On my first day of Catholic secondary school, I told myself I looked just like Britney Spears.
Obviously, I was delusional. Unlike the tanned, toned 16-year-old pop star, I was just-14 and awkward. I was too tall, too pale, still growing into my not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman body (a process that lasted roughly 15 years), and had only a Conair steam straightener to make my hair look less triangular. But like Britney, I wore a school uniform. And while I wasn’t allowed to show my midriff or hem my kilt away from its modest place just above my knee, my uniform brought me one step closer to being her.
When … Baby One More Time was released on January 12 we’d already had three months with the lead single, the video, and its iconic looks. In it, she wears a nondescript uniform of a black skirt, white blouse tied at the midriff, knee socks, and gray cardigan, and adds a pop of color with pink fuzzy hair accessories in her pigtails. It morphed the school uniform into a viable style option. Especially since Spears’s look was easily attainable. On top of her outfit consisting of basic neutrals, director Nigel Dick shared that the pieces featured all came from Kmart, and cost no more than $17.
Plus, there were her after-school looks! After the bell rings, Spears and her entire class of professional dancers change from their uniforms into athletic gear, and we see her in white knock-off Adidas striped pants and a bright pink sports bra, surrounded by break dancers and basketball jerseys. Minutes later, she’s in the school gym, cradling a basketball and singing longingly to some guy while clad in burgundy Abercrombie & Fitch track pants and a yellow athletic top. Never had I aspired to be so sporty and pine so powerfully.
These looks celebrated a very specific sect of teenhood (coordinated, athletic, beautiful) that helped catapult her style choices onto the moodboards of girls everywhere. She wasn’t the first pop-culture icon to do it. In the mid-to-late ’90s, the Spice Girls delivered their own takes on schoolgirl chic, and Sporty Spice backflipped her way into our hearts with her pairings of sports bras and tear-aways, while the members of All Saints all served up athleisure (and awe-inspiring coolness). But through “… Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears made these specific style choices both memorable and accessible. For those of us horrified by the idea of wearing a Catholic school uniform every day for four or five years, she made it look cool, edgy, and for better or worse sexy — which, during my teen years of feeling exactly the opposite, was a feat. Plus, by 1999, we knew famouses like Baby Spice were performing in glorified costumes, which made Britney Spears’s looks stand out even more. Perhaps by virtue of being a bona fide teen, her aesthetic at least seemed real.
Of course, these too were costumes. But as a teen I refused to believe she was just playing the starring role of the most attractive girl at a uniform-wearing high school. In future videos for songs on the album she adopted arguably less iconic, but still memorable looks that seemed to reflected her own questionable teen taste. In “Sometimes,” Britney sings sadly, while in a white cropped turtleneck and white drawstring pants. In “Drive Me Crazy” (the tie-in video to the forgettable rom-com starring Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart), she chair dances in a metallic green crop top, furthering her legacy of perpetually exposing her midriff. (That is, until the release of “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” in which we see her as a sad teen singing in a long cardigan and bucket hat — almost entirely covered up, as if only the absence of midriff can connote true sorrow.)
And we know what came next: “Oops, I Did It Again” saw Spears in an iconic orange PVC catsuit, and “Stronger” reintroduced the singer as a teen who was now increasingly adult (communicated by an all-black wardrobe). Then, when the self-titled Britney came out in 2001, she furthered her break from the past. She was not a girl, not yet a woman in a wardrobe of super-low-rise jeans and a cropped top (now with flared sleeves that had no place in the world of skipping class or trying not to be late for after-school jobs). The relatable-teen fantasy was over. Fortunately by then, my uniform days were almost over too. I switched to public school in 11th grade because Catholic school made me miserable.