Remember when Britney Spears wore a schoolgirl outfit?

Written by Noelle Mateer, CNN

Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a new series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.

Remember when no one had heard of Britney Spears?

In those days, she was just a doe-eyed Disney “Mouseketeer” from small-town Louisiana with a few kid fans. But then, just over 20 years ago — yes, over 20 years ago — Spears released a music video that changed all that.

In the opening scene of “…Baby One More Time,” Spears, then aged 16, looks up at the camera in girlish sweetness while twirling her pencil, her hair in pigtails. It’s like the opening scene of an archetypal high school movie — until the first three chords thump and her gravely, alien voice coos “ooh baby, baby.”

The full schoolgirl outfit is then revealed: a shirt tied up to expose her midriff, and a skirt so short she’d surely get a detention in any real-life Catholic school.

Britney’s look sparked a controversy that still affects the young female pop stars of today. Are they pawns of some celebrity-industrial complex, exploited by nefarious forces to appeal to our basest instincts? Or are they examples of female empowerment? Could they somehow be both?

The sexy schoolgirl outfit seemed calculatedly “Lolita”-esque. But interviews with Spears pointed less to deliberate innocence, and more actual innocence: “I was like, ‘I want something all kids my age, you know, a lot of kids can relate to,” she told MTV Radio Network. “You know, being in school, they’re bored, they want to get out of school. Then we go out, and then there’s a lot of dancing. It’s just a fun video.”
The video’s director, Nigel Dick, said the infamous outfit was Britney’s idea. Recalling events to MTV News, Dick said he’d assumed she’d wear a T-shirt and jeans until, at a fitting, she said: “Wouldn’t I wear a schoolgirl outfit?” They promptly bought one from a Kmart department store. “Not one piece of clothing in the video cost more than $17,” he told the station.

Today, their last-minute purchase can be found in a glass display box at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas. Britney’s midriff, meanwhile, remained on display well into the mid-2000s. In her next video, “Sometimes,” she sported an all-white ensemble that gave her the appearance of a new-age shaman, her turtleneck cropped just above flat abs. In her third, “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” she played a sexy waitress in a metallic green crop top.

In subsequent years, Spears would find creative new ways to flaunt her bellybutton. On the cover of her second album “Oops!… I Did It Again,” it peers out between strings of beads. Her shimmering midriff again took center stage when she wore a silky bralette in the video for her 2001 single “I’m a Slave 4 U.” In fact, one could argue that it would have been weirder for Britney not to have cropped her schoolgirl outfit.

In hindsight, the outrage feels quaint. Arguments over pop star empowerment have tipped in Spears’ favor, and she’s now more often portrayed as an icon of strong womanhood (she leaned into this on “Work B***h,” her 2013 power anthem about laboring diligently for success).

Earlier this year, debate over Spears’ place in the feminist pantheon enjoyed a fairytale ending with the announcement of “Once Upon a One More Time.” Set to Spears’ music, this forthcoming feminist musical about a group of fairy princesses will surely see exposed midriffs captivating audiences once more.

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