Millennials are terrified of the return of low-rise jeans and Y2K fashion. But what if they looked different this time around?
Some time ago (as in, before pants made out of denim ceased to be part of our day-to-day wardrobes) I made a bet with a friend who said that she’d never wear low-rise jeans again. There were whispers going around that the most maligned item of mid-aughts clothing was starting to pop up on Bella Hadid, fashion show runways, and cool young people in places like downtown Manhattan — basically the trifecta of “things that are going to become a Thing.”
Anyway, I set a reminder on my phone that by the year 2025, she’d be wearing low-rise pants again without ever really intending to. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of this look — I endured middle and high school in the 2000s and share the requisite fashion-related traumas. It’s because that’s how fashion trends operate: A new look starts bubbling up and, at first, it’s met with disdain and fear and seen as something only meant for the young and professionally beautiful. Gradually, though, it becomes so ubiquitous and watered down that even people who don’t give all that much thought to what they put on their bodies are buying it at the store (cerulean sweater monologue from The Devil Wears Prada, etc., etc.).
No one, obviously, should wear any item of clothing they hate just because other people consider it cool. Arguably the most fashionable thing you can do as a person is find a style that fits your own body and life and stick to it, and if you live long enough, you’ll find yourself on-trend several different times. Or, just wear what you want because nobody actually cares.
But this is an undeniable fact: Low-rise jeans are cool again. And women are freaking the fuck out.
People tend to forget how much they used to hate the things they love. It was, after all, a mere 12 years ago that the media pilloried pop star Jessica Simpson for daring to put high-waisted pants on her size-four body, back when anything but the lowest-low-rise was seen as looking matronly and outdated, as though you were trying to “hide something.” But Simpson was simply ahead of her time: As the 2010s unfolded, the decade brought along a demure minimalism and a resistance to the joyfully sleazy era of exposed hipbones in Juicy Couture tracksuits. For a handful of years, it felt as though the coolest thing you could wear was a giant beige sack.
Enter: high-rise jeans, which come with their very own girdle in the form of thick, stretchy denim pressed against our stomachs, and land at or above the natural waist. The 2010s were a magical time for those of us who relish the feeling of being sucked and squeezed into our clothing, and although not always objectively comfortable, per se, they offered their own sort of comfort to people who might have previously been pants-resistant. “Low-rise pants are walking billboards for extreme thinness and androgynous frames,” wrote Rachel Syme in an ode to high-waisted pants in the New Yorker in 2019, “but high-rise styles can conform to bodies of all shapes and sizes. They not only highlight hips and butts — they demand them.”
The mainstreaming of the high waist has been a balm for many women who never wish to go back to a time when one was constantly at risk for exposing their ass crack. There are innumerable posts on Instagram and TikTok devoted to showcasing the superiority of high-waisted bottoms, which often hold in the stomach and accentuate the smallest part of the body, with side-by-side images — one with an hourglass-like figure inside a pair of high-rise leggings, another that invoked the most insidious term from the year 2003, the “muffin top.”
Cultural discourse around female bodies has always been inseparable from clothing, and when we talk about low-rise jeans, it’s obvious that we’re talking about more than pants. It’s now a popular TikTok trend to note how in the 2000s, “women’s bodies were the fashion, not the clothes” (to the extent that this is all that different today is worth questioning, but at the very least it is now considered crass to publicly ridicule a woman’s body when she dares to leave her home). Recall any red carpet image from the 1990s to the late aughts, when jeans were at their lowest and crop tops were really more like bralettes, items for which a flat stomach has often been an unspoken requirement. Those who failed to fit the ideal body type — which Simpson, along with almost every tabloid staple, did at one point or another — were punished.
We have social media and the relative democratization of cultural influence to thank for spreading the idea that perhaps it was a bad thing for women and girls to despise their bodies 99 percent of the time. Via the internet, groups of curvy and fat women could connect, share their stories, trade styling tips, and start the seedlings of what’s since become the huge swath of social media devoted to “body positivity.” It’s also social media that helped us view celebrities more like our own friends rather than out-of-touch elitists, meaning that the snarky tabloid talk scrutinizing famous womens’ bodies was no longer acceptable to fans who’d started to see them as human.
So it isn’t entirely mysterious as to why women, especially those who are now in their 20s and 30s, have long been terrified that low-rise jeans and the culture surrounding them could once again become our reality. “If you were anything above a size 2, you were fat. Millennial women learned that through their most formative years, when they were children and teenagers … they see this trend come back and it’s a trigger,” explains one TikToker in a video with more than 350,000 “Likes.”
In an article about fatphobia and Y2K fashion, reporter Kelsey Weekman explains that “Not only are those trends hard to access for people above a size 2, but when anyone else tries them on for size, they’re often seen as lazy and disheveled.” In her memoir, fashion writer and editor Gabrielle Korn connected the hypersexualized fashion trends of the 2000s to her experience of gender, sexuality, eating disorders, and sexual assault. The looming possibility of low-rise jeans being cool again has taken on an almost apocalyptic aura in the wider culture, as though nothing could be more catastrophic. “Generations before us, women fought for the right to wear pants,” she writes. “Now we need to make sure those pants don’t make us want to starve, don’t punish us for eating a nice big lunch, and can be worn by all of us.”
Here is the problem: It’s already too late. Three years ago, in the lethargic week between Christmas and New Year’s, the fashion journalist Sarah Spellings made a prediction. She’d spoken to professional trend forecasters, to designers at mainstream brands like Levi’s and smaller luxury labels like Linder, and determined that in the year 2020, low-rise jeans would start to come back in a big way. “The Countdown to Low-Rise Jeans Has Begun,” declared the Cut’s ominous headline.
“Everyone hated it,” Spellings tells me now. (Sample tweet: “OVER MY DEAD BODY.”) But in the years since her prediction, the writing on the wall has only gotten clearer. The hottest genre of clothing on Depop, the online secondhand shopping app that’s popular with teens, is vintage Y2K in the form of satin bustiers, low-rise cargo pants, tiny baguette bags, halter tops, and baby tees. Brands like Tom Ford, Dion Lee, Fenty Puma, Kith, and I.Am.Gia have played around with ironic 2000s throwbacks to great fanfare. TikTok accounts showing off their thrifted Y2K outfits have gained hundreds of thousands of followers, inspiring tons of viewers to experiment with their own looks at home.
neutral fits <3 @lilyxbilly #outfit #fyp #clothing #fitcheck
Low-rise jeans have become a particular sticking point for the mostly imaginary battle between millennials and zoomers on TikTok, where millennials plead for teenagers to stop buying low-rise jeans as if they could somehow stop these jeans from becoming cool again. This feud is not to be confused with the one in which millennials make cringey videos about teenagers coming to take away their right to wear skinny jeans (they are not).
Yet ironically, the discourse around skinny jeans was much the same as the one currently happening about low-rise pants. Spellings recalls reading fashion magazines in the mid-aughts that claimed skinny jeans “don’t look good on anyone” and “should be avoided at all costs,” only a few years before they became the de facto denim silhouette. And who could forget the decade-long moral panic over whether leggings were suitable to cover a woman’s butt, a debate that now seems even more laughable in a year in which people almost exclusively wore athleisure.
As someone who doesn’t plan to wear low-rise jeans in the future, Spellings has the more tempered perspective of an industry professional. “People always want change in fashion,” she explains. “If anything, the vitriol against low-rise jeans has made them more appealing to young people and pushed them further into the limelight. When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to wear what my mom was wearing. It’s human nature to want to push back and try new things and be a little provocative.”
The return of Y2K fashion likely does have a bit to do with generational difference — if you were too young to remember the 2000s, it’s a much easier decade to romanticize — but it isn’t as though every single person born after 1996 is suddenly thrilled about low-rise jeans. Nicole Nuñez, a 22-year-old student at Manhattan College who made a TikTok explaining the vitriol against the style, says that instead, the line is more related to body shape. “It’s interesting to see that most of my friends that are fully embracing it are thinner friends, and then my curvier friends are the ones that are very against it. I think this is a trend that I will let come and go,” she laughs.
I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my own life. Now that I’m approaching 30, almost none of my friends are interested in revisiting the trends of our middle school days because, well, we already lived through that once, but also because we’re bigger and curvier than we were then, and we still remember the importance that Y2K style placed on thinness. When I scroll through the #lowrisejeans hashtag on TikTok, it’s almost exclusively teenagers who are very thin, accentuating not only their pants but the flatness of their stomachs with tiny crop tops.
I’m putting an end to the madness! #WeStan #highwaistedjeans #lowrisejeans #bodypositivity #bopo #thicktok #sorrynotsorry #plussizeedition #plussize
Some of them, however, arrive with welcome messages. Siena Filippi, a 22-year-old who upcycles vintage clothing in the Boston suburbs, has pioneered a series on how to style so-called “scary” fashion trends for spring and summer. Low-rise denim, of course, was the most dreaded example.
In one video, Filippi explains that wearing low-rise jeans doesn’t automatically mean exposing your whole stomach. “The key is to wear something long enough that it meets the low waistline. It’s honestly all about creating a uniform figure and not chopping your stomach at weird parts,” she says. (In her opinion, the most terrifying summer trend is not low-rise jeans but Bermuda shorts).
“People are a little nervous, which is understandable,” she says. “I don’t even know if I love them. But I like experimenting and creating outfits that wouldn’t necessarily work with high-waisted jeans, so that element is very fun.” She says she’s noticed her friends and fellow TikTokers playing around with the contents of their closets during quarantine, and showing them off on social media.
Fashion industry folks predict that once more Americans are vaccinated and summer weather arrives in more places, there’ll be a renaissance for the clothes we wished we could have worn over the past year. “I feel like there’ll be this Roaring ’20s effect if we have a somewhat sane, normal summer,” says Kari Fry, founder of the LA-based small-batch label Subsurface. You can see it in the biggest trends for spring and summer, she says: psychedelic prints, fun pants, and slinky cut-outs.
Subsurface makes its own nod to the low-rise Y2K days in the form of the Hostess Pant, which cheekily references the “whale tail” phenomenon of the late ’90s and early aughts. Fry was inspired by Gillian Anderson’s iconic look at the 2001 Vanity Fair Oscars party, but notes that her version is still high-rise in the front, creating a hybrid of modern and vintage This, ultimately, is why Fry too expects that the 2020s version of low-rise isn’t going to be as terrifying as the first time around.
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“I think about how it used to be when super-low-rise was trendy — there was so much acid wash! Now you can get really nice trousers or other cool low-rise pants. There’s a wider variety of options.”
“Every time a decade reinterprets another decade, it takes on its own flavor,” adds Spellings. “You look at the ’80s being inspired by the ’50s, and you can tell the difference between an 80s-doing-the-50s piece of clothing and a 50s-50s piece of clothing.”
The 2020s version of Y2K, then, could incorporate what women have enjoyed about the past decade — a wider acceptance of different body types, greater availability of plus-size clothing, more fat representation and activism — along with the undeniably fun maximalism of the 2000s. And of course, a heavy dose of irony. The 2020s is already becoming the decade of the reimagined self-aware, politically active bimbo. Might as well have the jeans to go along with it.
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