'My sister's got these great Union Jack tea-towels': How Geri Halliwell created her era-defining Brit Awards dress

Girl Power: The Spice Girls perform at the 1997 Brit Awards
Girl Power: The Spice Girls perform at the 1997 Brit Awards Credit: Silverhub/REX/Shutterstock

While Emma Bunton, Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown and Melanie Chisholm all went through the rounds of auditions held to find what would become The Spice Girls, Geri Halliwell didn't bother. She kept saying she would come to an audition, but that another job had got in the way.

“There was always an excuse why she couldn't come to the audition,” remembers Chris Herbert, the band's creator and first manager, to The Telegraph. "She basically made herself get through to the last audition without ever singing a note. It was very clever on her part, because she knew her weaknesses and she knew how she could leapfrog and make her way through to the final audition."

Halliwell couldn't sing and she couldn't dance – and she knew it. But what the then-22-year-old did know was how to find a spotlight and steal it. Three years later, almost to the day, Halliwell did just that during The Spice Girls's Brit Awards debut, in a manner so effective her band mates finally clocked her secret weapon. 

Halliwell shed any notions of diva demands by defying industry advice and hand-making the most recognisable – and valuable – dress in pop culture history. In the process, she didn't just land herself on the cover of every newspaper in the country the next day, but forged the Spice Girls' image as part of a new kind of Cool Britannia. 

The Spice Girls in an early promo shoot, 1996 Credit:  Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock

“That was the first time I realised how brilliant Geri was,” Mel B later recalled. “She had a real sense of what would catch on in the press. But she never really shared her cleverness with the rest of us.” Halliwell's actions at the Brits should have been a harbinger of what was to come: the eldest Spice Girl would ditch the group in the middle of their first world tour without so much as a goodbye, and go on to have a storming – if short-lived – solo career.

The Spice Girls exploded onto the British pop scene eight months earlier, or at least they appeared to. In reality, they had been relentlessly harassing members of the music industry since 1994. Their hard work paid off with the release of Wannabe, which defied the odds to become the best-selling single by a female group in the world

The Brit Awards would give The Spice Girls, who had entertained their enormous fan following largely through televised performances, their biggest gig to date. They were given the kind of curtain-raiser PRs could only dream of when Liam Gallagher – a month before appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair entwined with girlfriend Patsy Kensit under a Union Jack bedspread – promised that he would “smack” the Spice Girls if he saw them at the ceremony. 

Geri Halliwell performs at the Brit Awards Credit: Caroline Leaper

Emma Poole, who managed the creative styling and marketing of The Spice Girls on  behalf of the record label, Virgin, remembers the pressure of getting the band ready for the Brits. She told The Telegraph: “We were working with quite a big stylist at the time and I was like, ‘oh, my god, this is a really big worldwide thing, they've got to blow everyone's socks off.’”

After months of making do with high street and vintage finds (Baby was clad in Topshop for the Wannabe video), the Girls had secured “amazing dresses” for the Brits. 

Except, Halliwell had different plans. “Two nights before, Geri said, ‘You know what, Emma, I’m really not comfortable with the dress I’m wearing, I’ve got a much better idea. I’m going around to my sister’s, she’s got these great Union Jack tea-towels, I’m going to make a dress’”, Poole recalled.

“I thought, ‘Please, please don’t, no.’ And Geri was like,‘No, I am going to do that’.”

Poole compromised. She said Halliwell could go and make the dress, and they would make the call once she had done it. “So that’s what she did. She went to her sister’s, she made it the night before, and of course blew everyone away with it. Because she really really clever like that, creatively. And she really knew. She was very sussed about who she was wanting to appeal to.” 

Conscious of seeming too jingoistic, Halliwell also stitched an enormous peace sign on the back of the dress, which, of course, was on-brand with the group's two-fingered salute to represent Girl Power. 

Halliwell auctions the Union Jack dress at Sotheby's in 1998 Credit:  REX/Shutterstock

Of course, the dress – so short it flashed her knickers – outshone the rest of the Brit Awards. Mel C may have told Gallagher to “Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough” as the group collected their second consecutive award (Best British Single, for Wannabe, and Best British Video, for Say You'll Be There) and Halliwell may have fallen out of her second dress (a red, floor-length number), but it was the Union Jack dress that was replicated in miniature for thousands of Geri dolls. It was the Union Jack dress that later sold for £41,300 at auction, becoming the most expensive piece of pop star clothing ever sold.  

For Biff Stannard, who wrote six Spice Girl chart-toppers, the dress was integral to his fondest memory of the band: “Of all the moments with them, that Brits performance was my moment with them,” he told The Telegraph.

“I remember seeing them just before they went on, and Geri was fussing about her Union Jack dress and there was this lovely moment where Mel B just patted Geri on the bum and they went on stage. It was just a real thing. That was just the moment for me when there was a sense of national pride in them. Being British was being proud of the girls because they had become so global.”

 

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