Fashion week is now headed to the metaverse—but for millennials in the early 2000s, The Palace was the first place to experiment with styling your own avatar

In the early 2000s, millennials were begging our parents for more computer time. We used gigantic desktop computers to chat with our friends on servers like AIM or MSN. Amidst all the dial-up drama or trying not to kill your Neopet were online forums that connected us to others and our interests: from NSYNC forums and Runescape communities to flash gaming sites like Newgrounds. To participate in the early days of internet culture, you needed to create an account—or at least, an avatar. Today, a digital avatar representing an online identity has evolved into something of a spectacle. Metaverse fashion—and associated fashion weeks—are becoming more and more popular, and clothing brands are looking to cash in. This evolution and blueprint of online identity began in this far-off mythical place called The Palace.

The Palace was an early-2000s visual chat server where you could customize digital paper dolls which represented users when chatting. In the chatrooms, online forums, and game websites, the name of this place kept popping up either word-of-mouth style or in online advertisements. To some, The Palace was the first place they could experiment with their online avatars using the site’s prop editor to drag and drop clothing onto their doll. This was the beginning of Dollz Mania, the next evolution of online avatars. Because you could customize your digital dolls in clothing, and users wanted to differentiate their online identity from one another, the need for more digital avatar wearables became more and more prevalent.

“It was like a social media page you carried with you before social media influence was a thing.”

Josephine van de Beld was one of The Palace’s early artists, and still has her own Dollz site up as a monument. “I discovered the Dollz community in 2001. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how I got introduced to it, but at that time I was very involved online on forums and LiveJournal, so I probably saw it in someone’s online signature.”

Now a tattoo artist in the Netherlands, Josephine recalls the early days of The Palace. “Many ‘Dollers’ discovered Dollz through The Palace,” she said. “From kids to grandparents. There were lots of doll makers around. If you were not artistically gifted, you could drag-and-drop your own avatar, choose from outfits, hairstyles, and accessories, and screenshot it. Besides the artsy aspect of Dollz, I feel they were, in the first place, meant as a representation of oneself, be it on The Palace or a forum signature.”

Soon, subgroups were formed within the Dollz community as digital artists like Josephine supplied other Dollers with custom Dollz clothing.

“Cliques were formed and it sometimes felt like high school, with bullying, jealousy, and bad mouthing behind people’s backs. Original ideas were important, so copying was a big offense! The term ‘frankendolling’ describes using someone’s doll, and copy-and-pasting other dolls to create your own—unacceptable! You can imagine, in such a group, that it wasn’t uncommon for people to point fingers at others for stealing ideas, or blatant copying,” said Josephine.

Across the Dollz community, The Palace became a place for “Twinkie” Dollz, or the mainstream faction with preppy clothing. Then, there were smaller sites hosted by independent artists.

Dollz were also influenced by pop culture moments at the time. “If there was a book release for Harry Potter, expect loads of Harry Potter-themed Dollz. Also, back then, the Gothic Lolita subculture from Japan was incredibly popular and a big influence in the community,” said Josephine.

Fashion Youtuber Rian Phin, who dressed up her Dollz in her elementary school computer lab, remembers how Dollz clothing would be a reflection of the time. “The moment any music video or fashion-based movie—Mean Girls, The Devil Wears Prada—came out, there would be a doll made for it. The moment any runway show would happen, the expert ‘Editors’ (people who did pixel art to customize unique props for the dolls) would make pixel versions of the pieces—Alexander McQueen, Dior, Louis Vuitton. These were major fashion enthusiasts,” she said.

“Our identities online become influential to who we are in the real world, how we present ourselves, and eventually our level of confidence.”

Rian also learned how to communicate about fashion and fashion as an online identity in a compelling way, translating to her social media skills today.

“On The Palace, you were expected to come up with a username, have a chatting style, have a pixel art name tag that you’ve designed or someone designed for you, and then fashion an identity through thousands of doll making props that you arrange carefully into a cool enough combination to be appealing,” she said. “It was like a social media page you carried with you before social media influence was a thing.”

Today, online identity is more prevalent than ever with the PFP NFT trend becoming widely popular as gaming platforms like Roblox get more and more users. 2D and 3D digital artists are highly sought after today to create more wearable content like hats, accessories, and hair for avatars.

“Our identities online become influential to who we are in the real world, how we present ourselves, and eventually, our level of confidence,” said Roblox UGC creator, EvilArtist. “I played a lot of those dress-up games on websites like GirlsGoGames for hours when I was younger, but none of them had a use case for your newly-made avatars. Once I saw all the ways you could dress up and play games with your avatar on Roblox, I became hooked on it. Being online has created a new realm of imagination for who you want to be. It’s wholesome to see that customization is bigger now than what it used to be, since it’s really what captivated me from the start.”