by Siân Hunter
From knee socks to babydoll dresses, during the 1990s girly items of clothing made a resurgence. However, depending on the subculture to which the wearer belonged, these garments held differing meanings. For kinderwhores and Riot Grrrls, girliness was being reclaimed and subverted through aggressive styling and attitudes, while preppy girls aimed to prove that they could be taken seriously while retaining femininity.
Femininity and feminism
The idea of femininity, and especially childlike femininity, has been a point of conflict between feminists — particularly between waves of feminism. Some second wave feminists argued for rejecting feminine fashion in favour of masculine dress (Hollows, 2000). They saw femininity as an obstacle to gender equality due to its associations with subservience and passivity. However, in a postfeminist social order, femininity is celebrated by women and reclaimed with an element of self-conscious fun. Embracing femininity, especially at its most childlike, expresses self-confidence in a woman’s gender identity.
Female musicians celebrated girlhood as a way of creating a female youth subculture, something that had previously been lacking in the male-dominated narrative of youth culture (Wald, 1998). Punk led the way with female inclusion: both genders felt similarly disillusioned with mainstream culture and wanted to express their anger against the status quo. Riot Grrrls took advantage of this increased visibility and created a new image — one of exaggerated girliness, which contrasted with their powerful music that raged against the patriarchy.
The preppy look
The prevalence of girly fashion during the 1990s has been observed by scholars of media and communications including Alice Leppert (2014) — who wrote about the influence of films such as Clueless (1995)). It is important to note how the average teenage girl, as well as musicians and characters on screen, appropriated this trend for girly clothing. Whether it was the Riot Grrrl’s adoption of childlike femininity to critique misogyny or the preppy teens imitating Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless (see Figure 5), girly fashion was a significant part of female culture in the 1990s (Leppert, 2014). This trend for cuteness, epitomised by Silverstone as Cher (see above): ‘a ditsy, scrambled Beverly Hills dream teen in imitation-Chanel junior-miss plaid suits, thigh socks and high-heeled Mary Janes’ (Schoemer, 1995: p54), was a reaction against the androgyny and drabness of grunge. With this well-defined aesthetic and prescribed set of garments, girls could own their own femininity and sexuality. Easy to imitate, the look swept America as malls began selling the signifiers of girlhood: Macy’s stocked Mary Janes, baby-doll dresses and knee socks, while Bloomingdale’s made Clueless required viewing for the buyers of their juniors department (ibid).
Although the items of clothing that are worn are similar — demure dresses and knee socks, for example — the styling of these garments worn by Riot Grrrls and preppy teenagers means that the messages created by the looks are radically different. Whereas Riot Grrrls adoption of childlike fashion was combined with a non-conformist attitude that was reflected in their music, preppy girls were less political and more aspirational in their dress. Preppy style is traditionally a celebration of intellect and academic achievement and adopting such a look suggests a dedication to success.
Clueless (1995) Directed by Amy Heckerling [Film]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures
Hollows, J. (2000) Feminism, femininity and popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Leppert, A. (2014) ‘Can I please give you some advice? Clueless and the teen makeover’, Cinema Journal, 53 (3), p131-137
Schoemer, K., & Chang, Y. (1995). ‘The cult of cute’. Newsweek, 126(9), p54-57
Wald, G. (1998). ‘Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth’. Signs, 23(3), p585–610