For most of its life, hip-hop style has been heavy on the testosterone: baseball caps, baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts, and ski caps were the uniform for homeboys and gangsta bitches alike. But this spring, a decidedly feminized hip-hop look is emerging, thanks to such divas as Neneh Cherry, Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Jade, who have put a softer spin on aggressive B-boy chic with tailored leather vests, clingy leotards, and sexy lingerie. ''We like being from the neighborhood, and we're proud of our culture, but our vibe is definitely more feminine,'' says Di Reed of Jade, whose single ''Don't Walk Away'' is at No. 5.
The gentler look has already made its way to stores. Women's hip-hop lines are available from Stussy and Cross Colours, and new lines are coming from Gypsys and Thieves and 555 Soul this spring. ''Women are realizing they don't have to wear what men do to get over,'' says Albee Ragusa, director of rap marketing for Tommy Boy Music in New York. ''They're adapting looks from Seventh Avenue to 125th Street.''
Though jeans and shorts, flannel shirts, and hooded jackets remain similar for both sexes, the critical difference for women is fit. ''It's difficult to look sexy in baggy clothes,'' says Gypsys and Thieves designer Luis Pulido. ''Everyone's wearing things tight.'' And color is mellower, says 555 Soul designer Camella Ehlke, whose women's clothes are done in muted earth tones. ''Gangstas looked too hard,'' she says. ''Women should just look natural.'' Here, the soulful singers of Jade-below left to right, Reed, 23, Joi Marshall, 23, and Tonya Kelly, 24 show the sweeter side of hip-hop.
THE HAIR: ''Braids are easy,'' says Kelly. ''They're like ready-to-wear hair.''
THE MAKEUP: ''To offset the hair, which is more of a street look, we usually go with very polished makeup,'' says Kelly. ''We love red,'' Marshall adds.
THE ACCESSORIES: ''Hoop earrings are multifunctional they look good with everything,'' says Kelly.
THE BOOTS: ''They're a symbol of discipline relating to our career-the steps we have to take to reach our goals,'' says Marshall. ''We have the Chanel combat boots now, which are more upscale. They're also really easy to dance in.''
THE BUSTIERS: ''For every masculine thing, you have to do a feminine thing,'' says Kelly. ''So you take a satin bra and put an oversize work shirt over it.''