Review of the year: Rise of the wags

Hellish belles of the ball
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They live to shop. And they're spectacularly, degradingly bad at it. They might buy all the right labels but, given the way they put them together, the right labels would really much rather they didn't, thank you very much. Alongside Coleen, Alex, Cheryl, Abi et al, Victoria Beckham attains "high-priestess-of-style" status - she doesn't look orange at all. These women make a girls' night out binge-drinking in Newcastle seem like the teddy bears' picnic. So why, when the Wags (wives and girlfriends, to the uninitiated) stepped off the plane at Baden-Baden - ridiculous status luggage and even more ridiculous status handbags in tow - did they become such big news?

Blame Ms Beckham if you like. It was she, after all, who shot to fame as the greatest exponent of conspicuous consumption in history, showing the world that if you had enough money, you really could have it all, even his'n'hers thrones. This wasn't the most dignified way to forge the way forward for womankind, but she was at least spending her own money. What's more, Mr Beckham sought out his superstar Spice Girl when he was less famous than she was. No, VB is a paragon of virtue compared to the new generation of wannabes who have followed in her stilettoed footsteps.

So blame Denise Van Outen and Ulrika Jonsson. When the two blonde, self-confessed party girls reached the height of their notoriety, they were embraced as sparkling, post-feminist, postmodern constructs. The New Ladettes were women who could drink their men under the table, had sexual appetites more voracious than a family of rabbits and carried entire portfolios of scantily clad images of themselves in men's magazines to prove it. But that was 10 years ago now. Once was funny, perhaps, twice a travesty (Katie Price, anyone?), but three times is little short of tragic. If the Wags are being held up collectively as role models for the nation's youth, then, as Dad's Army's Private Frazer would have lamented: "We're all doomed..."

Of course, as anyone with a sense of fair play will be quick to point out, there is actually no such thing as a Wag: the phrase is an offensively reductive one. But as is all too often the way with such things, the notion caught on. Said wives and girlfriends were duly pigeon-holed, then cast adrift on a sea of hair extensions, designer carrier bags and fake tan. Earlier this month, even the normally savvy Jonathan Ross introduced Cheryl Cole (née Tweedy) simply as a Wag, thus negating Girls Aloud's record sales entirely. If the damage the Wags did to this country's sporting reputation is well charted, one can only imagine the havoc their public image is wreaking in the imaginations of any starstruck young girl worth her annual subscription to Heat. The message is loud and clear. Who needs a job? Bag yourself a Premiership footballer and fame, wealth, good fortune, not to mention many, many pairs of designer sunglasses, will all be yours.

Coleen McLoughlin, as anyone who has actually met her will argue, is a very nice girl. She's known Wayne Rooney since he was a mere junior on the football circuit and is something of a career woman in her own right. Then there's Tweedy, as a Girls Aloud band member, the new Posh to Chelsea's Ashley (or "Cashley") Cole. But these two are at the top of the Wag heap, which surely says quite something about those immediately beneath them. And below that.

For their part, the Wags have been far from backwards coming forwards where playing the game is concerned. Rather than eschew the glare of the spotlight the way any self-respecting footballer's girlfriend might have done in the days when footballers and their girlfriends were truly glamorous - George Best and Marjorie Wallace, for example, or Raquel Welch whipping up a storm at Stamford Bridge - they positively court it. In Germany, they asked for the poolside screen protecting them from the press to be removed so they could show off their Elizabeth Hurley swimwear (yes, they really do wear it) and suntans that would make even George Hamilton blush.

An almighty case of 21st-century self-parody? Perhaps. But when Tweedy and Cole sent out their wedding invitations earlier this year - a photograph of him styled as love god Theophilus P Wildebeest, and her as his buxom, leggy, blonde sidekick - it was intended to be ironic. It says quite something about the Wag phenomenon that nobody quite got the joke.