Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024


Fahmy discusses the current revival of Y2K fashion.

From animal print to baby tees and low-rise jeans, fashion styles from the early 2000s are trending amongst Gen Z. Many people know this as “Y2K” style, giving new meaning to the shorthand term for “the year 2000” which was used to describe a number of potential programming errors that were anticipated when computer systems switched from the year 1999 to 2000.

The term rose to new popularity in 2020 when users on TikTok and Instagram began popularizing nostalgic early 2000s fashion styles as “Y2K.” Now, it has inspired a widespread revival in early 2000s staples such as velour tracksuits, ballet flats, tiny shoulder bags, crop tops, bedazzled shirts, denim and baggy jeans — trends which have been quickly taken up by large clothing retailers.

Trend cycles are known to repeat periodically — generally every 20 years or so — which is why some people predicted the natural resurgence of the 2000s styles as we moved into the 2020s. However, I believe that Y2K’s rise to fame as a clothing style in 2020 was catalyzed by both the dominance of TikTok as a source of fashion trends and microtrends, as well as the coincident rise of thrifting and secondhand clothing. 

During the initial lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, the use of social media across the world spiked as people sought to connect while stuck in their homes and as they attempted to occupy their free time with new interests. In particular, TikTok saw its usage soar. In the first quarter of 2020, it had a “record-breaking 318 million downloads outside of China.” The short-form content on the app made it easy for trends to gain traction as hundreds of millions of users browsed TikTok each day. 

For many people, the first months of lockdown were characterized by a yearning for earlier times when life felt simpler and safer. This often manifested in renewed interest in old hobbies such as baking, reading or crafting. Others sought out nostalgic shows or music from childhood. In fact, a study in the UK found that there was a surge in “positive nostalgic music,” defined as upbeat songs made more than five years before the first COVID-19 lockdown. 

We likely owe a large part of the Y2K fashion revival to this spirited search for nostalgia, which influenced much of the content on social media in 2020. Young millennials and older Gen Z who grew up in the early 2000s never got to fully experience the original Y2K style, but its new popularity gave them the opportunity to do so. Moreover, they could reimagine classic styles to fit their existing wardrobe by incorporating specific pieces or trends that appealed to them. This creative and personal approach to new fashion trends among teens and young adults — which saw them unafraid to mix colors, prints, textiles and eras of fashion — went hand-in-hand with another trend: thrifting.

Around the same time as TikTok’s unprecedented growth in early 2020, shopping secondhand at thrift stores or on sites like Depop also became increasingly popular among younger generations. Amidst growing environmental and economic concerns, secondhand and vintage clothing allowed one to be fashionable both sustainably and affordably. For some, the thrill of finding a unique item, such as an authentic Juicy Couture zip-up or Ed Hardy T-shirt, was equally as exciting. While fast fashion brands were quick to produce items inspired by Y2K trends, many young people appreciated finding true early 2000s pieces to complete their looks. Thrifting or exchanging clothing with friends was also an accessible way to explore new styles and trends.

Although the rise of Y2K clothing has led to various short-lived microtrends (need I remind you of micro-mini denim skirts or the quintessential “VSCO girl” shell necklace?), the style as a whole has continued to remain popular. Take a peek at any high school or college campus in the US, and I’m sure you’ll see that Y2K-inspired pieces are still in favor: cargo pants, Uggs, leg warmers, bell-bottoms and more. In fact, some fashion influencers are beginning to lean into early 2000s styles that seemed to be left out of the initial Y2K resurgence, such as thin rectangular glasses, capri-length pants, big hair barrettes, skinny scarves and corduroy newsboy hats. 

The popularity of Y2K fashion has been reinforced by its representation in the media. Olivia Rodrigo’s viral success thrust her into the public eye where she has shown off a curated wardrobe of authentic ‘90s and 2000s pieces, as well as modern takes on older styles. Additionally, the release of the Barbie movie in the summer of 2023 revitalized the ultra-feminine, hot-pink early 2000s ensembles rocked by the Plastics and Elle Woods alike. It’s safe to say that Y2K clothing has created a unique and distinctive space for itself in fashion that is unlikely to vanish any time soon.

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