Style Icons: TLC

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Tionne 'T-Boz' Watkins, Lisa 'Left-Eye' Lopes and Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas of TLC in 1992.
Photo: Getty Images

On July 26th and 27th TLC will reunite to perform at the VH1 presented Mixtape Festival in Pennsylvania. Lil Mama (who portrays Lisa Lopes in VH1's forthcoming TLC biopic) will reportedly fill in for Left Eye. To commemorate their return to the stage and the release of a fifth studio album, we salute TLC's incredible style over the years.

If the early 1990s were a Pantone confetti explosion courtesy Cross Colours, New Jack Swing, and the like, TLC were the poster chicas: all primary-hued and huge-personality'd, Chilli, Left Eye, and T-Boz came off like your best girlfriends. Their first album, Ooh... on the TLC Tip, dropped in February '92, and set a precedent for what they would bring to the table through the first half of their career.

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Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, Chilli and T-Boz of TLC in 1992.
Photo: Getty Images

Dressed in bright oversized shorts and Docs, the cover was painted over in the Afrocentric graffiti animation style that was popular at the time. The video for their first single, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," opened with one of the most era-definitive scenes ever: Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes draped in bright orange baggy jeans, a floppy green cap, and yellow clown glasses with the call of a hip-hop debutante: "We in the houuuuseeee!" And, scene. ENTER THE AGE OF THE CONDOM AS ACCESSORY.

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T-Boz, Chilli and Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes of TLC in 1993.
Photo: Getty Images

It was, of course, the age of AIDS awareness, when reminders to slip on the jimmy cap were everywhere, but Left Eye's prophylactic interpolation was brilliant. She popped it on her glasses to underscore her name and did all that dancing and rapping with only one good eye, not to mention a perpetually huge hat. The brilliantly colored "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" video kept Carl Jones in business for at least a good year—all his simply, functionally designed Cross Colours gear was perfect for TLC's super-sweet round-the-way girlitude, and they helped catapult the label onto a new level of popularity. It was, of course, a look for the ages. (Not to mention all the oversized baby toys, particularly Left Eye's hunormous pacifier, an accessory that would render any proper raver jealous.)

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T-Boz, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, and Chilli of TLC in 1994.
Photo: Getty Images

The group rode their TLC Tip popularity with the smash singles "Baby Baby Baby" and "What About Your Friends" for a good two years, landing them directly in the crossfire of the grunge era circa '94. Condom jewelry was still de rigueur for the ladies, but they'd toned down their primary colors for more on-trend plaids and denim overalls ripped at the selvage. T-Boz flossed her harder edge with Timbs and omnipresent doorknockers, and while Chilli's shell headband is looking a little dated in this photo of the group at the '94 American Music Awards, somehow Left Eye's socks-with-velcro-Nike sandals look disgustingly on-trend again, the gross-cool (a la Ashish Spring 2013) that's gotten popular with the V-Files set. It's a gauche disregard for the sanctity of the red carpet, and I'm totally with it.

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Chilli, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes and T-Boz of TLC in 1994.
Photo: Getty Images

It's clear that leading up to the CrazySexyCool era, the group was experimenting with their look, trying to transition out of the poppy early '90s and into a world where counterculture was becoming mainstream again. Because girl groups are not allowed to wear unmatching outfits (by order of God), at the Soul Train Awards in March 1994, their more experimental steez manifested in three jumpsuits in washed-out linen, paired with the stompy, evergreen shoe that is the Timberland. It's not a total upheaval of their early identity—Chilli has pinned an unassuming, almost demure condom to her hip—but this looked definitely presaged the more grown-up direction they were taking their second album.

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Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, Chilli and T-Boz of TLC in 1996.
Photo: Getty Images

THIS. This was the new era of TLC, the one where the cutie-pie pop chicks went full-bore sexpot, the CrazySexyCool turning point where little sisters became grownass women. SAY HELLO TO THE ABS. Of course, what's always been perfect about TLC style is that they know how to combine tomboy with sex appeal better than anyone (barring Aaliyah, the queen of that look). At the 10th Soul Train Music Awards in 1996, they tempered the iridescent flava of their baggy pants with Miami-ready, Cuban link bikini tops, and there was no mistaking the statement they were making.

This look is so SEAMLESS, and so bold, CrazySexyCool to its fullest embodiment, echoing the simple silken jammies they rocked in the "Creep" video. They knew they only needed to accessorize minimally, and they did it perfectly with simple chains (or, in the case of T-Boz, the signature asymmetrical hair swoops and, probably, doorknockers). Additionally: Left Eye has hair! No-hat Left Eye was a rare sight in the early '90s, which makes this look ever-more-powerful. Cannot gush enough about this style. If you are TLC, THIS is how you do it.

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Chilli, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes and T-Boz of TLC in 1996.
Photo: Getty Images

(Further proving TLC was streamlining, that same month in '96 they wore matching all-over lasercut leather and post-Matrix sunnies.)

Despite TLC's runaway fame—they didn't release another album for FIVE YEARS after CrazySexyCool and despite insane touring schedules, off-camera, they were JUST LIKE US. Everyone wants to throw on a XXXL sweatshirt and chill and Left Eye's rehearsal ensemble for the '97 VMAs is notable, because it is SO GOOD. Oversized Wu Wear is always in style (they're even selling a knockoff at H&M right this very second) but note how Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was a charter member of team #sweatpantsintheclub. LL rocked super-baggy, nothing-special greys with gilded T-strap platform stilettos. Do you know who wishes they were wearing this outfit (besides me)? RIHANNA. She's done it, too, but Left Eye was prescient. There's something extra-special about a woman with the balls to sport sweats and six-inchers.

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Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes of TLC in 1997.
Photo: Getty Images

Meanwhile, while TLC was on a little break in '98, T-Boz found the time to co-star in one of the greatest hip-hop movies ever made, Hype Williams' Belly, also starring Nas and DMX. Her extra-flattering, blondissimo swooping bob and/or lengthy side-bangs had already been crucial to her identity, but with Belly, they became ICONIC. Here's a clip from the film shot in SoHo, Manhattan (eagle-eyes will spot the building that would become the Prada store a few years later). Never forget: "AFRICA IS FAR!"

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T-Boz, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes and Chilli of TLC in 1999.
Photo: Getty Images

In 1999, TLC was ready to drop Fanmail, and they occasionally brought back their hyper-colorful, pop-art-influenced, self-promoting gear, as with these incredible neon-mesh looks with a bubble-letter "TLC" so poofy even Jeff Koons could get behind 'em.

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T-Boz, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes and Chilli of TLC in 1999.
Photo: Getty Images

Whereas once Left Eye kept her hair hidden, now she sought to let it go bananas. She'd debuted her elaborate hair designs in the video for "No Scrubs," the first single from Fanmail, and she only got more experimental as time went on. Here we see how TLC evolves from bright to black-and-white, plus also EXCUUUUSE ME are those thigh-high—thigh-warmers?! How is this not a freakishly prophetic way of faking the coveted and crazy expensive Givenchy pantleg boot? Go forth.

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Usher and Chilli of TLC in 2002.
Photo: Getty Images

T-Boz and Left Eye weren't the only ones with enviable hair. Chilli had the baby hair game on lock—brushed-out, delicate wisps that were expertly arranged and even looked gorgeous on the court: here she's flossing it with an updo for maximum glory at a celebrity basketball game hosted by *NSYNC. Then-boyfriend Usher "Confessions" Raymond looks pretty into it.

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Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes of TLC in 2000.
Photo: Getty Images

On April 25, 2002, Left Eye was tragically killed in a car accident in Honduras. Not long after, Chilli and T-Boz made an appearance at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards wearing custom two-piece gowns to commemorate her, with snapshots of her image embossed across them.

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Chilli and T-Boz of TLC in 2002.
Photo: Getty Images

TLC had begun recording the sessions that would be used in 2002's TLC3D, but progress was made in fits and starts. The group had had intermittent sisterly beef (with Left Eye feeling left out of the process), and T-Boz had been in and out of the hospital being treated for sickle cell, so there wasn't a whole cache of material to work with after Left Eye passed. But they managed to finish it, and it would be their last album until their expected new one drops this year.

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T-Boz and Chilli of TLC in 2008.
Photo: Getty Images

And here's how a girl group grows up: classy, all-black ensembles in flattering fits with a lot of sex appeal concentrated throughout (T-Boz, I see you in the Fall 2008 Givenchys!). But no matter how much time passes since their incredible first album, we'll always remember them as crazy, sexy, cool and the girls who once interrupted Puff Daddy's meeting at Arista to hold Clive Davis hostage for their royalties! No seriously, this really happened. And we're willing to bet they looked marvelous.

+ SEE MORE PHOTOS OF TLC'S ICONIC STYLE

+ WATCH TLC'S 'WHAT ABOUT YOUR FRIENDS?' MUSIC VIDEO

MTV Style's TLC Music Video Playlist


+ MORE THROWBACK TLC MUSIC VIDEOS

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