Whatever happened to the Nice Girl? A personal lament
When I was at school, there was in my year a girl called Rachel, and she was was lovely. She wasn’t lovely in an obvious, Mother Theresa-ishly kind way, nor in a particularly pretty way, and certainly in an overtly sexy way. She was just pleasant to talk to, as sincere and uncynical as her lemon-yellow Benetton sweater; a conversation with her about what she had done over the weekend (pubs with bright lighting and horse brasses, meals in Italian restaurants, walks) could feel like someone washing you down with lightly-chilled Evian w ater and patting you dry with a freshly- laundered towel.
The daughter of a shopkeeper in a middling Yorkshire market town, Rachel was well off, though never swanky or Sloaney. Looking back – this was the mid 1980s - I suppose she belonged to the last generation of daughters to dress like junior versions of their mothers; nowadays of course, the influence works the other way around. She was all lambswool, cotton blouses, beige macs and brollies, flicky hair, polished brogues and discreet silver jewellery. The outfit I best remember her wearing is the fine-knit lemon lambswool sweater, pale blue shirt with embroidered collar, silver chain, pale grey and white gathered calf-length skirt and blue court shoes. She just looked so clean; it must have been the cleanliness that meant I could appreciate her look without fancying her.
At that stage, being a 17 year old heteosexual male, I could hardly look at a female from any species of mammal – let alone a female peer - without wondering what it would be like to put my hot, grubby hands up its jumper, but Rachel was different. Her demeanour spoke of an awareness of looming adulthood that made my attempts at maturity – (smoking red Leb in the cemetery, useless attempts at gang violence against squaddies from the army camp, pretending I liked books I didn’t understand) –seem merely ridiculous affectations that would make her laugh her tinkling, strikingly mature laugh. And the sense of personal style – ie not just the clothes, but also the leather bags, the unchewed pencils and stationery, the modest make-up, the tiddly decorum at school discos – confirmed this. Put simply, Rachel was Nice Girl.
Now, the word “nice” has over the last ten years or so acquired vaguely perjorative connoitations, in the way that its cousins “sensible” and “reliable” have. It is the sort of word used by mousey girls in soaps when they rebel against their doormat status (“I don’ wanna be good ole’ Cath anymaw-er! I’m sick of bein’ Miss Reliable!” Etc etc). But back then it was possible to Nice and proud. Nice girls went clothes shopping with their mums, always owned at least one Laura Ashley garment, didn’t smoke unless really drunk, and had terrible taste in music except for Duran Duran, whose mucky videos they kept hidden from mum and dad. They wore perfumes like Anais Anais that made them smell like sweets, and they wrote in big round handwriting – with lots of exclamation marks, but not as many as thick posh girls. Their dads were permanently-angry Tories, but Nice Girls were often open-minded socially and politically, turned off the morally upstanding right by their dads’ persistent affairs with secretaries. On the whole, they seemed happy to grow up into an updated version of their mother (more independent and tolerant, nasty streak removed, determined to to let her husband have affairs, might have a go at some of that Duran Duran stuff given the right bloke). A Nice Girl knew what she was about, which what made her attractive as a friend. I didn’t want to spend Friday nights smoking red Leb with Rach, or anything, but she was a good friend to have at school, or to see down the street in the holidays.
It is more than 20 years since I last saw Rachel, but I found myself thinking about her a few weeks ago at a terrible daytime party thing among a load of people I didn’t know very well in north London. My girlfriend had told me it would be “quite dressed up”, and I was quite looking forward to being at a smart, grown-up, decorous, Stephen-Poliakoffish-cream-linen sort of a do where the men look a bit crumpled, and the women have beads of sweat on their top lips, and people talk about politics and quality TV drama. However, I had forgotten that “dressed up” has had a similar semantic transformation to the one that did for “nice” and “sensible”. Nowadays, “dressed up” does not mean “dressed smartly”; it means “dressed like an 18-year-old pimp or prostitute.” The men all had haircuts that were too young, shirts that were too tight, and shoes that belonged in a circus. The women displayed flesh like a butchers shop windows, and tottered about on silly, spikey shoes. They talked about post-childbirth sex, whether or not they were going to Glastonbury, and weird videos they had seen on YouTube. Several people smoked joints, and a few sneaked off to the bedrooms to have coke. No one talked about quality TV drama.
When exactly did it become fashionable for women who like to think themselves above the common herd to dress and act like the sort of girls they would have once denounced as slags? Is it possible to name tipping points for skin-tight T-shirts, tummy rings, French pedicures, too much Lycra, bad blonde hair, cheap dangly earrings, leopard print, blow-job lip injections, saying “know wha’ I meeeeeeean?” after everything, or those disgusting tiny shorts so beloved of Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss? Is it something to do with Roberto Cavalli? Or Dolce and Gabana? D2?
Maybe you can measure the moment on the Kate Moss Scale. As is often the case, she seems to have captured the moment of the change; one minute she’s an innately classy girl slumming it, then suddenly – pouff! – you look at her with Pete Doherty and think, hang on, the only different between her and lasses hanging their tits out at the Rotherham Ritzy is that she’s rich and thinks she’s different (and yes, she’s unlikely to be in Rotherham, but you see the point). On the other, um, erogenous body part, you might consider the trend for – is there a word for this yet? – famous rich people flashing their private parts when they get out of cars. Risque? Outre? Avant garde? My, um, arse; this is the universal language of slag, rendered “acceptable” because it has a fur coat and a posh accent
Sitting dejectedly alone in my stupid cream corduroy jacket, looking at the horrible clear plastic bra straps, and listening to a discussion about sunbeds, I realised I couldn’t think of the last time I saw a Nice Girl - of any age. Had they all disappeared? Probably, I thought, because despite all their slag-moderne styling, lots of the women here would have been Nice Girls in their youth. Surely they could have stuck with it if they wanted – after all, there is still Margaret Howell, and if she’s too dear there is the rather fetching made-over classic look at Gap. I thought of Rachel, and wondered if she now went to barbecues dressed in a crop top with bits of glittery stuff stuck on her face, or talked cheerily to her chums – or mates, as she may now call them - about how doing the Atkins diet turned her breasts into spaniels ears?
The chances were that she did. I suppose loads of blokes fancied women dressed like that; maybe Rachel and her friends had always secretly hated being so sexually decorous. Why should the other girls have all the fun? Maybe they just got sick of blokes being able to get away with hedonism and talking loudly about their penises when women were supposed to have settled down? I could understand it if that's how they felt, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to tell women how they should dress and carry on. It was just, I realised, that as a man, a Nice Girl’s niceness could inspire you to look upwards out of the gutter. The slag-modernes just wanted to get down in there with you, but the trouble is, the gutter is very much overrated. One thing women don’t know about men: even the self-proclaimed crap-but-happy ones who seem to love the gutter secretly dream about someone lifting them out.
Of course in the end, I took off the jacket, got pissed and joined in. What else is there in life? Answer: loneliness. Grumbling is no use, because the Nice Girl isn’t coming back. Dear old Rach was probably one of the last. She was a steady girl, happy to run on same trusted rails as her parents, and the fact is that since the Eighties, most people have have become steadily less interested in safe, reliable tested options and more interested in experiences that give them a thrill of newness and/or adrenalin, and embracing sexier fashion does that. There is no kudos in being 'sensible' or “dependable” any more, and remaking classic is too difficult. And so the clear plastic bra straps will remain on view, Rachel’s tattooed daughters will get haircuts that don’t suit them, and men must remain in the gutter. The old ethos, unfairly maligned, not valued while it was here, is gone for good. The best one can say it is that was Nice while it lasted. Richard Benson