Unchained Melody: Beware the Miu Miu skirt

By Melody Thomas

Melody’s other column, Wāhine, is a regular feature in print. Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Melody Thomas brings us her new monthly column, available exclusively on the Capital website.

To read her last column, Accomplices not allies, go here.

With fashion’s habit of repeating its trends every 20 years, the arrival of halter tops and barely-there micro skirts on overseas runways should be no surprise. Melody Thomas asks if it’s possible to bring back Y2K fashion without the toxic culture of the era.

Last year, I dragged my millennial ass to a quarry party. It’s a cool gig, barely advertised, where people gather in a disused quarry on Mount Victoria to picnic, pat dogs and dance til sundown. While 20-somethings constituted the main audience, there were children, parents and grandparents there, too. It was a cute and wholesome affair.

And the wholesome vibe was reinforced by what most of the Gen Z crowd were wearing, especially the girls and femmes: simple slacks and high-waisted jeans, knitted vests, oversized shirts, sneakers and bucket hats. They all looked so comfortable.

For a split second I wondered to myself what they were up to: Why would you wilfully squander your hottest years by dressing like your grandparents? But I’ve learned to wait a beat after reactive first thoughts – which are often the result of damaging and deeply entrenched conditioning – to see what thought comes next. Which on this occasion was something like: ‘F**ing excellent… Gen Z at it again, showing the rest of us how it should be done’. 

I know everyone is fated to look back on their youth and cringe, but Y2K fashion was objectively terrible. This was the time of boob tubes, mini skirts and Ugg boots. Of scarves-worn-as-tops and fake-tanned abs over low-rise jeans. There were diamantes and statement belts, over-plucked eyebrows, and just so much baby pink.

But if the fashion was bad, the culture that served as its petri dish was worse. The 90s and early to mid-2000s were ruled by postfeminist mythology: it told us feminism had been achieved (woohoo!) and misogyny, sexism and the patriarchal control of women were things of the past. On our screens, characters like Ally McBeal and Carrie Bradshaw navigated child-free, career-focused worlds in mini skirts and Manolo Blahniks, free to be their driven, horny, messy selves, while out in the real world, the great feminist strides of the 80s and before appeared to be advancing further, with more women than ever stepping into top roles in politics, business and leadership.

But the more women assumed power, the more they were targeted by a toxic popular culture that seemed dead set on putting those who overreached back in their rightful places. The headlines that rang out from magazines throughout my teen years, and later from gossip blogs like TMZ and Perez Hilton, are horrifying when viewed through a 2020s lens: dealing primarily in humiliation, by first elevating young, mostly-white celebrity women to dizzying heights, before joyously revelling in their downfall.

There was the New York Post “BIMBO SUMMIT” front page, the repeated questioning of a teenaged Britney Spears about her breasts or her virginity, the paparazzi obsession with upskirt photographs, and the endless jokes about Paris Hilton’s sex tape (which was released without her consent when she was 19 years old), to name a small handful.

And no area was more ripe for shaming than the shape and size of women’s bodies.

Remember this was a time when body positivity didn’t exist yet.

The ideal body type was size zero. Any celebrity who was bigger was relentlessly bullied, their “bulging” bellies and cellulite zoomed in on or cruelly circled (though they were also shamed for being ‘too thin’ – like Nicole Richie, whose weight fluctuations were ruthlessly documented for years).

The closest thing we had to ‘plus size’ role models were Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet, Renee Zellwegger and Alicia Silverstone, though these objectively slim-to-average-bodied women were mocked rather than celebrated. It’s no wonder the sound of vomiting was the soundtrack of so many visits to my allgirls’ high school bathrooms.

This is why, when low rise jeans began to make a comeback, followed soon after by the miniest mini skirt ever created  (or the biggest belt, depending how you look at it), many millennial women found themselves triggered. Sure, there are some Y2K looks that deserve a second round, but is it possible to bring back the clothes – many of which, at the time, relied on uber-skinny bodies to pull them off – without bringing back the toxic body shaming that went with them?

This isn’t really about the Miu Miu skirt, or the many low-slung micros that have popped up in the wake of it. It’s not even about the stubborn failure of the fashion industry to commit meaningfully to centering diverse and fat bodies. Against all odds, as a girl who grew up short and chubby in the 90s/2000s, I adore fashion. Fashion is fun: a form of artistry and creative expression accessible to anyone who knows how to navigate an op-shop or the internet.

But I believe there’s more reason now than ever to protect the strides we’ve made against the policing, shaming, shrinking, and critiquing of women’s bodies.

These days, we have little patience for the obvious promotion of diet culture, so diet culture has gotten better at hiding in plain sight: disguised as fasting, paleo or ‘clean eating’, with their positioning as health-related choices making these fads extremely difficult to critique, even when the behaviours they encourage directly mirror those of disordered eating. I worry that we might end up back in a situation where size zero bodies are celebrated as the ideal, but where young people strive to achieve that ideal in secret, shamed into starving quietly, denying even to themselves that’s what they’re doing, because they know they’re “supposed” to love their bodies as they are.

By all means bring back the low-rise jeans, visible thongs and boob tubes. If you adore the tiny skirt and have the confidence to pull it off, then all the more power to you. But if we’re not seeing those things on all different types of bodies, that’s a sign the shame is being smuggled in with the clothes, in which case fuck the skirt! The vests and bucket hats are cooler, anyway.

Oh, and if Tik Tok’s viral thin-eyebrow filter has you even considering going in for the pluck, for God’s sake step away from the tweezers. There isn’t a single person who lived through that one and doesn’t regret it with every fibre of their being.

What I’m cooking

Chelsea Winter’s Creamy Dahl and Crunchy Roast Potatoes

My friend Ryan recently cooked this for us on an overnight trip to Matiu/Somes Island and I haven’t stopped making it since. In my experience dahl can be a little underwhelming, but this one is so moreish, and made substantial with the use of potatoes (which I cook in the curry, as opposed to roasting separately). Perfect winter comfort kai, with the added bonus of being very cheap to make. Serve with naan or roti, coriander, yoghurt and a splash of hot sauce.

What I’m watching

The Bear and Irma Vep

The Bear is a new series from FX featuring Shameless star Jeremy Allen White as Carmy, a fine-dining chef who returns to his Chicago roots to run his family’s sandwich shop. It’s stressful, chaotic, the characters are brilliant… and the food shots will make you very, very hungry.

I’m not sure if I loved Irma Vep simply because Alicia Vikander is hot and cool; because there are vampires; or because it’s a show about acting and art-making, which would be almost unbearably meta and snobbish if it weren’t set in France, and if (perhaps I already mentioned this?) Vikander weren’t so hot and cool. Either way my COVID brain lapped it up, and you might like it too.

PS The new season of Taskmaster NZ is excellent and just as unhinged / raunchy as the last.

What I’m reading

Every Body: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing

This book has sat on my bedside table waiting for me to be ready for it, and I finally picked it up this week. IT IS SO GOOD. Laing is a genius, the kind of mind that makes your mind feel sharper just by proximity to its ideas, while simultaneously plunging you to the depths of despair because you will never reach this level of insight and brilliance yourself. Described as an “ambitious investigation into the body and its discontents”, Every Body is the kind of book you want to own (preferably in hardcover), so you can return to it again and again over your life.


Sign up to our newsletter