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Alternative Styling

Indie rock's refusal to make a fashion statement has become a message in itself.

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Walk through the doors of any indie rock venue these days and you’ll notice that high fashion — long seen as

the peanut butter to rock’s jelly — has been replaced with a lower-level sartorial style: jeans and a T-shirt.

“Fashion as worn by rock musicians has slowed to a crawl,” says David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, a firm specializing in fashion industry analysis. “I think it’s no longer cutting-edge.”

Today’s up-and-coming rockers are inclined to agree. “Unfortunately, kind of a lot of what is indie rock is free of fashion,” says Pasquale Timore, lead singer and guitarist for Boston-based band Keys to the Streets of Fear. “They just show up and get on stage in, like, a T-shirt and a pair of Levi’s.”

According to Ben Whitesides, lead singer and guitarist for Portland rockers The Joggers, his band is one of the least fashionable groups he can think of. “We’re jeans and T-shirts almost all the time. That’s sort of it.” And The Joggers certainly aren’t alone. The rock landscape is so overrun with the cotton-denim combo that the look has become a uniform of sorts.

According to many bands, this basic look was born out of necessity.

“I would say that our fashion sense is about what pants hold up the most to touring and doing laundry at crappy laundromats all over the world,” says Nick Harmer, bassist for Seattle indie stalwart Death Cab for Cutie.

“You’ll figure out that there are limits to things you can feasibly wear as a performer,” adds Chantal Claret, lead singer of New York-based Morningwood. “You’re in who knows where and you can’t get a laundry machine for three days, and you say, ‘Oh, but I can wash this in the sink.'”

Stage styles also must be comfortable. “If you’re wearing spiked heels and a miniskirt, you’re not going to feel like jumping around and having fun,” says Nicole Greco, singer and guitarist for New York-based Looker.

Money also plays a role in a musician’s wardrobe. When just starting out, the costs of touring and equipment can far outrun any money that a band brings in. Fly (short for Butterfly) and Kite, Aussie-born identical twins from Los Angeles, spend most of their money on stage essentials for their band, Blonde on Blonde. “We spend money on guitars and amps,” notes Fly. As a result, the twins refuse to shop for pricy clothes. “Seven dollars, tops, and that’s pushing it,” according to Kite.

Though the demands of touring and lack of funds are factors, bands often deliberately avoid making a fashion statement. “I’ve always thought of us as being sort of antifashion, when it comes right down to it,” observes Death Cab’s Harmer. “We’re very much guys that wear the same clothes on stage as we wear off stage. And it’s usually not around some particular aesthetic or fashion style.”

Although they don’t go out of their way to avoid fashion, for Whitesides and The Joggers, their Ts are an attempt to keep the focus on their music. “Put it this way,” he says: “If someone likes our music, you know for sure that they don’t like it because they’re picking up fashion tips.”

But there might be more to the rock uniform than meets the eye. Intended or not, antifashion has become a fashion statement of its own. Looking like other rockers lends credibility to a band, says Wolfe. “If they came out and dressed differently, I think it would be a harder sell.”

Most musicians admit there is an element of salesmanship to choosing this antistyle. Ben Nichols, singer and guitarist for Memphis-based alt-country band Lucero, points out that, on some level, clothing choices do come down to marketing. “Everything you do in a band becomes a statement, so there’s no way to pick a set of clothes that is absolutely neutral.”

Bryan Arendt, guitarist for Ohio-based band The Sun, claims his jeans-and-Ts sensibility has grown out of a desire not to look too trendy and not to look like everyone else. “You want to buy something that you’re not going to see everyone else wearing,” he says. “We try to stay away from it if it’s too trendy.”

Ironically, one look at the crowd during an indie show would make one think that everyone, in fact, does want to look the same. “It’s station identification for them,” says Simon Doonan, fashion observer and creative director at Barneys New York. “It signifies them as being alternative dudes.”

Boshra Alsaadi, singer and guitarist for Looker, says the similarities in dress often result from people being of like minds. “There’s always a relationship between the people that go see a certain kind of music and the people who play that music.”

But figuring out who is and isn’t part of the group is getting a whole lot harder. The antifashion jeans-and-Ts look has spilled out of the clubs and been picked up by the mainstream. Stores like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch have taken the vintage and ironic T-shirts of the rock set and created their own higher-priced versions, selling indie street cred to anyone who can pay for it.

“It’s funny to think that even jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap can be co-opted,” says Nichols.

It could be that such co-opting is leading rockers to consider changing clothes.

Keys to the Streets of Fear’s Timore says it’s definitely time for something new. His band refuses to go on stage without button-down shirts and ties, and each recently purchased a Dior tie to wear at a release party for their new single, “Hedi Slimane,” an homage to the Dior Homme designer. If the duds get ruined, he says, so be it. “I’d rather destroy a really nice shirt on stage than save it and wear it to my sister’s wedding.”

Fashion observers, naturally, would like to see more style from these bands, and believe it would only serve to promote their careers. “I think any successful celebrity-personality that’s ever been marketed has been styled to a salable image and a recognizable one,” says Wolfe. “I want [his or her image] to enhance and underscore the music.” Women in bands, in particular, are feeling more pressure to refine their styles. “We’ve had suggestions from certain people that have been really off-putting, like they want to dress us up a certain way because we’re women,” says Alsaadi. “It’s a totally different situation than if we were a guy band.”

But is it acceptable for a band to use a stylist in pursuit of celebrity? The idea makes many artists decidedly uncomfortable, and past history, they say, does not work in stylists’ favor. Timore pointed out the example of The Killers, an indie band that has achieved renown in many circles, but whose stylized look doesn’t seem quite right for them. “I like The Killers,” he says, “but you can tell that someone was, like, ‘Let me dress you guys,’ and they look kind of goofy in their outfits now.”

For many bands, the reluctance to embrace fashion is a symptom of a greater fear of being seen as a sellout. To stray too far from your antifashion roots is seen as disingenuous. Asks Harmer: “Where do you draw the line between fashion and putting on a costume?”

Bands also run the risk of losing credibility with their fans if they’re seen to be too willing to accept gifts from companies. For Harmer and the rest of Death Cab for Cutie, it depends on whether or not there are strings attached to the gift. “If they’re giving you something because they’re expecting something or you’re contractually obligated to wear them a certain amount of days a year or something, then no way.”

Timore thinks that most bands need to relax about such things and just enjoy the ride. If you like something and would wear it, he says, take it. Living a life of excess is, after all, what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be all about. “Everybody that’s in a rock ‘n’ roll band wants to be sitting in a chateau in France with models and Gucci pants on. That’s why we do it.”

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