"Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear." - Oscar Wilde.
Rock 'n' Roll has been synonymous with style since its inception. Like Country's ever-present Nudie suits, nascent Rockers made the leather jacket their uniform and greased their hair up to the sky in pompadours. However, original this look may seem - these like every other stylistic endeavor were borrowed. The leathers dated back to World War I pilots and that famed coiffure was named for the mistress of King Louis XV. Still, the Rockers and their greasy ways were a necessity. Leather protected them on their motorcycles and having a mess of hair that could be easily styled with a ten-cent pocket comb was a must.
The original form of Rock N'Roll burned out too quickly in the atmosphere above the frozen Midwest and when Little Richard saw Sputnik in the skies of Australia leading him to put down his earthly mirth in favor of paving his way to that blessed firmament. In the wake, the uniform became simpler more homespun. Voices joined in unison on stoops across the East Coast and these vocally-gifted troubadours took on animal form. There were Crows. Orioles. and Spaniels. Some took their monikers from the sleek autos parked nearby becoming Impalas, Fleetwoods, and Bel-Airs. Doo-Wop represented a rising of voices from the streets and the uniformity of Rock that would carry us from hip sweaters (crew neck to turtleneck) straight into the matching suits of the Beatles. The surprising simplicity of this strain of Rock would blossom into teen idols (now carrying a more refined coiffure) and a host of mop tops clad in tight-collared Nehru jackets.
However, once the Beatles departed from touring and Rock music became the currency of the swelling youth culture - it would expand into fashion movements that remain in play today. Those who retaliated against Rocker culture donned tight jackets and hip straights to become Mods. As they were at their roots was a movement without a true uniform. Their clothes were quickly assimilated by parts of mainstream culture. Look no further than the recent stream of highwater slacks in vivid technicolor. As TVs flickered in color all over the world, Carnaby Street, as well as Haight and Ashbury Streets, found their own styles changing fabrics, hairstyles, cuts, and hues. Jimi Hendrix's famous military jacket would be as unique as he sought to be. With that, rock musicians were suddenly wearing caftans, Baja jackets, kurtas, sheepskin vests and anything else. The mixture of cowboy boots, corduroys, and dandy shirts said one thing. While giant kipper ties, bell bottoms and Cuban heels said something entirely different. Be you a dandy or hippie - you were welcomed into this brave new world.
The Seventies offered the same hangover in style as they suffered from in music. Utopian dreams dashed, Rock stars calmed down their flamboyant tendencies in favor of earthy t-shirts and sandals (left over from the hippies) while others returned to updated glamour wear with bright pastel miniskirts, turbans and chunky high heels macramed together. While rockers from the 60's were going back to basics, the new generation sought to stand out by taking flamboyance to new vistas. Glam Rock became the rage of 1972 and boots grew to soaring heights to almost cover their drainpipe trousers or w-i-i-i-d-e bell bottoms. Prior to Glam Rock, there was a definite line between the fashion of Men and Women. Glam blurred the lines introducing androgynous looks that even inspired young Joey Ramone to dress like a woman.
Glam quickly collapsed and streamlined itself into the flashy looks of the Disco movement. What began as a subtle shift in color (to stand out, or to "peacock" which actually goes back to the dandies of old) and refined motion (open shirt, Aviators, tighter clothes for dancing,) became a movement. However, it was the redefinition of the T-shirt and the tracksuit as casual wear that would lead to the biggest style shift.
When the Black Power movement took in various elements of other cultures (Vietnam Veterans continued to wear their fatigues and the influx of Jamaicans introduced dreadlocks), gang culture in New York City traded their blue jean jackets with "flying cut sleeves" for slick, uniform tracksuits. Thanks to DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, they gave up fighting for dance and rap battles. The sleek fabric of the suit would help them spin faster on the ground when breakdancing. Troops would battle it out, but no one would get hurt. Once the rappers no longer battled each other, they would dream about aspiring to stardom and the wealth that went with it. By the Eighties, wealth and glamour were all the rage. Female singers would get bigger hair and even bigger shoulder pads until a dancer from Detroit knocked them all down with her mix of dancewear (an offshoot of the Eighties trend toward aerobics and getting fit) and kitsch (a nod to the Sixties.) Madonna bleached her hair, put on large earrings, a mix of street clothes and dancewear and led every Madonna-be girl straight to the mall for hundreds of bracelets.
By the Eighties, Rock stars dictated looks by taking chances. However, just like the Rockers of old, their styles were passed down. Adam Ant wore the same military jacket as Jimi Hendrix. However, he also wore makeup like the Glam rockers and found a look that would translate on MTV. Michael Jackson in seeking to be understood as an adult, simplified the suit and bowtie before growing flamboyant with updated leather jackets and just one glove. The New Romantics in England borrowed heavily from the runways of Milan and Paris. Flannel became the fabric of an American indie rock well before Nirvana thanks to punk rockers like the Minutemen and the Replacements who wore it for warmth. With MTV and mammoth success, Rockers from the Eighties even until today have to redefine their looks from album-to-album. Heavy metallers and roots rockers like Bruce Springsteen can stay the same. Lady Gaga and Beyonce continue to change their look to both meet the needs of their music and their growing audience.
Rock music and fashion have been joined at the hip since the Fifties. Always remember that Rock's modus operandi is to rebel against society and the status quo at large. All of these looks were radical once and most are now parts of our culture and its subculture. However, there is a change just around the corner - and your reaction to it will likely determine if it is deemed a fad or gets absorbed into the fabric of Rock history.
While David Bowie, Prince, and Madonna may be the Rock stars most notable for fashion ability. No one took Rock music on a wilder ride in a shorter period of time than the ever-lauded but rarely heard Roxy Music. As singer Bryan Ferry was one of the many young Brits who went to school during the rapid changes of the late Sixties, his band was the apotheosis of Rock glamour. First to incorporate electronics and visuals into their Glam rock, Roxy Music evolved quickly from a daring rock band that looked like a vision of a dark J.G.Ballard-like future into a streamlined, commercial rock band that oozed style.
For their debut in 1972, Roxy Music could have been aliens deposed to Earth. Loud garish animal prints, dark velvets and long hair ("Roxy Music" and "For Your Pleasure") quickly grew into brightly colored suits ("Stranded"). As their music slowly took on a series of different undercurrents, Roxy's look changed with equal efficiency. The Teutonic epics like "Mother of Pearl" and "Song For Europe" hearkened back to the decadent Weimar Republic, so Ferry adapted his look to a 1930s nightclub singer clad in a white dinner jacket and tuxedo before Bowie's elegant Thin White Duke phase. Embracing this elegance and neoclassicism, Ferry than cast himself as 1940's khaki-clad pencil-thin mustachioed officer before quickly growing fiercely modern as an open-shirted swinging lothario in 1975. Along the way, the looks were established to be borrowed for Disco, New Wave, and even Punk. In their wake, the Eighties would bring about the New Romantics like Duran Duran who would crib heavily from the refined Roxy. When Roxy would return in that same year, they resembled the fathers of bands like ABC and Spandau Ballet. A perfect fitting and conclusion.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. At various times, he has been a musician, writer and much more. However, he would much rather talk about music.