Step aside, ladies. For nearly five decades, the men of rock have been at the forefront of distinct music — and fashion.
This story first appeared in the August 29, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
They jump, they jive and some of them even get jiggy with it. They’re the men of rock and for nearly 50 years, they’ve been setting standards in both music and fashion.
It started in the Fifties, when most Americans would have considered these young rock ’n’ rollers clean cut. They all wore suits, after all, including the king himself, Elvis Presley, who came on the scene in 1956. But when he swiveled his hips and slicked back his hair, the rock star was born. Over two decades, he morphed from denim-clad rebel-rouser to sexy black-leathered stud to finally, a bejeweled Vegas spectacle. All along, the kids listened, looked and followed.
Among them were four lads from Liverpool who would in turn revolutionize music’s look and sound. When The Beatles hit it big in 1964, closely followed by The Rolling Stones and The Who, their uniform was strictly mod: skinny suits, Chelsea boots and mop tops. But as their music evolved, so did their look: psychedelic Savile Row; Nehru jackets with mystic beads and ultimately, on the eve of the Seventies and their breakup, understated clothes for life outside the spotlight.
Meanwhile, Americans Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison made the girls swoon with their overt sexuality.
While Hendrix favored plush velvet jackets, boas and unlaced poet shirts, Morrison usually strutted his stuff in not much more than tight leather pants and metal belts.
In the Seventies, nothing was too much. David Bowie carefully crafted his glam image from one album to the next, first perfecting an androgynous and galactic singer before moving onto staid, albeit finely tailored, fare. “I’m quite fickle when it comes to dressing,” Bowie told W, WWD’s sister publication, in 1976. “So I guess it does seem that I’m always changing collar styles and haircuts mid-sentence.”
At the same time, the tight white polyester suits synonymous with disco rocketed into popularity. But just as quickly, they disappeared. Enter The Sex Pistols and their constricting pants, chains and controversial tattered T-shirts. “They were clothes to look uncomfortable, perhaps unattractive, even dangerous in. But ultimately, very sexy in,” said ex-manager Malcolm McLaren, who with designer and then partner Vivienne Westwood, masterminded each Pistols outfit down to the smallest puncture and zipper. “That anti-fashion look empowered a generation,” he added, “to feel that failure is almost a noble pursuit and then you feel powerful because it means you’re free.”
And to this day McLaren swears that punk was about fashion, not music. “Punk rock was all about the look.”
The statement is true for other rock genres, too, in light of the Eighties and its hyper-styled acts. By then, established new wavers Elvis Costello and David Byrne were known for their geek-chic spin on classic suits. Rappers unlaced their Adidas sneakers and loosened their sweatshirts while “hair bands” like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake decked themselves in spandex jeans and chest-baring vests. With ruffled shirts and strong-shouldered jackets to match hit after hit, Prince was crowned the new poet of pop. And once he outgrew his squeaky-clean Jackson Five persona, Michael changed into a one-gloved icon before slipping into a mutated military style.
Now it seems that every major music trend is a direct counterreaction to the previous one. The decadent late Eighties segued into the thermal tops and plaid shirts of the grunged-out early Nineties, best illustrated by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. But when Cobain committed suicide in 1994, kids were ready for something lighter. This meant the era of pre-fab boy bands and all their over-stylized designer duds, when names like Timberlake are linked with names like Versace and Gucci. And today, the lines between fashion and rock are further blurred with such megastars as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, whose men’s wear line Sean John is conquering the catwalks. His own influences include Ralph Lauren, Madonna and David Bowie. But when it comes down to looking like a rock star, he said, “It’s not about style — it’s about lifestyle.”