The Sweet (Sartorial) Escape

Words by: Kiera Eardley
Art by: Ruth Boneh

We’re wearing baby tees and miniskirts, toting baguette bags and arranging butterfly clips in our hair. Space Jam is in theatres, Paris Hilton is on TV and Crocs are having a real moment. 

It must be 1998? Nope. 2005, surely? Think again. 

It’s 2021, and as things go in fashion: everything old is new again. The long-forgotten era is back in vogue, and we can’t get enough. Thanks to TikTok, the goal is to always look like Lizzie McGuire’s cartoon alter-ego: cropped tank, cute jeans, platform sandals. The bags are tiny, the boots are knee-high. Everyone’s obsessed with Princess Diana — we’re all searching for that perfect oversized jumper to wear with bike shorts à la her iconic post-divorce era, a reinvention of the Gucci bag worn by Di herself throughout the ’90s has just launched, and Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks boasts 106k followers who fawn over the late princess’ frankly flawless style. Meanwhile, @90sanxiety and @2000sanxiety combine for a following of nearly 2.4 million. If all this doesn’t illustrate the unyielding influence of the ’90s and ’00s on today’s fashion culture, nothing will. 

But this all begs the question: why are we so obsessed with a time that most of us Gen-Z’s and Millennials can’t even remember?  

Firstly, we’re bound to crave the sweet escape of nostalgia when our reality is so uncertain. “Nostalgia is denial of the painful present” says Michael Sheen in the film Midnight in Paris, and scholar Jacob Juhl agrees that “people become nostalgic in response to adversity”. In the same way that bingeing Seinfeld and listening to The Spice Girls carries a sense of security, there’s a reason that every cropped cardigan feels like a micro-dose of nostalgia getting us through the monotony of this new decade. The ’90s and ’00s represent an ostensibly simpler time, the last iteration of a pre-iPhone world where moments with friends were golden without the golden-hour Insta post. So this fixation with fashions of the past might actually be a veneer over a deeper yearning for connection beyond the realm of the digital. 

The Y2K revival is a game of sartorial escapism, evoking a nostalgia that has become our subsistence throughout the pandemic. In gravitating towards the fashions that were plastered across the magazines of our childhoods, we take a stand against the gloom of pandemic dysphoria and choose to feel joy in the clothes we wear. Reaching for a beaded choker, a white tee under a black spaghetti-strap slip dress, or a swipe of MAC Velvet Teddy invokes the divine power of Jennifer Aniston circa 1999 — and who amongst us wouldn’t kill to spend a day in our favourite coffee shop with our best Friends in the world? 

In the same vein, sartorial pastiche is a comforting form of self-improvement — and that’s the kind of productivity we need when we can hardly leave the house. In the ’00s, I was a pre-teen dweeb who thought that layered neon Supré tops and thin, non-functional scarfs were the height of fashion. In my defence, I was limited by my adolescent angst. I didn’t capitalise on the velour and the rhinestones! But now, in my early twenties, I can be an elevated version of my 2006 self: I can unironically dress like a Bratz doll, in knee-high boots and tiny beaded necklaces that look like the ones my five-year-old self made at kindergarten, and actually look good

More than anything, dressing up like Lady Di or Paris Hilton is FUN. Fashion is meant to be joyous. The clothes we curate and choose to carry on our bodies should make us happy; every time we glimpse an outfit in the mirror, we deserve to smile. And if right now, that means donning a Von Dutch trucker hat, ridiculously wide-legged jeans and a bandana as a top, then so be it. Reclaim that sartorial whimsy. But please, God, leave the low-waisted tracksuits in the past where they belong.

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