Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress

2 August 2012

Geri Halliwell performing at the Brit Awards, February 1997. Photo: Rex.

It was Monday, 24th of February 1997 and I was getting ready to head out to the eighties night at Rock City in Nottingham. I’d gone over to a friend’s house for the occasion and we drank cheap champagne and played the first Garbage album on repeat as we slipped on sequin encrusted dresses (silver, strappy and vaguely slutty for me, a glimmering red halterneck for her), put our pink and red dyed hair into bunches, pulled on platforms and then slapped on bright, glittery make up.

Before leaving the house we decided to pay her male housemates, John and James, a visit in the television room in the basement. Giggling we kicked the door open and strode inside to find them both curled up on the sofa, completely enthralled by the Spice Girls performance at that year’s Brit Awards with Sporty looking like she’d picked up the first clothes that came to hand on her bedroom floor; Baby in a shiny black mini dress and white platform trainers; Scary in a terrifying animal print thing; Posh in white bikini top and mini skirt and finally but not least, Ginger in her knicker flashing Union Jack mini dress.

‘I just asked John why we don’t know any girls like that,’ James said in what I hope were admiring tones but actually he probably just sounded frightened. ‘But apparently we do.’

It wasn’t my greatest night all things considered. I was supposed to be on a date but it all went wrong when I forgot that I was on a date and went off with someone else while my date went off with my friend. I was also sick on someone from my course IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DANCE FLOOR. I then had a row with an ex boyfriend. We all ended up crying in the loos. But hey, GIRL POWER.

Geri Halliwell recently designed a range of Union Jack styled dresses for the high street chain Next and seeing them about the place irresistibly brings to mind not just this year of patriotic celebration but also 1997 when the country erupted into a Union Jack dress and Spice Girls frenzy. We didn’t even have the excuse of the Olympics or a Jubilee back then, but suddenly Union Jacks were everywhere.

Which is a bit ironic really as the dress itself came about when Geri took a dislike to the classic short black Gucci dress that had been provided for her performance and in a fit of hitherto unsuspected patriotism asked her sister to stitch a Union Jack tea towel to the front. However, what could be more British than an iconic dress fashioned from a TEA TOWEL? Nothing, that’s what. Except perhaps a dress made from petal like layers of softly pastel beige used tea bags.

Make no mistake though, this dress, unlikely though it may seem, does indeed enjoy iconic status. It may well appear crude alongside the likes of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy, Marilyn Monroe’s white halter dress and the black taffeta gown worn by the blushing Lady Diana Spencer at her first public engagement, however Geri’s home made tea towel effort rightly takes its place beside them as truly iconic, as an outfit that is both instantly recognisable as well as being somehow simultaneously both of its time and yet also completely timeless.

Just over a year after her Brit Awards performance, Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls to pursue a solo career and as if to draw a line beneath the experience, she put the famous Union Jack dress up for auction with Sotheby’s. With Halliwell rapping the auction gavel herself, it sold for a frankly astonishing £41,320, all of which went to benefit a children’s cancer charity. The sale still retains to this day the World Record for the most expensive piece of popstar clothing sold at auction and will presumably retain this title until Lady Gaga starts selling off her hairpieces.

Geri Halliwell performing at the Spice Girls reunion 2007. Photo: Getty Images.

When the Spice Girls reformed in 2007, it’s said that Geri Halliwell approached the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, who had been the winning bidders back in 1998 and offered to buy the dress back from them. If the story is true then they must have been pretty keen to hang on to it for instead she ended up commissioning a near replica from the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli. This new design took the original a whole step further making it both slightly longer and also embellishing the flag with a glittering array of Swarovski crystals so that is glittered madly beneath the stage lights.

Of course, we all know that 1997 may well have started on a high of GIRL POWER, peculiar patriotism, tea towels and excitement but it ended pretty badly with the aftermath of Princess Diana’s fatal accident in Paris. Once again, Union Jacks were to be seen everywhere but the prevalent saddened, sombre mood was very very different. To me, it seemed like virtually overnight all of the hysterical media coverage of ‘girl power’ and the rise of independent and often badly behaved young women was replaced by a more warning tone with the coverage of the late Princess’ demise being underlined by a paternalistic, almost Victorian note of ‘This is what happens when vulnerable women go awry’.

Who could possibly have predicted that fifteen years later, we would not only have seen a former Spice Girl glowering in the pews at a Royal Wedding but also that women would still not just fondly recall the iconic tenuous glamour of the Union Jack dress but also still be keen to wear one themselves.

As an aside and to show how fate sometimes moves in the most mysterious ways, Who Do You Think You Are, the song that the Spice Girls sang on that fateful night in February 1997 was co-written by my husband’s first cousin who was part of a songwriting team called Absolute. He also went on to co-write and produce all of Geri Halliwell’s first solo album. I considered asking him for his thoughts on Geri’s sartorial choice that evening but then decided against it because ‘Eh, he’s a man and probably can’t remember what she wore if he even noticed in the first place’. GIRL POWER indeed.

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