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It’s giving Y2K: On the hunt for vintage dresses with prom-bound Bay Area teens

Three smiling women in elegant dresses pose individually against a white backdrop.
From left: Nia Slater, 14, of the Academy—San Francisco at McAteer; Marisa Rojas, 13, of Katherine Delmar Burke School; Karla Luna, 18, of Oakland High School. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

It may be prom season 2024, but the kids want to party like it’s 1999.

Y2K style is alive and well among San Francisco teenagers, who are scouring thrift and vintage stores for formal wear that hit its peak 25 years ago. Store clerks say that any dress that looks like it could have been worn by a young Julia Stiles or Gabrielle Union is literally flying off the shelves. 

A woman browses through racks of colorful dresses, holding a white garment.
Iyannah Noble Dean, 15, a student at Westmoor High School in Daly City, looks for a prom dress at the Princess Project's pop-up boutique in downtown San Francisco on Saturday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Forget frilly ballgowns with loads of ruffles or voluminous tulle skirts. From the Mission to the Haight, the racks of secondhand apparel shops are filled with sleek slip dresses that Carrie Bradshaw may have thrown on for a breezy jaunt around the Village, and body-hugging sequined gowns accented with crisscrossed corset straps and high slits that sometimes arrive in two pieces.     

“Everyone’s going more towards the ’90s ones,” said NyAshia Pressley, a 19-year-old retail associate at Blue Bin Vintage on Haight Street. “They’re kind of flying right now.” 

“We got this 10 Things I Hate About You dress,” said Claudia Perez, Blue Bin’s manager, of a dress that called to mind the one Stiles wore in the beloved 1999 teen rom-com adaption of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. “It sold the day we got it.”   

Rack of sparkly dresses with sequins in various colors, a glimpse of someone's arm at the right.
Sparkly dresses dangle from hangers on the last day of the Princess Project's 2024 prom dress giveaway. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A woman is assisting another in fitting a sequined dress, viewed in a mirror within a dressing room.
Jocelyn Fabello helps her daughter, Amieh Brooks, a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School, try on a Y2K-era prom dress at Blue Bin Vintage on Haight Street. | Source: Christina J. Campodonico/The Standard

As Zoomers’ interest in Y2K street fashion has boomed in recent years, so too has interest in the era’s formal wear. Instead of rolling their eyes at hand-me-down dresses unfurled from the closets of their female elders, teens are eagerly trying on their mom’s prom dresses on TikTok. Even when vintage stores can’t provide, a search for “90s prom dress” or “Y2K prom dress” on eBay, Etsy and Gen Z’s favorite virtual thrift shop, Depop, will yield thousands of results—even as the floral and frilly “brunch” or “Easter” prom dress is trending.   

On Saturday, hundreds of teenage girls rifled through the racks of the Princess Project in downtown San Francisco. The nonprofit pop-up boutique gives away thousands of overstock and lightly used secondhand prom dresses to teenagers regardless of socioeconomic status.

While teens came to the giveaway to score a 90’s era vintage dress and accessories—their millennial-aged chaperones were the ones experiencing deja vu.

“It’s definitely Y2K,” said 34-year-old Natasha Ferreira, gazing at a beaded and fitted evening-length black gown giving serious whimsigoth vibes that her 14-year-old daughter Nia Slater tried on for her school’s masquerade-themed dance. “It’s all coming back. I mean, she even asked me, you know, why didn’t I save some stuff from back then, so she could wear it?”    

A girl stands smiling in a flowing coral dress with her hand on her hip, wearing yellow sandals.
Princess Project volunteer Marisa Rojas, 13, of Katherine Delmar Burke School, models a shimmering coral Jessica McClintock ruffled gown at the annual prom dress giveaway. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A range of colorful formal dresses hanging on racks in a store.
Dresses of all colors and sizes hang on the racks of the Princess Project's pop-up boutique in downtown San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“They think that it’s their style,” said 43-year-old mom Love Noble Dean, whose daughter was seeking a dress with a pink tube top. “I’m like, ‘No, that was our style back then.’”

“I think it’s cool that it’s circling ’round,” added 40-year-old Catherine Ignacio, who took her 17-year-old daughter Mahliyah Ortez-Lucero and her friend Bella Hernadez dress shopping at the Princess Project on Saturday. “I just wish I had kept some of the stuff.”

‘It’s the oldest I’ve felt’

For others, like Katie Porter, who runs the vintage apparel pop-up Porter Vintage at 18th and Valencia streets, it’s a bit surreal—and, yes, somewhat embarrassing—to see the same looks she rocked at prom in the early 2000s back in vogue.     

A label on a red fabric reads "Jessica McClintock for Gunne Sax" with a hand partially covering it.
From the '70s to the early 2000s, dresses by San Francisco designer Jessica McClintock were popular for prom. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A red, strapless dress with white stripes and rhinestone accents, hanging on a rack against a white wall.
A sparkly red strapless dress hangs on a rack at the Princess Project's pop-up boutique. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“It’s more something that I cringe at now,” said the 38-year-old retailer. “It’s the oldest I’ve felt. … It’s been really funny to be that generation of being like, ‘Oh yeah, I know this is in style because I was wearing it in high school.’”

Nonetheless, Porter still stocks the Y2K gowns not only for their popularity but also to support local teens who want to stand out with a one-of-a-kind dress and sustainable fashion statement.   

​​“I feel like, this generation, they’re almost more confident in having their own unique styles than I was,” she said. “Secondhand has become acceptable to that age group. That wasn’t the case when I was that age, you know?”

Celia Clark, an 18-year-old senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School who leads the Balboa Park school’s Surfrider Club, specifically sought out a secondhand prom dress from Polk Street’s Moody Goose Vintage. She wanted to not only cut down on carbon emissions from buying fast fashion or shipping a dress across the country, but also to ensure that her prom dress would have a unique and timeless look.  

A smiling woman in a light blue dress and pink high heels, with her voluminous hair styled in an afro.
Enijah Johnson, 17, a student at Ida B. Wells High School, wears a baby blue slip dress reminiscent of dresses sported by Baby Spice of the popular 1990s girl band, the Spice Girls. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A smiling woman in a sparkling black dress holding a clutch, standing against a white wall.
Alejandra Itzep, 19, of Oakland International High School, wears a sparkly black spaghetti-strap dress. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“I haven’t bought a piece of new clothing in almost two years now, and so I wanted to keep up that streak,” Clark said. “I [also] wanted to be wearing something that I wouldn’t look back on as, like, a microtrend.”

But for teens, perhaps the most enduring appeal of thrifted fashion—Y2K or otherwise—still lies in the price. “They’re cheaper. They’re way cheaper,” said 15-year-old Gateway High School sophomore Noa Koné-Miller, who bought a sparkly, nude-colored, floor-length gown from Porter’s vintage apparel pop-up on Sunday.  

“This was the best 10 bucks I’ve ever spent.”