What will the 2000s fashion revival really look like?

Early 21st century fashion was more than just trucker caps and bedazzled thongs — it’s something we can learn from.

In 2000, I attended a formal event (my first as a fledgling grown-up) wearing a black halter top, fuzzy pink cardigan, and a long skirt that looked like it was woven from iridescent steel — my own peak Y2K. That year George W. Bush was elected president despite losing the popular vote, the tech bubble burst, and H&M opened its first U.S. store, ushering in a new era of what the Times called “cheap chic.” Fashion from that whole era was a mess — recapping 2002, Vice’s Ione Gamble wrote “we were all dressing like someone vomited a jumble sale directly onto us.” Clothes were enormous or shrunken. Sagged pants and decadent celebutantes were generating early palpitations of moral panic. Retro everything was crashing into shimmery, metallic “techno-utopianism.” It was like the U.S. was waking up from the go-go late ’90s with an ecstasy hangover, and throwing on whatever we could find.

When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound great — and yet I keep reading that the 2000s are back, really. Still, aside from some TV reboots, Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” video, and one twentysomething I saw wearing a bias cut satin skirt and shrunken T-shirt, I’ve yet to actually observe it much in the world around me. The fashion press assures me it’s here, though, and is approaching it with the same trepidation. In December, the New York Times asked “Is Vintage Over?” because, apparently, the 2000s comeback had come “early.” Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour covered the idea with grim resignation, offering ways to weather the imminent return of velour tracksuits and candy-colored sunglass lenses. It’s as if the “every 20 years” rule — that fashion and pop culture recycles itself every two decades — has become an immutable law; we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of Y2K, so I guess we put on our ball-chain bracelets and brace ourselves for another round of cultural fixation with the lower torso.

When I asked my Millennial friends what they thought of the styles from their youth, responses ranged from “¯_ (ツ)_ /¯” to, as one put it, “Uuuuuuuugggghhhhh.” (A minute later she amended, “I guess I should have spelled that ‘Ugg.’”) But the most common response was summed up by Terry Park, an Asian-American Studies professor at the University of Baltimore: “What even is 2000s fashion?���

This started a Facebook thread among my friends attempting to catalogue potentially of-the-era styles, a task that proved challenging because so many “signature” looks were revived from other eras. Polo shirts or puffy coats? That’s ’80s revival. Boho and low-rise denim flares and mini-skirts? Retro ’60s and ’70s. Layered t-shirts — a ’90s holdover. “It was so bad,” one friend said. “Not even good-bad, like the ’80s. Just bad.”

The author (middle) at her Y2K gala.

The author (middle) at her Y2K gala.

If this revival feels like an exhausting, pointless exercise, it might help to recall that every revival is messy. But knowing how they’ve worked before, maybe we can decide what we want from this one. Do we want to appreciate whatever new aesthetic emerges from our Y2K debris? Or will reboots and retro handbags suffice? Should we use the past to discuss our blind spots, the things privileged Americans chose to ignore because we were still “the good guys,” despite mounting evidence to the contrary, or just laugh at trucker caps and bedazzled thongs?

The distinct pattern of reviving recent history by consuming its fashionable and pop cultural remains and creating “retro” imitations is an invention of the 1960s. While there were precursors in the ’50s, Elizabeth Guffey, author of Retro: The Culture of Revival, writes that revivals really took off when baby boomer countercultures embraced everything from Art Nouveau to the Depression-era with a new sense of ironic appreciation and what she calls “unsentimental nostalgia.” During a period when the dominant culture was aggressively future-focused (e.g. the space race, better living through technology), “retro came to symbolize a deviant form of revivalism,” according to Guffey.

This makes “retro” revivals the same age as the “generation gap” — a term also coined in the 1960s to describe the ideological rifts that formed between Boomers and their parents as increased participation in secondary and higher education, along with intensifying market segmentation, kept age groups more segregated. Since then, revivals quietly filled in the generation gap at just the moment adults and kids were supposed to have the least in common. Kids excavate thrift stores and develop strange passions for the dress, music, and “stuff” of the previous generation; older cohorts educate them about larger historical contexts.

New reports indicate the generation gap — Boomers on one side, Millennials and Gen Z on the other, with Gen X lost somewhere in between — is larger than ever, fueled by younger Americans who are more racially diverse and economically challenged than any previous cohort. In light of this, fashion revivals can be a particularly effective way to build generational bridges; they allow past and present to meet on the body. Seeing past styles come back can cause a visceral sense of deja vu. Jacob Thor, a picker and “elder Millennial” I talked to, describes the feeling he gets witnessing old clothes rearranged on new bodies as “a memory of something that never happened.” And if you weren’t there, clothes are a tangible connection to a lost era.

It’s harder to whitewash history when new pieces of it keep rising out the Goodwill bins.

One of the most powerful things revivals do is unsettle tidy chronologies and progress narratives. According to Guffey, the period between WWII and JFK’s assination in 1963 became “The ’50s” in America’s imagination only when it was revived in the ’70s and ’80s. That revival, shaped by nostalgic Reagan voters, punks inspired by early rock’n’roll, and many others, lasted almost 20 years as multiple generations and ideologies battled over what the era meant. Later, Gen X teens (like me) were ’60s and ’70s obsessed, but also played with aesthetics that juxtaposed and piled decades on top of each other. A typical outfit among my mid-’90s set might be a 1930s-inspired dress with a men’s cardigan from the ’50s, an Iron Maiden cap from the ’80s and a Beverly Hills 90210 lunch box from two years earlier. This kind of look, as I’ve written elsewhere, could be seen as both an ironic reaction to ’80s materialism and an expression of feeling like we were living out the end of history. In all these cases, the reliable unpredictability of revivals has helped prevent the past from becoming a stable (or in other words, conservative) narrative. It’s harder to whitewash history when new pieces of it keep rising out the Goodwill bins.

When the ’80s started creeping back in the early 2000s, reactions weren’t unlike what we’re seeing now. Michiko Kakutani wrote in a 2001 Times piece, “Isn't this taking our mania for cultural recycling too far, too fast?” But that mania might be one of the most distinctive things about the ’00s. No revival has been pure, and pastiche wasn’t new, but at the dawn of the millennium timing and technology converged to change the way history worked. The internet made images and texts, and — through sites like eBay — the actual stuff, from every era seem available simultaneously. It also made it easier to feel like if something wasn’t immediately accessible, it didn’t matter. Meanwhile, fast fashion produced retro imitations at lightning speed. Unlike the days of thrift store treasure hunts, it was possible to get the exact piece of the past you wanted, but volume made it harder to decide what anything meant. Right now the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are all in style, which is very Y2K.

Advertisement from Girlfriends L.A. catalog.

Advertisement from Girlfriends L.A. catalog.

When I was a teen, only weird alternative kids who hung out in the art room and smoked cigarettes at the edge of the senior parking lot wore vintage. We wore it to display our alienation from mainstream culture; most studies of youth culture have explained secondhand shopping this way, as a rejection of middle-class conformity, and a way of seeking authenticity in mass-produced society. Jacob Thor, the vintage dealer, had a similar experience. When he was growing up in small town Montana, “showing up in a ’70s brown polyester suit in a school full of cowboys” was an act of rebellion.

Thor is seeing interest edge toward Y2K through things like Carhartts and Dickies, little “Matrix” sunglasses, and even (gasp) ball-chain jewelry. He’s one of the vintage dealers who confirmed what I’ve heard from young thrifters and observed in my college classrooms: If anyone is driving the “early” return of the ’00s in fashion, it’s teens with an insatiable hunger for old clothes. In the words of a 13-year-old girl in New Orleans whom I interviewed: “It’s definitely popular to go thrifting and wear vintage clothes... I would say that most girls my age or a little bit older are into [it]. They love to wear old band T-shirts or just a vintage-looking outfit.” Where she lives, the ’80s still rule, but the main thing is to dress “vintage.” I heard something similar from a high school student and Depop user in Hawaii. She likes ’90s styles and is intrigued by the ’00s, associating the time with “MySpace, Mean Girls… and wacky clothes,” She further explained: “When I look back on the fashion a lot of it is very mix-and-matched and doesn’t really go together, but I guess that’s what makes the 2000s so iconic.”

Just how people dressed in the early ’00s. (In ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Ghost World,’ respectively.)

Just how people dressed in the early ’00s. (In ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Ghost World,’ respectively.)

Just how people dressed in the early ’00s. (In ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Ghost World,’ respectively.)

It seems logical that approaches to recent history will continue to evolve as more of it piles up, including how we define “vintage.” Driven by apps like Depop and the desire to experiment with style (and generate social media content) without buying into the fashion industry’s ugly side, secondhand shopping has never been more widely practiced among Americans in their teens and early 20s. When so many people are doing it, secondhand clearly means something different than it did during our school days. It’s still rebellious, but this isn’t a counterculture protest. Gen Z is changing what’s mainstream — like treating clothes as disposable and ignoring the environmental and human impacts of fashion and other consumer industries.

Mar Ayres, owner of Wyld Stallyns Vintage in Portland, Oregon (and also a Millennial), points out one concern with this revival: Despite the ’00s being a period of massive overproduction, it’s harder to find its material remains. Ayres avoids the 2000s in her own store because “the clothes were garbage to begin with.” According to Ayres, a pristine pair of platform Skechers will sell for $300, precisely because they weren’t designed to last one year, let alone 20. With the rising popularity of thrifting and vintage, it will be worth paying attention to which looks stay out of the landfill and grab the next generation. And it will be extra necessary to remember that what’s left isn’t the whole story. Jacob Thor is already wondering how he’ll deal with nu metal coming back and having to “sell old Linkin Park T-shirts to kids.” He’s conflicted because, he said (only half joking) “I knew it was wrong the first time.”

Ignoring the past leaves it open to nostalgia merchants who will use their version of history to sell their vision for the future.

It’s usually young people who get revivals going by picking up what older generations are throwing out and repurposing what they find with a mixture of irony, nostalgia, and critique. But there’s a new urgency to this go round because, while kids today are still all right, they’re not okay — they’re literally suing old people for destroying the planet. Gen Z has been described as an anxious, distrustful cohort who are supposed to save the world. That’s a lot. Meanwhile Millennial burnout is a regular part of our vocabulary, and Gen X isn’t doing much better.

There’s a mountain of history and old clothes behind us, and sorting through it feels like just one more overwhelming task. The quantity is part of the story, though. We’re here because our culture consumes and discards and forgets too much. The generation gap is a modern capitalist invention, designed to keep us isolated from one another. But for as long as the gap has had a name, we’ve had a tool for resisting it. Instead of cringing or dismissing revivals as the same old, same old, we can use them to listen and collaborate across generations. Those of us who were there can offer context while those who weren’t bring a less jaded perspective.

In 2016, Brian Raftery wrote for Wired that we should “Enjoy the early-’00s nostalgia wave — it might be the last revival.” I hope he’s wrong. I hope revivals continue as cross-generational conversations, especially when those conversations might be hard. Ignoring the past leaves it open to nostalgia merchants who will use their version of history to sell their vision for the future. Capitalist culture doesn’t give us many opportunities to see ourselves as bound to and part of history, but its byproduct, fashion, does. Knowing this, taking time to pause and figure out across generations what just happened becomes a political act and a way to reshape the path forward. As Thor told me, “the train of nostalgia keeps running whether or not you want it to.”

Sara Tatyana Bernstein, Ph.D, is a writer in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. She previously wrote about Payless shoes for The Outline.