Fashion

'Girl Power' Group's Look Gave Voice To Individuality

With fashions more entertaining than their music, the Spice Girls, shown at the Cannes film festival in 1997, wore clothes that fit their distinct personalities, from sporty to posh.
With fashions more entertaining than their music, the Spice Girls, shown at the Cannes film festival in 1997, wore clothes that fit their distinct personalities, from sporty to posh. (By Remy De La Mauviniere -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

The last time the phrase "girl power" was chanted by a mob of pre-adolescent music fans was circa 2001, the year the Spice Girls announced they were breaking up. "Girl power" meant something back then. Not a lot. But something. It was predicated on giggles, best friends, sex appeal and, most important, cool clothes.

Now, in this era of "Girls Gone Wild" and "Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School," "girl power" is trying to make a comeback. Last week, the Spice Girls announced they were reuniting for a world tour scheduled to begin in December.

The Spice Girls, who released their first single, "Wannabe," in 1996, were created as a counterbalance to the popularity of boy bands. These were not five school friends who decided to get together and sing. A casting call went out in Great Britain and young women lined up for a chance to be famous. But still, their tunes were catchy. The singers were cute: Posh, Ginger, Scary, Sporty and Baby. They were like Bratz dolls brought to life: a bit tarty, but nothing for a parent to get too worked up about. They had a great shtick: girl power. BFF. KIT. They sold more than 55 million records.

Then, as with all music groups -- even those that sing about being friends forever -- there were quarrels and hurt feelings and longings for solo careers. The act broke up only to discover that stardom as solo artists was not forthcoming. Six years later, they are back together. Now in their 30s, they are women and mothers, not girls.

Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham is married to soccer star David Beckham. She has transformed from an attractive brunette into a platinum-haired fashion android with a waist whittled down to rival the measurements of her pre-pubescent fans from back in the day. She has launched a clothing line that bears her initials -- a design detail that threatens to be its most distinguishing feature.

Melanie "Scary Spice" Brown recently engaged in a public paternity spat with actor Eddie Murphy. She won: He is the baby's father and on record for being a cad.

Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton is pregnant with her first child. The father is her live-in boyfriend, according to People magazine.

The Spice Girls and their "girl power" message are the spawn of MTV feminism, of which there are arguably two strands. In the early 1980s, Cyndi Lauper sang "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and led a conga line of boho party girls as they got up to no good. And there was Madonna, the boy toy, writhing around, baring her midriff and singing "Everybody." They both mixed sexuality and rump-shaking into a statement of confidence and control. They both used fashion as a statement on feminine identity and a source of power.

The Spice Girls soared to fame on the Lauper model, giving girls a cool, slightly naughty band they could dream of being a part of rather than merely one to swoon over. "Girl power" wasn't a parent-approved movement. If so, then surely there would have been a "Smart Spice." But the Spice Girls were more palatable than the women who followed the Madonna philosophy, which advocated the power in a half-naked tush.

Consider the success of the Pussycat Dolls, who have embraced their inner stripper and the pleasures of slutdom. While the Spice Girls sang, "If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends / Make it last forever, friendship never ends," the Pussycat Dolls purred, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? / Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?"

Over the years, "girl power" has been overwhelmed by booty power. Former Mickey Mouse clubbers such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears have talked about embracing their sexuality -- i.e., taking off their clothes -- as a sign of their maturity as performers. (This was, of course, before Spears embarked on her many public debacles, all of which seemed to underscore her immaturity.)

"Girl power," with its flimsy pseudo-empowerment babble that sounds so persuasive to a 10-year-old, doesn't stand a chance in the more grown-up world of a 16-year-old. But if any bit of it is worth salvaging, it's the fashion element. It was no coincidence that the Spice Girls all had nicknames that related to their appearance. The fashion was certainly more interesting than the music. The group had a space for every archetype, from Melanie "Sporty Spice" Chisholm and her tomboy attire to Bunton, who had the girliest style of all.

Traditionally, girl groups and, for that matter, boy bands have a cohesive look. They are sexy or urban, bohemian or country. But they are one thing. (Unless, of course, they are the Village People.) The Spice Girls were not. They used fashion as a shorthand for identity. The power wasn't in a girl taking her clothes off, but in being brave enough to wear the clothes that expressed her personality.

For the group's many fans, who were at an age when fitting into one clique or another was of the utmost importance, the smartest thing the Spice Girls did was to represent as many of those schoolyard groups as possible, making them all seem important and suggesting that they could all manage to get along.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company