Gen Z’s Y2K Takeover

What is Y2K? Due to Gen Z’s interpretation of the aesthetic, the exact definition becomes unclear.


Gen Z’s resurgence of the Y2K aesthetic has led to the popularity of elements reminiscent of the era, such as Nokia cell phones. And while the Y2K aesthetic is certainly back, its return doesn’t come without a modern twist. (Photo Credit: Girl with red hat / Unsplash)

Generation Z — the generation born between 1997 to 2012 — has an obsession with faux nostalgia. We have seen (and heard) the fascination with the 1980s, as Netflix’s Stranger Things season 4 release had just about everyone humming Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” We have also witnessed the revival of many more visual styles, like the understated yet elegant old money aesthetic, hyper-feminine and crafty “cottagecore,” and iconic ‘90s-era’ fashion – all of which were popularized on social media platforms TikTok and Instagram. In recent years, Gen Z has set its retro-gazing sights on another era: Y2K.

The Y2K aesthetic is a retro-futuristic fashion trend that emerged during the late 1990s and the early aughts (memorably called the “noughties”). It is characterized by bold colors, shiny materials, and unique textures. Named after the infamous Year 2000 bug, the trend is a manifestation of the late ‘90s optimism toward imagined technological progress, such as gadgets and space travel. Y2K draws inspiration from the pop culture of the time by incorporating elements of cyberculture, rave culture, and sci-fi aesthetics, seen in media such as The Matrix Trilogy and TLC’s “No Scrubs” music video.

Staples of the aesthetic include leather ensembles, shiny tops, low-rise skirts and pants, and futuristic accessories, as well as double denim, graphic T-shirts, and the polarizing exposed thong style dubbed the “whale tail.” However, by 2005, the popularity of the fashion trend dwindled as other styles gained traction. But thanks to Gen Z, social media, and the ever-quickening 20-year nostalgia loop, Y2K is back.

According to Google’s Year in Search 2021, worldwide search interest for ‘Y2K theme party’ increased by 4,700%, and there have been 39,000 weekly searches for Y2K fashion and 3,000 weekly searches for Y2K makeup in recent years. The pandemic found thousands of Gen Z-ers combing their parents’ closets, scouring Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest for outfit inspiration, and sorting through Goodwill clothing racks to find perfect pieces resembling the era. The Gen Z-backed resurgence also seeped its way into celebrity culture, as thousands of people rallied across social media platforms under the #FreeBritney movement, which ultimately played a role in ending Britney Spears’ nearly fourteen-year conservatorship. Additionally, the Y2K renaissance led Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez to rekindle their romance and gave way to the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That. While Y2K is experiencing a multi-faceted revival, it is not without a few changes, of course.

As a generation that has grown up more self-aware due to social media usage, experiencing the effects of the pandemic firsthand, and coping with the foreboding reality of global warming, Gen Z is bombarded with stress. Consequently, the generation finds refuge in longing for a simpler time, even if it is an era they hardly remember living in. While scrolling through countless clips on TikTok hashtagged #Y2K and #nostalgia, you may also notice Gen Z giving Y2K a greatly-needed modern makeover.

Emulating an era and clinging to familiarity do not have to be mutually exclusive. Subsequently, Y2K has undergone modernized pruning: the generational cohort meticulously picks out the most glamorized parts of the fashion trend, such as low-rise jeans, butterfly clips, and denim skirts, while placing the elements that were unfortunately normalized, like the dangerous ultra-thin obsession and blatant misogyny, into the Burn Book. TikTok accounts such as @luvjessicablair and @laveganbaddie directly challenge the White-dominating, pro-ana content prominent during Y2K’s original run with inclusivity, a positive addition from the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet.


y2k inspired fits <3 pls appreciate the work i put into that intro 😭 #y2koutfits #y2k #2000sfashion #thrifting #destinationdepop

♬ Milkshake – Kelis


This is an account that exclusively promotes black women⭐️. Tag a queen who inspires you in the comments 💗👇🏾. #blueprint #2000sfashion #2000s #blackculture #y2k #baddie #fashioninspo #blacklove #bratz

♬ original sound – Flomilli

After all, it wouldn’t be a proper Gen Z takeover without rule breaking. You may notice that the new generation is blurring the definition of Y2K and the entire fashion trend timeline. Due to the aesthetic’s modern twist, Y2K-inspired ensembles borrow various elements of other fashion trends like the 1990s hip-hop and streetwear era, as well as 2010s alt and hipster styles. ’80s-era windbreakers are paired with baby tees, ’70s-popularized halter tops are placed on top of low-rise jeans, and slouchy emo tops are worn with denim mini skirts.

The most obvious difference, however? The misbranding of Y2K as McBling. Although the entry for Y2K on AestheticsWiki, an encyclopedia dedicated to documenting visual styles, comes with a “warning” (stylized in all caps and bold) that reads, “Not to be confused with the McBling aesthetic,” Gen Z has done just that.

Technically, McBling emerged later on the fashion trend timeline compared to Y2K, rising in popularity from 2003 to 2008. As the name suggests, this era is defined by an abundance of bling. Think Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and, according to AestheticsWiki’s McBling entry, Bling Bling Boy from Johnny Test.

Bright colors — usually pink — and bedazzled outerwear and accessories became the norm. The McBling aesthetic effectively mixed drama with ease with comfortable Juicy Couture tracksuits and graphic tees with sassy slogans. The fashion trend was a more dramatic take on its more relaxed older sister Y2K: the mini skirt became shorter, and phrases that adorned the back of sweatpants, like “juicy,” drew attention to the backside of the wearer. McBling was more bold, confident, and abundant in self-indulgence. Essentially, Y2K is Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did it Again” music video while McBling is Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s show The Simple Life.


finally ending the McBling vs Y2K debate 🤠 #fyp #mcbling #y2k #mcblingy2k

♬ We Are Not the Same Person – Danny Gonzalez & Drew Gooden

Although the Y2K and McBling aesthetics are worlds apart, Gen Z still uses the terms interchangeably. And because the generational cohort continues to transform Y2K into a hodgepodge of various fashion trends, questions about what defines Y2K style are starting to arise. Could Cher Horowitz’s outfits in Clueless be considered McBling? Or does it fall strictly into the 1990s fashion category? In reality, it could be a mix of both.

While ’90s fashion swapped the drama of the ’80s with minimalism, Cher Horowitz’s outfits still embraced a restrained maximalist appeal to them. The iconic yellow plaid suit outfit Cher wore on the first day of school clearly mirrors McBling. While Horowitz’s ensemble is more structured and formal than velour tracksuits, both scream for attention with bold colors and fabrics. And honestly, isn’t it easy to imagine Regina George writing insults into the Burn Book with Cher’s fluffy pink pen?

Regardless of whether or not Clueless is decisively McBling or ’90s, or if it falls into some 1990s-2000s fashion loophole, Gen Z couldn’t care less about the technicalities. With a myriad of fashion subgenres and microtrends getting their 15 minutes of fame on Tiktok and Instagram, trends we thought would never coexist, like pop punk, old money, drill, and Y2K, do coexist. Therefore, changes to fashion trends stemming from a variety of available influences are only natural. Aissata Diallo ’25 admires the Y2K aesthetic because “it is very versatile [and] allows anyone to add their own touch to it and personalize it.”

Gen Z’s “rule breaking” is actually the generation’s experimentation with fashion or a personalized touch of adding modernity to a trend it was barely alive to witness. The blurring of style expectations and fashion trend timelines simply become the consequences. And even though the misbranding of aesthetics admittedly confuses things, who are we to care?

As a generation full of youth already dealing with issues like grades, college, and careers, nobody has the right to dock off style points for failure to maintain the rules. Fashion constantly pushes boundaries and develops dynamically, and Gen Z’s influence has only benefitted Y2K’s resurgence. For all of the generation’s good efforts, let’s allow the youth to live in a distorted fashionista world where McBling and Y2K are the same, windbreakers can be worn on top of baby tees, and Juicy Couture tracksuits run the world.

Gen Z’s “rule breaking” is actually the generation’s experimentation with fashion or a personalized touch of adding modernity to a trend it was barely alive to witness. The blurring of style expectations and fashion trend timelines simply become the consequences.