Boy bands get a bad rap. Actually boy bands often DO a bad rap, too: their attempts to fuse hip-hop street cred with pre-teen-friendly pop are just one of the reasons that serious music heads would rather eat their own arms than go to a Boyzone concert. Yet, from the 1960s proto-boy-band The Monkees to the inexplicably still-popular Westlife, the "male vocal group" (as they often prefer to be known) remains an immovable fixture in the canons of both music and fashion.
Yes, that's right: fashion. For, while these days we might giggle looking back at New Kids on the Block hangin' tough in 1989, at the time, Jordan Knight's bouffant hair (later emulated by a teenage Robbie Williams in Take That) and high-waisted, low-rise, stonewashed jeans were the inspiration for thousands of boys who wanted to buy into American street cool. Male teenagers may traditionally have derided boy bands (which were, of course, aimed at the legions of screaming teeny bopper girls) but many were quite happy to adopt the look, in blissful ignorance that those brightly coloured wardrobes and ballooning jeans were themselves a clueless pastiche of real street fashion. Boy bands were styled like an uncool kid trying to copy his older brother's look just a couple of years too late, a couple of shades too bright and with hair a couple of inches too high.
The principles of choosing boy band members are also applicable to the wardrobes. There's a look for everyone, and while the general appearance is co-ordinated, each member has his individual persona: there's the grungy one, the young cheeky one, the serious brooding one, the fey pretty one and so on. Thus you might make everyone wear a leather jacket, but one member will have a baseball cap and another will have dreadlocks and tattoos. It's a bit like revolting against your school uniform by not wearing a tie or rolling the waist of your skirt up to make it shorter, and no doubt that sense of slightly lame rebellion is carefully designed to make teenagers relate to the band members.
It's not all about Puffa jackets, baseball caps and oversized Nikes, though - just as the songs are not all fake hip-hop and R&B. The squelchy ballad, that stalwart of the boy band repertoire, requires a different approach to the wardrobe. Here, the boys pour out their hearts in unison, faces a mask of pain, hands thumping their chests and reaching out to the spellbound audience in wide-eyed appeal. At this point, there is no substitute for a matching set of suits, legs just baggy enough to allow for choreography.
This more sober look has been a good model for handling the dress requirements of re-formed groups such as the Backstreet Boys and Take That. The formula for dressing the groups remains unchanged today, though there is a development on the style - a man-band look, if you will. Where once those sculpted hairstyles gleamed with highlights and wet-look gel, for example, today they are more muddy, scruffily tousled and dully waxed, for a lived-in look - or, in some cases, permanently covered with modish trilbies and flat caps for reasons we can only speculate. The Backstreet Boys' Brian Littrell has perfected the Romanesque comb-forward, securely plastering his blond hair to his forehead. This time round, they want to be taken seriously as proper musicians, rather than pretty musical automata, and their new looks reflect that aim. Take That's members have gone for a rough-and-ready, lived-a-little, grown-up look - blazers and jeans, scruffy beards, corduroy jackets and well-cut Savile Row-style suits - and, together with the Gary Barlow-penned songs, has come some near-credibility. Certainly it is no longer embarrassing to like them, as long as you're as tongue-in-cheek about it as they appear to be about themselves nowadays.The Backstreet Boys, too, have been pictured mimicking their hip-hop greetings of old, showing the world that there are no hard feelings, and their hats-and-tats makeover, complete with the requisite indie kaffiyeh scarves and muddy-coloured T-shirts, shows that they have, at least, moved with the times. Yet the grand tradition of rock stars has always been to hold on with vice-like grip to the big hair and leather trousers of their prime, and we have loved them for their tenacity and self-belief. Boy bands are more like soft, downy cushions, taking the impression of whichever stylist sat on them last. It might be fashion, but it's not style.