Twenty Years On: Fashion at the Millennium
On the eve of the millennium, the change to the 2000s was seen to be more than
the turn of a calendar page or the ticking forward of a clock—the very idea of the “year
2000” became the receptacle of people’s hopes, dreams and fears. For centuries both
apocalyptic and Christian resurrection fantasies had been forecast for that date, while
since the 1950s science fiction films and books had foretold space age living by that time. As this highly anticipated date approached, fashion designers and manufacturers had to make sense of all these previous speculations, integrate them and then put forth their own ideas about how we would all dress in this new era. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a number of different responses—retro plunges into the past, sci-fi utility dressing, decadent party wear and faux-folkloric ensembles all strode down the catwalks in 1999 as designers individually sought to define future fashion.
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For the most part, designers appeared caught between the future and the past,
unable to develop a truly new type of design for the present but instead rehashing retro
themes or revisiting long-standing ideas of “space age design.” With the years around the millennium long a fount of inspiration for science fiction creators—just think of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) set in the year 2000, and the 1970s TV show Space 1999—and fashion designers (with the futuristic 1960s styles of André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne), there was a wealth of easy references for designers to revisit in the late 1990s. This was about a vision of the future taken from the past, which infiltrated not just fashion but retail, furniture design and architecture—as Edwin Heathcote wrote for the Financial Times in 1999, “think lava lamps, inflatable chairs and bags, rocket-shaped lemon-squeezers, kidney-shaped tables with sputnik legs and blobby amoeboid furniture." Within fashion, this was most conspicuous in the near constant use of white—which was referred to continually in the press as the color of the future—as well as design gimmicks like high funnel necks that mimicked astronaut suits (by way of Courrèges). Nicolas Ghesquière sent out white jumpsuits at Balenciaga for Fall/Winter 1999, described by WWD as “futuristic goth.” Karl Lagerfeld had his team at Chanel design the first “truly modern handbag” ergonomically correct and futuristic, the “Millennium 2005” was sculpted to look like a woman's torso turned upside down. Lagerfeld told The Irish Times, “It's for a totally new age. I've never seen anything like it."
Sci-fi styles infiltrated all types of designers: Stephen Sprouse’s Fall/Winter 1999 included NASA-logo printed robes and t-shirts, while Helmut Lang presented a silver leather motorcycle suit. For Fall/Winter 1999, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy’s models strutted down the catwalk to the soundtrack from 2001: A Space Odyssey, clad in his signature sharp-shouldered trouser suits in lunar white, steel grey and silver leather with silver-grey foundation covering their faces. Glow-in-the-dark computer chip prints decorated everything from jackets to catsuits in the android-themed collection.
Techno sportswear—in the form of Velcro fastenings, man-made fibers, drawstrings and aerodynamic shapes—presented another take on millennial dressing. The newly launched Prada Sport as well as Jil Sander, Miu Miu and Hussein Chalayan showed a utilitarian, high-tech aesthetic that was ultra-expensive and also ill-suited for any form of sport, work or utility. These were utility clothes gone high-fashion and divorced from any real function.
Other designers simply looked to the past—perhaps finding a sense of peace in the uncertainty of the future by regurgitating retro styles, primarily from the 1970s. Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford at Gucci, Prada—all looked to that decade to provide fodder for their millennium collections. Jacobs’ calf-length skirts, cozy sweaters and glossy leather boots for Fall/Winter 1999 wouldn’t have looked out of place in Klute (1971), while for Ford it was about Cher (Spring/Summer 1999)—all navel-grazing straight hair, beaded and feathered distressed denim, and little beaded dresses. The Independent chose Ford’s modern update of the 1970s at Gucci as the defining look of the era: “More than any other designer, Tom Ford will go down in history as the man responsible for dressing the final years of the 20th century, just like Courrèges, say, dressed the Sixties, Saint Laurent the Seventies and Armani the Eighties. The knowingly super-slick, super- sexy, hard-edged glamour the Gucci label has come to signify is perfect end-of-millennium fodder, after all.” Less Mary Tyler Moore or Cher were Prada’s sludgy 70s hues and sheer tulle for Fall/Winter 1999—Miuccia’s mirrored embellishments were her own spin on hippie beadwork, which also found resonance in the Arts and Crafts motifs, rustic appliques and whimsical embroideries found in collections by Alexander McQueen, Emanuel Ungaro and Alberta Ferretti.
As many designers and brands struggled with what Y2K actually meant for fashion’s future, others simply saw dollar signs—December 31st, 1999, was to be the “party of the millennium” and therefore everyone needed to dress for the occasion. For every designer presenting a show of dour 70s garb or tundra white minimal overcoats were a dozen showcasing the most decadent and over-the-top designs of the decade. At the end of every century there has been a certain disquiet and obsession with the state of culture that is often reflected by the wealthy and educated’s desire to retreat completely into luxury. The 19th-century fin de siècle decadence reappeared in Vogue’s September 1999 issue with three editorials that focused solely on metallics, beading and other embellishments: “More is more. Decadent decoration—beads and rhinestones, ruching and lace—sets an extravagant mood, night and day.” At times this decadence was more a mood (sequins on a sleek sheath at Michael Kors’ Celine) while for others their collections became reverential historical romps. The Fall/Winter 1999-2000 collections by Dries Van Noten, Veronique Branquinho, Olivier Theyskens, and Boudicca all referenced styles from one hundred years before—Victoriana and the fin de siècle. Combining some of these diverse influences was John Galliano in his Autumn/Winter 1999 haute couture collection at Christian Dior, where he sent out a spellbinding mix that could best be described as science-fiction historical fantasia (inspired heavily by The Matrix and gentlemen hunters). He himself said, “A meteoric wind is blowing through this new generation Dior collection in the direction of a matrix where the real and the virtual are perpetually present.”
The millennium was a bonanza for the fashion retail industry. As newspapers and TV specials warned of the imminent “millennium bug” that would wipe out computer systems at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, shoppers hurried to malls and department stores, eagerly snapping up Christmas gifts, tuxedos, evening gowns and jewelry for the special occasion from limited edition “millennium” collections. As the Los Angeles Times remarked, “as a once-in-a-lifetime event, the millennium is leading the trend to dress to excess” with such special pieces as Judith Leiber’s millennium-themed crystal-encrusted minaudières for $5,500. Vogue’s special millennium issue, for November 1999, broke down the proper evening look by city for Y2K—they recommended filmy white sequins by Chanel for the Egyptian desert and a ruffled chartreuse Gucci cocktail dress for Paris. The proliferation of evening gowns in the resort-holiday collections owed more to centuries and decades past, rather than “pointing the way to a new century”—the most contemporary was Michael Kors take on party wear with white satin jeans and beaded pale platinum tank top (a welcome modern respite amongst bustled taffeta evening gowns). On the opposite end of the spectrum were Dolce & Gabbana’s micro-mini beaded, hip-slung skirts (really little more than belts) paired with sheer and spangled tops that were shown for both f/w 1999 and S/S 2000. A flashy, ultra sexy disco frolic, their clothes were expressly for having a good time without a care for the future.
What is to be made from the endless white, the tight designer jeans, the beading, the feathers, the complete lack of focus? At the time Cathy Horyn described the millennium buildup as “Las Vegas rolled into Hollywood with a dash of NASA thrown in.” More than anything, it can be seen as a clear indicator of the direction the fashion industry has gone since then—an overwhelming diversity of ideas, none of the overall cohesion that marked fashion in the early and mid-20th century, a desire by designers to pander to everyone, an obsession with the past. When faced with a new millennium—a new era—fashion turned back in on itself, recycled, and produced nothing completely new. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the future of fashion could be found off the runway–in September 1999 Vogue presented the New York collections on the Internet for the first time ever, posting each look the day of the show.