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  • Lucy Faulkner

What Does The Government Have To Do With The Revival Of Y2K Fashion?

© Illustration by INJECTION - Mollie Sprigg

Social Justification Theory explains how governmental distrust influences fashion trends.

It’s commonly quipped that history repeats itself, and fashion is no exception. Fashion theorists and trend forecasters suggest that styles peak and fall in line with generations, skipping one and resurfacing every 20 years. While most are happy to agree that this “fashion cycle” explains the resurgence of trends we thought were dead and buried (and should often stay that way), few are aware that the driver may instead be rooted in social psychology.

Film cameras, vinyl records, low rise jeans, butterfly clips, Ugg boots, headscarves; if you are a Zillennial female in 2022, it’s likely you own or would like to own at least one of these items. Y2K fashion made a sudden return as we began to emerge from lockdowns, particularly amongst Gen Z’s and young millennials. “Y2K” is an abbreviation for “year 2000,” titling the love-it-or-hate-it trend inspired by fashion from the late ’90s and early ’00s. Think Destiny’s Child in their heyday or Regina George from Mean Girls for inspiration. Yet, having a fascination with such symbols - and calling them “nostalgic” - is peculiar, given most of this age group were still toddlers in the early noughties.

Well, psychology is able to explain this bizarre obsession with nostalgic features we’ve never actually experienced; Social Justification Theory (SJT), though not created with fashion in mind, can be aptly applied.

SJT suggests that humans inherently search for social stability, generally in governments, organisations, and influential figures that we are trained to believe are trustworthy. When these sources fail us, or our trust in them is threatened, so is our stability, and we have to look elsewhere to fix the imbalance.

One particularly effective source of stability is nostalgia. We want to connect to the elements of our history that are perceived as stable, unchanging, and representative of an era that was fun and safe in a time that is the opposite. As researchers have termed this, 'communal nostalgia' allows anyone to relate to these shared societal elements, whether you actually experienced them the first time around or not. And not only are we more likely to look for retro inspirations when we lack stability, but, according to SJT, instability makes us enjoy them even more than normal.

A clear example of this occurred in 2008 following the disastrous Wall Street crash; vinyl record sales across the US skyrocketed and continued to do so, to the point that sales in 2019 surpassed those of 1988. Interestingly, this was primarily driven by those under the age of 35 who were barely alive when vinyl was the “in” thing.

The original theorists of SJT cited “depressions, wars, and natural disasters” as relevant causes of communal nostalgia. I’m sure we can agree that two years of a pandemic wouldn’t be out of place on this list. Add in Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the current Tory Government; you have a strong mix of reasons to believe that our “trustworthy” sources are not so.

Though SJT does not act demographically, there may be a reason to believe that younger generations are more likely to engage in communal nostalgia than others. GenZ are some of the most affected and angered by the untrustworthiness of the government. For example, a worldwide study reveals that, mainly as a result of COVID-19, Gen Z are far less likely to have confidence in the honesty of elections and their national governments or approval in the performance of their political leaders than other generations - perceptions that will last a lifetime.

At the same time, it has been widely reported that GenZ are the generation suffering the most from stress and mental health issues; if anyone needs stability from supposed guiding sources, it’s them! It seems not to be a coincidence that as trust in the government decreases, nostalgic features tend to pop up. In an era of #FakeNews and a worldwide health crisis, wearing a velour tracksuit represents more than just paying homage to cultural references of the past.

So is it too far to say that fashion trends can act as proof that a fundamental societal change is required? Or could SJT even suggest that they can be a form of activism, and we wear nostalgic elements as a uniform of revolution?

Y2K fashion doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; looks from the spring/summer 2022 runways hark back to the early noughts, from Miu Miu’s infamous micro minis (that I still can’t stop thinking about) to Tom Ford’s cargo trousers à la 2003 Fergie. Whether this trend continues or slows in the coming seasons will be interesting to see; the demise (again) of Y2K would represent more than just a shift in aesthetic preferences, but a signal of societal progress.


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