MTV

How Girl Groups Showed Us The Way To Fashion Independence

Learning how to dress like ourselves, from The Supremes to the Spice Girls and beyond

As a 12-year-old Spice Girls fanatic, only one thing about them upset me: I couldn’t afford to dress freely like they could.

Believe me, I tried. As a sixth and seventh grader in a working-class, relatively strict family, I experimented with hairstyles (bangs and pigtails, like Baby), makeup (minimalist, like Baby), and pants (plaid, like no one’s), convincing myself I was a dead ringer. I may not have worn crop tops or platforms or a Union Jack dress, but if I was older, I could. If I was older, I’d wear what I want. When I was older, I told myself, I’d buy clothes exactly like theirs. And then, when I was older, I didn’t. (Duh.)

But that was the purpose of Spice Girls and other girl groups: Despite the costumes they wore and the personas they tied to them, the whole point was to discover who you were and who you were not. Girl groups aren’t a style guide – they’re supposed to help you tap into your own style.

In 1997, Kathy Acker of Vogue sat down with the Fab Five just before their first Saturday Night Live performance. The singers praised their fans for embracing their individuality — even as many of those fans gravitated towards specific band members’ aesthetics.

“Each of us wants to be our own person and, without snatching anyone else’s energy, bring something creative and new and individual to the group,” Geri Halliwell said. “We’re proof this is happening. When the Spice Girls first started as a unit, we respected the qualities we found in each other that we didn’t have in ourselves. It was like, ‘Wow! That’s the Spicey life vibey thing, isn’t it?'”

She continued: “Normally, when you get fans of groups, they want to act like you, they copy what you’re wearing, for instance. Whereas our fans, they might have pigtails and they might wear sweatclothes, but they are so individual, it’s unbelievable.”

When teen and tween girls' individuality shines through distinct costumes based on the costumes worn by real people, it's a testament to the way fans process, interpret, and transform their idols' public personas. For years, Bowie fans have emulated the Thin White Duke in jumpsuits, while KISS fans have paid homage to the group’s face paint and leather. And while these tributes allow fan and musician to share similar aesthetic traits, they aren’t merely a means for the wearer to play dress-up — they let fans align themselves with a bigger movement. They’re a decree to the world: “This is who I like, and this is the fashion that makes me feel powerful.” They’re like building any niche wardrobe. They’re an outlet for self expression.

Girl group costumes have had this power for over half a century. In a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, Diana Ross reminded readers of her interest in fashion, makeup, and hair, and revealed that she and The Supremes aimed to be “ladylike,” in the spirit of department store windows and fashion magazines. “Our image was really a reflection of beauty and glamour,” she said. “The image onstage was always ladylike.”

This explains the band’s sleek, uniform look. At the same time, their pieces were a reminder that fans could dress however they wanted: Ross and The Supremes epitomized late-1960s glitz with fringe, sequins, and sheen, and by doing so, helped inspire young women — and men — to take risks and experiment with texture and finishes on their own. So, sure, the band’s look was unique to them (especially since their fellow girl groups weren’t draped in high fashion — which we’ll get to in a second). But they used their uniqueness to present fans with a new option: Glamour is yours for the taking. Which might help explain the sequin and shimmer boom of the disco era — or at least why some of us still pick up Supremes-esque dresses for holiday parties or to look better than everyone at high school reunions.

The best part was that, while obviously huge players in the Coordinated Fashion™ game, The Supremes abided by true girl group code and allowed space for more than one aesthetic avenue. (Girl group fashion is not Mean Girl fashion: You can wear your hair up more than once a week, and pink is not reserved for Wednesdays.) Enter The Ronettes, whose “bad girl” personas were spurred by their winged eyeliner, short skirts, and the beehives we now cite as a crucial turn on the 1960s aesthetic circuit.

The Ronettes' look was largely the work of Estelle Bennett, Ronnie Spector’s sister and bandmate. “The eldest of the group, she worked at Macy’s and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the look she helped devise for the group was all superlatives: bigger, badder, and sexier than anybody,” The New York Times wrote following Estelle’s death in 2009.

“We called them the bad girls of the ‘60s,” Darlene Love said in the same piece. “They had the really, really short skirts and they had big, big, big hair. Most of the black entertainers of the ’60s didn’t look like that, but they wanted to be separate from everybody else.”

The Ronettes demonstrated that beauty and fashion norms vary depending on where you’re from, who you surround yourself with, and what you feel comfortable in; they also redefined notions of glamour, sexiness, and self-expression. By not shying away from their sexuality or their “bad girl” traits via eyeliner and skirt length, The Ronettes made space for their fans to do the same and to stylistically express themselves in ways that complemented their life choices. In short, The Ronettes did for young women in the 1960s what punk rockers did in the 1970s: They used their clothing to separate themselves from mainstream norms, creating new norms (read: “I do what I want”) in the process.

This style-centric sentiment was echoed in the 1990s with Spice Girls and All Saints, another British group that opted for less glamour and more relatability — particularly since the foursome broke up in 2001 over an on-set argument about a camo print jacket.

No, for real: In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, Shaznay Lewis confirmed that after she was given a combat jacket, the group went to hell when another member wanted to wear the same piece on a photo shoot in 2001. (“I would never in a million years have put money on the group ending over a jacket incident,” she said. “But when that incident happened, it fired up so strong, it had to be over.”)

All Saints had been served to the masses as the anti-Spice Girls — the “hard-edged, unsmiling, mean-girls alternative,” as described in the same Guardian feature. So it was fitting for the women who wore the same pieces any of us could wear to engage in the same behaviors we also could’ve found ourselves in. (If you haven’t fought over a jacket, you haven’t lived.) Defined by their tank tops, cargo pants, bandanas, loose layers, and logo t-shirts, as well as their mix of pop and R&B, All Saints made it possible to evoke their vibe anywhere from the bus stop to third-period art, all while draped in oversized sweatshirts and roomy jeans (to my mum's delight). And while neither the Spice Girls nor All Saints had a superior approach to fashion and self-expression, All Saints catered to the crowd who weren’t so overt in their style allegiances. Being one’s self comes in all shapes, sizes, and shoe brands — and sometimes the most important part of asserting your fashion persona is realizing you’d rather do it a little more low-key.

Yet this was certainly not the mantra of girl groups of Y2K and beyond. As the Spice Girls and All Saints drifted away (both would later reunite in the late aughts), acts like Destiny’s Child stepped up to prioritize style and makeup experimentation over accessibility, merging the worlds of 1960s uniforms (as worn by The Supremes) and late-1990s excess (as worn by the Spice Girls right before Geri left). Beyoncé Knowles herself explained the strategy: “We scrambled up all our money, got us some outfits,” she said in a 2001 interview about meeting Whitney Houston. “We were the only group that came dressed as a group. Everybody was sayin’: Y’all are like The Supremes.” And, well, sort of.

While Destiny’s Child abided by a strict uniform at the hands of Knowles’s mother, Tina (Beyoncé: “We wear nothin’ with our butt cheeks out, our boobs out. We like sexy clothes, but still classy”), the coordinated pieces varied and were tailored for each girl specifically, with Beyoncé often front and center of the aesthetic feasts. (Her favorite looks? The gold tooth from "Bootylicious" and the army fatigues circa Survivor.) This signaled a shift: By donning different styles, the group was breaking out of a uniformed approach to fashion to create easier accessibility and room to interpret their looks. They still dressed like they were in a girl group, but neither of the three members were the “sporty” or the “scary” ones — nor did their pieces blend together in the spirit of All Saints or The Ronettes, making them harder to tell apart based on clothing. Their pieces were rooted in trends, not public personas.

It was about time. While the Spice Girls were right in understanding their purpose was to draw out their fans’ inner individuals – which they did, and bless us every one – their “characters” still created a hurdle in terms of fans running with who they wanted to be, free of Baby/Posh/Ginger/Scary/Sporty influence. At 12, I knew I wanted to be myself and I knew I wanted to be confident and put-together like Posh (and “cute” like Baby, let’s be serious), but I was still hung up on technicalities. Yes, I was learning to express aspects of myself I hadn’t thought about before, but I was still equating maturity with wearing head-to-toe black because that’s what Victoria Beckham did.

By the time Destiny’s Child rolled around, I was knee-deep in 15-year-old angst and too busy trying to win over boys by wearing the right skate shoes to recognize the message conveyed by Destiny’s Child and its predecessors: Girl-group aesthetics were a stepping stone, and a means of liberation, too.

The later 2000s and the start of the 2010s were an era of solo female pop stars. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus now had the platforms previously occupied by girl groups of yore, while One Direction and The Wanted took up any remaining space with their catchy pop hooks and refusal to abide by any dress code whatsoever. (Minus One Direction’s first album and tour, which saw them in matching suits I’m sure they’ve all since burned.)

From those ashes rose 2011's girl-group revival. Formed exclusively for The X Factor (much like 1D before them), Britain’s Little Mix — made up of Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Jesy Nelson — followed One Direction’s lead and cultivated a sound and image both accessible and unique, with individuality trumping gimmicks or “the [descriptor] one.” That also meant that unlike the Spice Girls or even Destiny’s Child (whose pieces were designed by a family member), Little Mix’s outlet for self expression had nestled itself in the arms of high fashion, citing designers their fanbase likely couldn't afford.

“I’m a bit obsessed with Prada handbags and Jimmy Choos,” Perrie said last year. “I wore an Isabel Marant skirt in 'Black Magic' that I loved.” Which is reasonable (because that skirt was great), but was then followed by admiration for Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Christopher Kane by the rest of the group. Clearly, the individual group members were dressing the way they wanted to – and they were miserable doing the opposite while competing on reality television earlier on.

“We got put in tutus one week,” Leigh-Anne told The Sun last June.

“And none of us wanted to wear them,” Jesy chimed in. “Our makeup artist was shoving chocolate in our mouths to make us stop crying. But as horrendous as we looked, I reckon it was a reason why we won because people weren’t threatened by us ... We didn’t have a clue what to wear.”

Leigh-Anne: “Fashion is really important to us as a group now.”

Jesy suggests that the band's tutu-wearing faux-innocence created a sense of accessibility by infantilizing the young women involved. While Baby Spice may have played the same role by depicting herself as a literal child in the Spice Girls, it was her choice to do that. On X Factor, that choice was taken away from Little Mix, who were forced to confine themselves to an aesthetic norm that’s become far too common in mainstream pop. (See: Britney Spears’s video debut, dressed as a schoolgirl.) It sent a message to their young fans that they were the product of a larger, domineering machine, that they weren’t in control. So while Little Mix's current interest in high fashion may not be accessible in an economic sense of the word, it’s at least the next level in self-expression. And, most important, it says, “Wear whatever the hell you want.”

In fact, nearly every girl group since the 1960s has upped the aesthetic ante, whether it was The Supremes’ championing of glamour, The Ronettes’ depiction of “bad girl” chic, Spice Girls’ freewheeling personas, All Saints’ rejection of pop fashion norms, or Destiny’s Child DIY approach to naughties-era trends. These groups built on one another, capitalizing both on our undivided attention (because if there are girl groups afoot, we’re paying attention), and on their young fans’ shapeable minds. And with every new act, there’s more and more room for those fans to interpret trends, hairstyles, and even makeup — particularly as the bands open up more and more about what they’re wearing and why.

“I resented the idea of changing my style and wearing anything but a collared shirt and a bow and that was it!” Fifth Harmony's Camila Cabello recently told Glamaholic. “It’s not difficult to choose a direction but it does suck when you like an outfit and it doesn’t go with the overall scheme. We’ve never gone out in something we don’t feel comfortable in.” In other words: Sometimes you have to wear work clothes, and it sucks.

As a 12-year-old Spice Girls fanatic, I didn’t understand that the Spice Girls may have been wearing their work uniform, or that outside of who they wanted us to see them as, they were regular people who put on sweats to go to the store. (And how could I? The Internet was a thing I used at the library for an hour once a week — all I had was my Spice Girls scrapbook.) But while their approach to fashion was highly professionalized, it still encouraged girls like me to experiment with our own clothes and the traits we aligned with them. Still, I’m jealous of the young fan bases with access to Little Mix and their privilege of seeing them as people, not just as Cool Big Sisters. Because while Baby, Sporty, Scary, Posh, and Ginger were my gateway into aesthetic experimentation, the girl bands of today remind you that you’ve always had the power to wear whatever you want. And you never really needed a girl group to show you.