The anticipated year 2000, more commonly known as Y2K, was meant to project the United States (and the rest of the world) into a techno-utopia. We envisioned a grandiose Internet Age, characterized by liberation, democratization, and the endless bounds of consumption. Leading up to this rapturous turn of the century, pop-culture boomed with techno-fetishism, such as TLC’s cyberspace-inspired music video No Scrubs (1999), decked out with metallic, industrial/cyberpunk attire and spaceship-inspired backdrops. Futuristic-inspired looks also made their way to the runway, such as Miu Miu’s SS1996 featuring simplistic translucent fabric and functional velcro straps or Walter Van Beirendonck’s Summer 1996 and 1999 collections, the latter being revealed in a video of “alien” models clad in neon, accompanied by electronic music. Futuristic aesthetics similarly characterized the Space Age of the 1960s, idealizing the liberatory potential of the future. This space-age chic was fixated on modernity, from Paco Rabanne’s metallic, chainmail dresses to Mary Quant’s utilitarian use of plastics and introduction of the miniskirt. Fast forward 21 years and we are currently facing some of the biggest downfalls of this failed utopia, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and the related failures of globalization (i.e. fast fashion and climate change). In the wake of the historic year that was 2020 lies the longing for a past characterized by optimism and ignorance about the future. On one side of the spectrum, we are seeing a trend towards retro-futurism with the commodification of the space-age fashion that characterized the 1960’s and the Y2K fashion that characterized the late-90’s and early 2000’s. On the completely opposite side, there has been an even more drastic flashback to the past with the resurgence of renaissance-inspired fashion, reflecting a desire for escape from this horrific year.
The rise in Y2K fashion could be attributed to the cyclical 20-year fashion roller coaster we have been on for the past oh-so-many years, or maybe the rise in thrifting that all but guarantees a trip down the memory lane of forgotten aesthetics. But, I would argue there’s more at play here than mere trends. The 20-year cycle certainly doesn’t account for the sudden revival of corsets, puffy sleeves, and jewel-adorned garments that marked the height of fashion some 500 years ago in the Renaissance era. Rather, there seems to be a haunting of the past, or a nostalgia for a future that never happened, better described as hauntology. How can one reminisce on something yet to have happened, you may ask? Through the past.
The Space Age and Y2K fashion that persisted throughout the second half of the 20th century offered optimistic visions for a future characterized by democratization, scientific advancements, and liberation through the internet and consumption, as showcased in the utilitarian aesthetic of Miu Miu’s SS96 (pictured above) and the futuristic-metallic dress Rabanne popularized. Quickly upon entering into this new millennium, it was apparent that the 21st century would fall short of these utopian ideals. Right out of the gate, this new age was met with tragedy with the catastrophic events of 9/11, followed by the second Gulf war, the 2008 market crash and consequent recession, Brexit, Trump, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. On paper, the Internet Age proved promising with its bountiful opportunities for individual freedom, democratic participation, and gateways into a global economy. What we failed to account for was the sequential monitoring and marketing that would funnel profits towards a small class, enriching already-loaded companies such as Facebook and Google, while merely heightening the surveillance of the masses. The screen provides a refuge from the demands of the real world; however, it brings with it a hollowed-out community, disconnected by the incorporeal nature of technology. Not to mention the abundance of misinformation and unrealistic expectations that surges of social media content have presented us with, resulting in the rise of a multitude of mental health disorders. Although existing as a space to share content and mobilize transnationally, the internet and subsequent rises in consumption have merely pushed inequalities to the periphery, where the Global North does not have to contend with them. Out of sight, out of mind. All of these failures have made us nostalgic for a more blissful ignorance that characterized the pre-millenium era, hence the sudden revival of Y2K fashion, despite its optimism diverging from the realities of the present moment.
Y2K-realness, space-age chic, and renaissance escapism are three seemingly disparate revivals that tell us a surprising amount about how we are all feeling in the aftermath of 2020 and anticipation for 2021. Everyone is all too familiar with the recent resurgence of Y2K trends: baguette bags, patchwork denim, baby tees, low-rise jeans (why, oh why), the tinier-the-better sunglasses, sweatsuits, mesh tops — the list can go on and on. Most recently, maximalist-eclectic style rings have been the rage, paying homage to the bright and chunky styles of Y2K. Bella Hadid has even gotten behind this trend in her recent instagram post, where she’s seen sporting the hot-pink Le Manso Bouganvillea ring. These fashion comebacks have made their way to the SS21 runway as well, as demonstrated by low-rise pants galore showcased from Fendi to Versace, Miu Miu and Balenciaga tracksuits, and patchwork denim featured by Dolce & Gabbana. Reminiscent of the utilitarian style showcased in Miu Miu’s 1996 Spring/Summer show, the SS21 runway saw a surge of utilitarian-inspired pieces as well, such as the Hermès look 28.
1960’s fashion revival in 2020, on the other hand, ranged from go-go boots, crocheted pieces, colorful mod aesthetics, mules, the miniskirt (paired with knee-high boots of course), monochrome looks, clashing prints, and (my personal favorite) flares. Taken to the runway, the color silver reigned supreme over SS21 collections, referencing futuristic fashion trends that prevailed during the space-age. The Paco Rabanne collection, as well as Burberry, paid tribute to Rabanne’s 1960’s chainmail dresses with contemporary renditions (depicted below). The mere provocation of these Y2K and 1960’s fashion-era phenomenons is an invocation of the musings of the future that prevailed during those eras. During a year marked by one of the largest failures of the 21st century, it is not coincidence that we are yearning for two eras in fashion distinguished by an optimism for a utopic future.
This fashion resurrection of the Renaissance derails from the retro-futurism of the former two trends and rather points to the need for escapism during the realities of the present moment. 2020 could very well be named the year of the corset, or at least the first year of the corset in the past few centuries. The amount of people who have taken to the trend of making their own corsets during quarantine (myself included) is enough to prove that we all wish to be reminiscent of an idyllic past. And it’s not just a byproduct of the Bridgerton craze, or even idolization of the corset-trendsetters themselves–Bella Hadid and FKA Twigs, who both iconically rocked the corset from Vivienne Westwood’s AW90 “Portrait” collection. Regal padded headbands were the focal accessory of Prada’s SS19 collection and have since been a running trend throughout 2020. Other Renaissance-era trends have also had their moment in 2020, including balloon-sleeves and square necklines. The runway has too seen the influence of the Renaissance, as the eccentricity of the past has made its way to 2020 and 2021 designer collections. Simone Roche’s SS20 reflected Prada SS19’s revival of the headband, while also providing us with pearl-encrusted-jewels-galore and Renaissance-era prints; meanwhile, Brock made us long for square-necklines and embroidered silhouettes. Balloon-sleeves in particular were a running theme on the SS21 runway, as both Loewe and Patou provided us with an abundance of billowing fabric. Whereas the nostalgia for the 1960s and 2000s is demarcated by the remembered comfort of a future that never came to be, this yearning for Renaissance fashion is delineated by escapism. This almost fairytale, fantastical past offers a momentary reprieve from the reality of the present. Through adorning ourselves in corsets, jewels, billowing sleeves, and the like, we can imagine ourselves existing in a past not yet tainted by the realities of the future.
As we all live through these failures of globalization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems natural that we may yearn for a time in which ignorance about the future reigned free over fashion. Fashion offers us an escape into a utopia that once prevailed in the public imagination, but ceased to exist as that future failed to live up to its potential. This “haunting” of the past may very well be a good thing for those of us that would rather live in ignorant bliss than grapple with the realities that 2020 (and now potentially 2021) have shown us. But, I would caution against this stagnation in our imagination. Just as the 1960s and Y2K era offered us renditions of the future characterized by optimism and endless potential, the realm of fashion in the new millennium is not out of ideas! We can continue to envision fashion potentials that set forth new futures, not blemished by the failures of the past.