We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
In the early aughts, opulence was the look. Between 2000 and 2007, George W. Bush became president, America went to war in Iraq, the subprime mortgage crisis caused the greatest recession in decades, mobile phones went from luxuries to essentials, and boy, did we love to watch rich teens on TV.
Cribs, Rich Girls, My Super Sweet 16, and Laguna Beach all premiered. These shows shamelessly capitalized on America’s obsession with not just the lives of the rich and richer, but specifically with young people born into wealth. There is just something so simultaneously upsetting and gratifying about seeing a spoiled teen cry over receiving a Lexus on the wrong day. Similarly, The Simple Life, which turned Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie from socialites into reality stars, was entirely based on the idea that it’s funny to watch rich people attempt low-wage labor.
Mean Girls (and its “on Wednesday we wear pink” micro-mini aesthetic) was released in 2004. American teens bought into the idea of luxury both casual and flashy: Juicy Couture velour tracksuits, Tiffany & Co. heart-shaped pendants, and (frequently fake) designer logo bags were just a few of the ways style became less about personal expression and more about identifying with a brand or status beyond (or above) oneself. The most political sentiment this style expressed was “Viva La Juicy” via an expensive airbrushed graphic tee. Many popular trends (e.g., Von Dutch hats and bedazzled oversize belt buckles) were supposedly elevated versions of things lower-income people had been wearing for decades. A 2006 MSNBC article proclaimed, “In fashion lingo, white trash is the ghetto fabulous for spring” — whatever that means. Somewhere in the midst of all this, dresses worn over jeans on the red carpet really, really took off.
With the election of Donald Trump (which occurred in part due to Paris Hilton’s vote), there has been speculation that the same fashion climate will reemerge. Considering that the country has chosen a man who previously hosted a reality show and lived in a gilded penthouse with his model wife, yeah, that seems like more than enough reason to bring back a similar form of excess.
Hints of 2000s opulence have already been coming from a family who was (peripherally) there the first time: the Kardashians. They’ve firmly established themselves as a barometer of merchandise in fast-fashion stores — you can look at a picture of Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian (or at least, you know, until October you could) and, as if by magic, your local Forever 21 would have a comparable beige duster jacket, bodycon dress, and choker.
In 2016, the Kardashians embraced an early-2000s aesthetics, but they did it as a novelty. In a throwback reference to the era when she was a mere “friend of Paris Hilton,” Kim wore a hot pink Juicy tracksuit in her Wonderland magazine spread. On her 21st birthday, Kendall Jenner wore a version of the dress Paris Hilton wore at her 21st and deemed it “vintage.” Kylie Jenner referenced 2002 by recreating Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” video look for Halloween, which is uncharted territory as far as commonly recreated nostalgia costumes go. She also attempted to bring back Von Dutch, the brand that made a populist trucker hat into a luxury item for early-aughts “It” girls. Unlike most of Kylie’s aesthetic choices, Von Dutch trucker hats aren’t really a current, existing trend that she picked up on; the brand has yet to achieve a nostalgic revival in the vein of Juicy suits. Her choice of that accessory was in fact so random, it honestly made me wonder if the brand was sponsoring her. But Kylie didn’t make Von Dutch catch on with regular folks in any significant way — at least, not yet.
The Kardashians, as fashion influencers, have reacted to early-2000s style but haven’t updated it for the present. The celebrity who has most casually embraced early-aught references without making it feel like overt kitsch is Rihanna. As far as timing, this makes sense: Rihanna is 28 years old, so she came of age with these trends. She’s been seen wearing pink velour sweatsuits, ripped denim miniskirts, and stiletto sneakers, and she frequently carries tiny Louis Vuitton and Dior logo bags.
This influence has carried over to her design collaborations as well. Both of her collections with Manolo Blahnik this year were clearly inspired by early-2000s trends: The first consisted of stilettos and boots made of embellished denim that would’ve paired effortlessly with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s iconic matching 2001 AMAs ensembles, and the second featured boots that paid an obvious tribute to the Timberland Manolo Blahnik stilettos, best known as the shoes Jennifer Lopez wears in her 2002 video “Jenny from the Block.” In a world oversaturated with matte lips, Rihanna wears gloss. With her ability to rock certain trends and designers (even design students!) before other famous people, she is arguably the celebrity who most influences the way other celebrities dress, and the way celebrities dress is most likely to influence the styles of clothing available to us plebeians. Which is to say, if Rihanna keeps at the early-aughts references, we’re all likely to start wearing them, in some form, soon.
Like the pervasive ’90s influence of flannels and crop tops, it’s only a matter of time before the trends of the early ’00s come back to the surface. The ’90s fashion renaissance didn’t happen overnight, but it’s commonplace enough now to feel ubiquitous; then again, much of ’90s fashion was characterized by low-frills accessibility. Our last few years have been dominated by the concept of “luxurious basics”: expensive athleisure and non-logo luxury accessories that express wealth quietly rather than shouting about it. Ivanka and Melania Trump, you’ll notice, dress in relatively simple, elegant designer clothes that embody this contemporary trend. This even inspired the so-called “Ivanka Voter,” who knows Trump is a mess but feels justified in supporting him because of the foil of his daughter, who appears “poised” and “classy.” While Donald Trump is an excessive, tacky, ’80s-cartoon rich guy, the women in his life are more subdued and contemporary. This doesn’t stop them from, say, starring in a photo shoot where one literally eats diamonds for dinner or sending press releases after a political interviews on how to buy a $10K bracelet from the Ivanka Trump brand. But their looks are what we currently consider classy; it’s their actions that are consistently tacky.
Within the next four years, wealth disparity in this nation will only increase. Excess and abundance will look shameful upon those who have always possessed it but will appeal to those who want it. And that’s why this incarnation of aughts-inspired fashion has struggled to catch on: It’s not just about novelty hats and tracksuits, but about the values they represented. In the first half of the millennium’s first decade, the obviously wealthy thought it was funny to wear ostentatious versions of looks most commonly associated with lower income brackets. Today, the same demographic wants their wealth to appear anonymous.
We’re rushing ahead to dress up a completely different mentality in a familiar outfit. Soon we’ll know which will change — the way we think or the way we dress — but I’d rather see the urge to subvert both. I prefer Tumblr-esque riffs on brands and DIY fake logos, like those by artist Ava Nirui, and I hope to see those ideas take off in their place. References to early-2000s fashion are best made by those who have an excellent sense of irony and less of an interest in literality. As always, only Rihanna is good at this. The rest of us might not be quite as ready for a Y2K revival.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.