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The Y2K aesthetic is back, along with the existential dread of the time

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Editor’s note: The past year has been filled with uncertainty about politics, the economy and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of major changes, people found themselves yearning for a different time. CNN series “The Past Is Now” examines how nostalgia has manifested itself in our culture in 2022 – for better or for worse.



CNN

Twenty-two years ago, humanity was teetering on the cusp of a new era. Our love affair with technology still felt fascinating and new, the internet a vast frontier full of danger and promise. Yes, we knew there could be problems down the road, but the fallout from climate change and geopolitical friction were issues for another day. Another millennium, even. As we look back to the year 2000 – that monumental Y2K – we have seen both apocalypse and rebirth.

And all the cool teenagers wore weird pants.

How strange everything seems now. Just in time, the foolproof 20-year trend cycle brought it all back: space-age silver silhouettes. Our passionate but cautious look at technology. Fragile optimism. Existential fear. All around us, a note of apocalypse in the air, heightening the feeling that we are once again on the outer edge of our existence.

And the cool teens are wearing those weird pants again.

Indeed, the Y2K style resurgence has permeated more than just runways and Instagram feeds. We see shadows of it everywhere, right down to the petty anxieties that keep us up at night. Maybe there’s comfort in knowing that we’ve felt this way before, and if we survive all of this, we’ll feel this way again.

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The irony of examining Y2K’s current inspiration is that, like all trends, late ’90s and early ’00s style was an evolution of the eras before them.

“The Y2K zeitgeist brought a lot of ideas from the space-age aesthetics of the 1960s and the ultramodernism of the 1970s,” says Evan Collins, founder of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute. CARI documents the history of design across disciplines and subcultures since the 1970s.

The 1960s were marked by the fascination with space travel and the lingering effects of the Atomic Age. Design from this period reflects these fascinations, in blobby boomerang-like shapes, space themes and the futuristic curves of Googie architecture. Disney World’s Tomorrowland, for example, is a caricature of this kind of style and the wide-eyed 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, with its juicy, translucent colors and a bulbous profile, was the height of technology and style.

“Due to advances in material technology, you can see an evolution of these shapes and the desire to evolve them,” he says. “In the Y2K era everything was plastic, shiny. Those bubble shapes that people saw as futuristic in previous years became inflatable plastic furniture. The lure of futuristic materials has resulted in a lot of silvery translucency and transparent elements, and it’s interesting to see how this can extend across different design fields.”

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

The January 18, 1999 cover of Time magazine.

Behind the bright, tech-connected fervor, though, there was something darker than fascination at play.

“So here you have the end of the millennium, there is anticipation. There’s this weird desire to categorize what we’ve accomplished in the last 2,000 years, in a very Western-centric, America-centric way,” says Collins. “You are in the midst of a dot-com boom, technology is advancing rapidly, but along with that there is a sense of unease.”

In the years leading up to the year 2000, fears began to grow that the date change would cause computers to malfunction, potentially leading to a catastrophic halt to life as we knew it – a life that has become increasingly dependent on these technologies.

The threat of the so-called Y2K bug was so pervasive that the Clinton administration created a task force in 1998 to find ways to protect computer infrastructure from any Y2K-related failure. Various subcultures and religious sects viewed 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 happen, but it was still a great 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, published in January 1999.

Models at New York Fashion Week 2022 showed off looks that were decidedly Y2K-flavored, from the hair to the shiny leather duds.

We may have avoided a Y2K apocalypse, but the world’s record since 2000 hasn’t exactly been perfect. This once bright frontier of the internet, we now know, can cause unprecedented chaos and division. The 9/11 attacks threw the world off the rails. Riots, unrest, and economic calculations broke out like smallpox all over the world. So, a pandemic.

“After Y2K, there was a kind of hangover,” says Froyo Tam, a researcher at CARI. “After an era of futurism, things got more regressive and hedonistic. Nihilist, even. It was an age of McBling and McMansions and consumerism driven by the notion that we would have endless prosperity. That ended the great recession in 2008 and we were left with the wind a little bit.”

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

“We still see a difficult relationship with technology,” says Tam. “Mainly advances in artificial intelligence and technologies that change our daily lives. This is the kind of future we envisioned decades ago. And now that it’s here, it causes the same discomfort that previous technologies did back then.”

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

“Ironically, many of the forces that are negatively impacting us now were there in the 1990s,” says Collins. “But at the time there was an idea that technology could survive all of our problems, that it could advance climate change measures and help solve political issues.”

Silvery, techno-inspired looks are back, like this outfit from designer LaQuan Smith.

Two decades later, the millennial tide of techno-optimism has significantly receded. Scientists are less hopeful that we can somehow invent a way out of the consequences of climate change. Meanwhile, a 2021 report by Deloitte found that climate change was 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 it feels more like a chore than an escape. Nearly half of the Gen Z population say social media makes them anxious, sad or depressed, according to a 2019 study, and more than half say they actively seek “relief” from its influence.

When people looked to the future at the turn of the new millennium, they saw a spectrum of possibilities. While the world may not have ended as some feared, subsequent generations are discovering that they may not have inherited the brave tomorrow others promised. Today’s Gen Z culture is marked by a pervasive nihilism that ironically embraces today’s uncertainties. Even the spending habits of younger generations reveal their dwindling hope for the future: a 2022 Fidelity survey, conducted after the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, found that 45% of 18- to 35-year-olds “don’t see the point in saving until things get back to normal.”

All of this creates a familiar backdrop for the resurgence of colorful sunglasses and children’s T-shirts, low-rise jeans and parachute pants. Current looks scream “party” but the vibe still whispers “concern”. And it doesn’t get more Y2K than that.

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