Noughties Nostalgia and Growing Up


2001 was twenty years ago. I turned fifteen. I stomped around the schoolyard on three-inch platforms, the scent of Lynx Africa wafting behind me. I saw the world through precision-applied black-rimmed eyes, expressed my erratic teenage emotions through plucked-thin, arched eyebrows, and spoke through lacquered lips pouting out over a mouth crowded with braces. On top of my head, two strategic strands of blonde hair bordered either side of my face like bleached bookends.

In 2021, glints of grey replace my blonde streaks, my eyebrows have (mostly) grown back, and owing to the recent 2000s resurgence, I’m suddenly struck by how much time has elapsed since the start of the new millennium.

The cyclical nature of fashion serves as an effective marker for the passage of time, and 2001 is part of an era so far removed from the present, people stand ready (eager, even) to peer back. Witnessing the fashion of my youth untombed from wardrobes past and draped over the next generation resonated deeper than just a fashion revival—it felt like my cue to step out onto the stage of adulthood.

A rising eagerness to revisit the early-aughts is evidenced culturally by the popularity of recent documentaries such as The Defiant Ones and Framing Britney, and Gen-Z pop music videos paying homage to 2000s film and music (Ariana Grande’s thank u, next and Normani’s Motivation). 

On the fashion front, designers such as Versace, Chanel, and Dion Lee are sending modern reimaginings of noughties styles down their runways, hip-grazing waistlines included. Dior even created a swan dress reminiscent of the one Bjork wore to the Oscars in 2001! Meanwhile, on TikTok, teens busy themselves by proliferating (and renaming) sartorial trends from the new millennium’s first decade, with over 2 billion views for #2000sfashion and counting.

I appreciate why Gen-Z and Millennials are dipping their toes (back) into the early-aughts. Although tech began gaining momentum, the early 2000s characterised a simpler time—before the algorithm knew us better than we knew ourselves. Decision anxiety held less prevalence, burnout was not yet recognised by the World Health Organisation, and ‘hipsters’ were low-rise pants, not a parody-worthy contemporary subculture.

Australian television offered only five free-to-air channels. ABC’s Rage, Ten’s Video Hits and Triple J’s Hottest 100 were our unimpeachable resources for the latest music. Reality TV still felt ‘real’. The nascency of social media meant the photos we took, often (unpretentiously) on film cameras, were taken for posterity, not fuelled by ‘likes’. Twitter and Netflix were yet to unmask our heroes as creeps, and Donald Tr*mp’s fame really only extended to a cameo appearance on Home Alone 2. 

The current crop of teens and young adults demonstrate their longing for 2000’s simplicity by donning outfits resembling the garb we (Millennials) wore clubbing with our fake IDs—g-banger arching above low waistbands included!

It’s the first time someone, other than our own generation, showed an interest in the annals of our youth. This external exposure compelled me to compare who I am now to the person I was back then—the one gleefully shooting back squashed frogs and cock-sucking-cowboys in those clothes. I wasn’t that kid anymore. Then it hit me: I wasn’t a kid at all! Somewhere, somehow, within that twenty-year gap, I had grown up. 

Acknowledging my adulthood seems fitting, considering Millennials are now, technically, all adults aged between 25 and 40. So, why didn’t I realise this sooner? Probably because the definition of ‘grown-up’ isn’t as clear cut anymore. The adulthood trifecta—home-ownership, marriage, and kids—still sits beyond reach for countless Millennials.

My generation remains less likely to own property (almost a third of us still live with parents) but more likely to accumulate debt and change tack on our careers, often placing us back near the bottom rung in both position and pay. Due to employment insecurity, the same number of jobs feed our bloated résumés as a fifty-year-old. This data isn’t just a bunch of numbers to me; it accurately reflects my life.

It’s harder to recognise one’s adulthood when you cannot afford to do the ‘adult things’ commonplace amongst preceding generations. With a lack of typical life milestones, observing the fashion of my youth come full circle has acted as a marker of my adulthood. It became a rite of passage, like passing the baton of my youth (and also my cultural relevance?) onto the next generation.

This handover feels all the more significant because Gen-Z, the ones currently stepping behind the cultural wheel, constitute the first fully digital natives. My generation witnessed the death of the analogue era. Millennials experienced the calm before the digital storm, a brief reprieve during our formative years before we became lab rats thrust onto the wheel of expedited technology.

Millennials watched as the gaps between advancements closed in while the dial-up tone of the ‘original’ internet still rang in our ears. Consider, as one example, the multiple ways Millennials accessed music growing up. In less time than the full twenty-year reign of cassettes, we evolved from CDs (1991) to Napster (1999) to iTunes (2001) to Spotify (2006) to the iPhone (2007). 

These persistent, incremental changes throughout our youth offer copious artefacts to add to the BuzzFeed museum of sentimentality. Although the Millennial identity seems steeped in nostalgia, as the hundreds of thousands of followers on accounts like doyoulovethe2000s affirm, it’s not new. Every generation pines for ‘the good old days.’ However, in his article for Wired, Brian Raftery suggests that Millennials may be the last generation where nostalgia is a collective experience.

Raferty claims that the oversaturation of technology means Gen-Z and proceeding generations will encounter a much less united cultural front: 

“Our shared moments of cultural consciousness—the massive series finales, the unavoidable pop smashes, the summer-dominating blockbuster—are becoming rarer and rarer, with only a few truly galactic-sized phenoms left… Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in [the] same direction?”

While it’s heartening that people—minorities, in particular—enjoy a greater chance of finding their niche, the number of avenues currently open for exploration is exhausting. If people aren’t sure where they belong within the vast digital landscape (which now coexists with ‘real life’), loneliness can set in. And nostalgia thrives on the lonely. 

Recent studies indicate that nostalgia increases our social connectedness. It offers us a way to belong. Perhaps the reason this sentimental longing anchors so many Millennials, and why they struggle to loosen their grip on the past (and grow up), is an attempt to prevent the disbandment of our collective community? Nostalgia becomes a fixed address where everyone who stops by can relate.

Sometimes you have to question why people want to stop by at all. Revisiting the 2000s also reveals during that era, all that glittered was not gold. In the first decade of the new millennium, misogyny and transmisogyny were the status quo. Slut-shaming, the hypersexualisation of young girls, and unhealthy beauty standards were common struggles for anyone identifying as female. For women in the spotlight, the chokehold tabloids sustained over their narratives is horrific in review.

Mainstream media severely underrepresented Women of Colour (WOC), trans-women, and non-binary folk. In 2001, Big Brother boasted the second-highest ratings in Australia, with only one WOC in the entire cast. Throughout the noughties, the media filtered non-white culture through a white lens via cultural appropriation and white-washing. And it’s no laughing matter that trans-women’s identities were regularly reduced to bad punchlines and cheap tropes (you only have to revisit 50 First Dates, Dude Where’s My Car?, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin to get an idea). 

The 2020s emerged as a time of reckoning and atoning for the sins of the 2000s. The recent arrests and convictions of Weinstein, Epstein, and Ghislaine Maxwell for their crimes committed against women and girls, throughout the noughties, pay testament to this. In pop culture, Justin Timberlake apologised to Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, and the world apologised to Megan Fox. Contemporary television serves a multicultural buffet of stories. And when brilliant dramas by brilliant Black women, like I May Destroy You, don’t get nominated for a Golden Globe, people demand an explanation. Size and gender inclusivity within the fashion fold are building momentum, and white folk are beginning to credit Black women for countless nostalgic aughts trends that have recently made a comeback.

Nostalgia has always spurred the cyclical nature of fashion but, with the added value of hindsight, designers have the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. When sartorial trends return, they are reinterpreted for the modern world: transmuted through advanced techniques and technology. And that’s what stepping into adulthood feels like for me. I’m referencing and learning from my former self but reimagined for today. I still may not know exactly where I am in life—starting over in my career, no fixed address, no kids—but I now hold a much more full-bodied sense of who I am, and that feels pretty grown-up.