The Y2K aesthetic is back, along with the existential terror of the era

Editor’s note: The past year has been filled with uncertainty about politics, the economy, and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of great change, people found themselves longing for another era. The CNN series « The past is now » examines how nostalgia has manifested itself in our culture in 2022 – for better or for worse.


Twenty-two years ago, humanity was teetering on the fulcrum of a new era. Our love affair with technology always seemed glamorous and new, the Internet a vast frontier full of danger and promise. Yes, we knew there might be issues down the road, but the consequences of climate change and geopolitical friction were issues for another day. Another millennium, even. As we looked to the year 2000 – that monumental Y2K – we saw both apocalypse and rebirth.

And all the cool teens wore weird pants.

How quaint it all seems now. Just in time, the surefire 20-year trend cycle brought it all back: space-age silver silhouettes. Our adoring but wary eye for technology. Fragile optimism. Existential fear. All around us, a note of apocalypse is in the air, reinforcing the feeling that we are once again standing on the periphery of our existence.

And cool teens are wearing those weird pants again.

Indeed, the resurgence of the Y2K style has permeated more than tracks and Instagram feeds. We see shades of it everywhere, right down to the nagging anxieties that keep us awake at night. Perhaps it is comforting to know that we have felt this before and that if we survive all of this, we will feel this again.

The irony of examining current Y2K inspiration is that, like all trends, the style of the late 90s and early 2000s was an evolution of the eras before them.

« The zeitgeist of 2000 took on many ideas from ’60s space-age aesthetics and ’70s ultramodernism, » says Evan Collins, founder of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute. CARI has been documenting the history of design across multiple disciplines and subcultures since the 1970s.

The 1960s were marked by a fascination with space travel and the lingering effects of the atomic age. Design from this period reflects these fascinations, in the boomerang-like blobby shapes, spatial themes and futuristic curves of Googie architecture. Disney World’s Tomorrowland, for example, is a caricature of that kind of style and the garish optimism it often invoked.

There is a direct line, says Collins, between these forms and the popular aesthetic of the new millennium.

Apple's 1998 iMac, rendered in juicy translucent colors and sporting a bulbous profile, was the pinnacle of technology and style.

« Because of advancements in materials technology, you can see an evolution of these shapes and the desire to evolve them, » he says. “In the era of the year 2000, everything was plastic, shiny. Those blob shapes that people considered futuristic in previous years have become inflatable plastic furniture. The appeal of futuristic materials has resulted in a lot of silver translucency and transparent elements, and it’s interesting to see how this can extend to different design areas.

So while the materials were different and the look was different, the heart of much Y2K styling was the same as it had been in previous generations: a fascination with the future.

The January 18, 1999 cover of Time.

Beneath the shiny, technological fervor, however, there was something darker than fascination at play.

« So here you have the end of the millennium, there’s anticipation. There’s a strange desire to categorize what we’ve achieved over the past 2,000 years, in a very western, human-centric way. ‘America, » says Collins. « You’re in the midst of a dot-com boom, technology is advancing rapidly, but along with that there’s a sense of unease. »

In the years leading up to 2000, fears began to grow that the date change would cause computers to malfunction, potentially leading to a catastrophic shutdown of life as we knew it – a life that increasingly depended of these technologies.

The threat of the so-called Y2K bug was so widespread that the Clinton administration created a task force in 1998 to find ways to protect IT infrastructure from any Y2K-related failures. Various subcultures and religious sects saw the year 2000 as a monumental shift for humanity, and some even braced for a millennium-induced apocalypse.

In reality, not everyone believed such a cataclysm would occur, but it was still a major cultural conversation rooted in very real feelings of change. Entertainment and popular media have found ways to creatively present this hyperbole, such as the Time magazine cover above which was published in January 1999.

Models at New York Fashion Week 2022 showed off looks that were firmly rooted in the year 2000, from hair to shiny leather garments.

We may have avoided a year 2000 apocalypse, but the global record since 2000 isn’t exactly perfect. This once brilliant frontier of the internet, we now know, can cause unprecedented chaos and division. The attacks of September 11 turned the world upside down. Uprisings, unrest and economic reporting have erupted like marks of pock across the world. Then, a pandemic.

“After the year 2000, there was a bit of a hangover,” explains CARI researcher Froyo Tam. “After an era of futurism, things have become more regressive and hedonistic. Nihilist, even. It was an era of McBlings and McMansions and consumerism driven by the idea that we would have endless prosperity. It ended with the Great Recession of 2008 and we were kind of left behind.

Now that Y2K trends are reappearing, we’re all a little older and, we’d like to think, a little wiser. But the sentiments that have fueled these trends, which have continued in previous decades, seem eerily present.

“We always see a difficult relationship with technology,” says Tam. “Especially advances in artificial intelligence and technologies that are changing our daily routines. This is the kind of future we envisioned decades ago. And now that it’s here, it causes the same discomfort as previous technologies. »

Gen Z, the generation of people born from 1997 to 2012, is one of the main drivers of new trends coming out of the Y2K era. Most of them weren’t even born at the turn of the millennium, and this disconnect leads to a softened lens of nostalgia that only emulates the most appealing aspects of the era.

“Ironically, many of the forces that are negatively impacting us right now were already there in the 90s,” Collins says. « But back then, there was an idea that technology could survive all our problems, that it could advance action on climate change and help solve political problems. »

Tech-inspired silver looks are back, like this outfit from designer LaQuan Smith.

Two decades later, the millennial tide of techno-optimism has waned considerably. Scientists are less hopeful that we can somehow invent our way out of the consequences of climate change. Meanwhile, a 2021 report from Deloitte found climate change to be Gen Z’s top concern for the future. Technology that was new and exciting over the last millennium is now essential to our daily lives and, for many, feels like an obligation rather than an escape. According to a 2019 study, nearly half of the Gen Z population says social media makes them feel anxious, sad or depressed, and more than half say they actively seek « relief » from their influence.

When people looked to the future at the turn of the new millennium, they saw a range of possibilities. While the world may not have ended, as some feared, later generations are discovering that they may not have inherited the brave tomorrows that others had promised. Today’s Gen Z culture is marked by a pervasive nihilism that ironically embraces current uncertainties. Even the consumption habits of younger generations reveal their loss of hope for the future: a 2022 Fidelity survey, conducted after the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, found that 45% of 18-35 year olds “n ‘see no interest in it’. save until things get back to normal.

All of this creates a familiar backdrop for the resurgence of tinted sunglasses and baby T-shirts, low-rise jeans and parachute pants. The current seems to shout « party », but the atmosphere still whispers, « don’t worry ». And there’s nothing more Y2K than that.

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