ourselves at this era, either by scrolling through Pinterest, hitting up the local thrift store, or in Crosley’s case, slipping into a 20-year-old Chloe skirt, pacifies us with a universally-needed respite from a cycle of never-ending anxieties. In short, Y2K has become such a trend because it is playful, because it is innocent, because it is fun, and because, presently, our world is so void of these emotions that their memories can stay alive through this aesthetic.
Celebrities and brands have latched onto the Y2K trend. While this may be a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation, it is safe to say that at this point, Y2K has been both fueled and perpetuated by media attention. Notably, celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenner clan, Bella Hadid, Madison Beer, Hailey Bieber, Winnie Harlow, and Emma Chamberlain are seen flaunting their latest Y2K vintage pieces and Y2K/McBling-inspired brands across social media. In particular, Kendall and Hailey have a love for Brandy Melville’s Y2K basics while Winnie’s colorful I.AM.GIA collection is ever-growing. Madison is rarely photographed without her Vivienne Westwood pearl necklace, which she owns in multiple metal finishes. Meanwhile, Chrome Heart and corset tops are Bella’s signature looks. Naturally, being that celebrity idealization is an unforgettable component of Y2K, we all, although some are less reluctant to admit so, want to dress like America’s royalty.
Y2K and Streetwear
When scrolling through our Instagram or Tik Tok feeds, we are bombarded by a sea of sneakers and hoodies effortlessly blended with chain jewelry, trucker hats, and the occasional baguette bag. It seems as if the line between streetwear and Y2K inspired garb is ever-blurring, flirting closer to extinction by the day. This is illustrated perfectly here:
The two aesthetics have become almost indistinguishable from each other, morphing into a broader, nameless aesthetic, casually referred to as Tik Tok style, model off-duty, celebrities’ style, or just simply — trendy fashion.
Yet, despite their interchangeability, it is important to distinguish the key differences between classic streetwear and Y2K/McBling. These differences primarily stem from the way that the pieces are acquired and the attitude of the members of each group.
Streetwear is, according to the “Parsons x Complex Streetwear Essentials” class I (Molly) have been taking: the blending of skate, surf, hip hop, and sport subcultures into a cohesive aesthetic identifiable by sneakers, hoodies, tee shirts, hats, and other utilitarian pieces. Streetwear is often acquired via official brand stores or online, on resale websites like StockX.com that emphasize authenticity as the top priority. In the world of streetwear, hyped (AKA highly coveted and sought-after pieces) are always in low quality and high demand, fueling a culture of exclusively.
Conversely, the culture built around Y2K is arguably more inclusive, with items that fit the aesthetic available at affordable retailers like Brandy Melville, I.AM.GIA, and Urban Outfitters. Like streetwear, reselling is a core component of Y2K fashion, however, authenticity and newness play a reduced role in Y2K, especially among teens. Thrifting is truly at the heart of this aesthetic. Depop and traditional thrift stores are the ultimate go-to's when it comes to embodying the Y2K spirit.
However, despite these differences, I predict the two styles will eventually merge into one, as is already occurring across many fashion and lifestyle platforms. Examples of this merging are acutely obvious on fashion corners of Tik Tok, where influencers are increasingly referring to Brandy Melville as a source for female “streetwear.” This came as a surprise to me as this brand has traditionally represented the epitome of Y2K resurgence. If Brandy, a brand scorned for their basic, preppy-like apparel (among other things that we shall not discuss at this time), can take on a role in streetwear, surely, the divide between streetwear and Y2K fashion is really, truly foggy.
Men’s and women’s UK streetwear, where soft pastel pieces and pearl necklaces are blended with the traditional pillars of streetwear (sneakers, hoodies, and graphic tees), is another great example of the omnipresent Y2K influence. Finally, Kawaii, or the culture of cuteness in Japan, and classic streetwear have gone hand in hand from the birth of Japanese streetwear in the 1990s. While not strictly Y2K, Kawaii symbols, much like Hello Kitty, the Powerpuff Girls, Bratz, or Barbie, have a distinctly early 2000s, girly edge — a motif reemerging at a rapid pace. These symbols are being recycled onto hoodies, tee shirts, key chains, etc. . . or in other words, being recycled into modern streetwear.
How does this go beyond just fashion?
The resurgence of Y2K is not just limited to a renewed love of Juicy Couture and lipgloss. Back in the 2000s, Y2K was an attitude, an aesthetic, and at the risk of sounding cringy, a way of life. The increasing popularity of Y2K fashion hasn’t happened in a vacuum — it’s the whole era that’s finding new life in 2020.
Makeup and beauty are now being influenced by Y2K — with pink lip gloss, body glitter, and pastel, bright eyeshadow all on the rise. The 2000s were all about taking risks in style and beauty — and now, with teens increasingly using makeup as a form of art and self-expression, this attitude is back. Y2K-inspired makeup also overlaps with the “soft girl” trend, which involves girly style and pink and pastel makeup.
Y2K-era trends are also resurging in the fitness industry. During the early 2000s, there was an explosion of new workout opportunities, such as Zumba, spin classes, yoga, and barre, as well as interval training, kickboxing, and celebrity workouts. With the rise of new technologies, home fitness also became popular — especially dance, through games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Just Dance. Now, as millions have been staying at home quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic, many are turning to home workouts as a way to stay healthy. Think of Chloe Ting's workouts and their similarity to Cher’s fitness tapes from Clueless. And there are more options than ever — from virtual Zoom classes to YouTube videos to Peloton classes.
Surprisingly, fast food has also had a major comeback in recent years. This is a distinct throwback to Y2K and will likely continue into the future, but with a twist. As retail and dining become increasingly experience-oriented, the emphasis on perceived exclusivity will become popular within the fast-food industry. We predict that Chick-fil-a’s Hawaiian restaurant, called Truett’s Luau, will act as a model for the future of fast food, with other chains following suit and opening specialty restaurants with one or two locales and exclusive, limited menus to promote sales and fuel “hype” culture.
And even in 2020, where the virtual world is bigger than ever, people are still nostalgic for the tech of the 2000s — this may even be due to the fact that some are disillusioned by problems that’ve been brought by the current digital era. Recently, people have been joining Myspace-lookalike sites to recreate the experience of the early internet, designing custom profiles and interacting with other users.
Y2K has also carried over into music — as Lindsay Zoladz describes in The New York Times, “the pop artifacts of the Y2K era — winking futurism, loads of glitter, ‘TRL’-style videos — are back, with an update.” There’s Dua Lipa’s music video to “Break My Heart,” which embraces a technofuturistic look, and Lipa wears two distinctly Y2K trends — a purple button-up cropped cardigan and a white miniskirt.
Or take Ariana Grande’s music video to “thank u, next,” in which she reimagines scenes from iconic 2000s movies — Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and 13 Going On 30.
Y2K has inspired a new era of pop, which includes Normani’s “Motivation,” Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s “1999,” the comeback hits of Happiness Continues by the Jonas Brothers, Doja Cat’s album Hot Pink.
Similarly, remakes and reunions of 2000s-era works of pop culture — Gilmore Girls, Friends, Gossip Girl, Legally Blonde, Charmed, and Queer Eye, are all the rage.
One of the defining markers of the 2000s was its intense celebrity and Hollywood culture. People were fascinated with actors, pop stars, and socialites alike, such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Hilary Duff, Destiny’s Child, Kristin Cavallari, the Olsen Twins, and, of course, the queen of the Y2K era herself, Paris Hilton. The 2000s were the golden age of the paparazzi, and we would keep up with all of our favorite stars through tabloids and teen magazines like J-14 and Tiger Beat.
Nowadays, celebrity culture is still in full swing, just in a different form. Instead of only pop and movie stars, today we look up to influencers, models, YouTubers, etc. And instead of getting drama and gossip from tabloids, we get it from our favorite “tea” accounts, like Tea Spill and TikTokRoom.
The Y2K culture of bling, glitz and glamour, and materialism has also been on the rise — with designer brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coach, and others back on the rise. Granted, it will be interesting to see if this consumer culture continues as we continue to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
Is Y2K Fashion Here to Stay?
We think yes! It is fun, it is broad, it is inclusive, and at its core, very childlike and playful — two words that promise a momentary escape from the bitter realities of 2020. There are a million different ways you can spin the Y2K aesthetic to fit your own personal style. From what we have seen across the internet, unlike other trends, people seem to be more comfortable with a “dipping your toes in” approach when it comes to adopting Y2K trends. It is common, accepted, and celebrated to incorporate one of two distinctly Y2K pieces into your otherwise modern look. Yet, it is always equality celebrated to go all in, head to toe. This flexibility is what makes Y2K stand out from other throwback trends we have seen, and what will make it last.