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Leave it to the Left Coast to generate its own take on rock style, from the surfer, beach babe look to gritty hippies.
When die-hard Londoners Rosemary Brantley and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1976, she realized they’d fallen into another world, one ruled by Fleetwood Mac music, hazy sunlight and a nonchalant just-grabbed-these-cords-off-my-lover’s-floor approach to style.
“Stevie Nicks was the hottest thing going. The big ready-to-wear line was called Hero, all gauze — pull-on pants, dresses, loose tops,” recalled Brantley, founding chair of the fashion program at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles. “It was nothing like what was happening in London.”
Angeleno men “looked like Creedence Clearwater Revival roadies — long hair, flared corduroys and high-heel boots,” added Peter Christian, Brantley’s husband and the owner of custom equipment firm Sound Design Wave Audio. “That look is still around now, with some earth mommas and bald guys with ponytails.”
California, that boomerang-shaped state where fashion takes its own peculiar swerves, has been both the epicenter of rock’s newest fashion imaginings and the last bastion of its most beloved trends.
Sure, London had glam rock and Seattle grunge, but the Golden State has produced its share of rock-fashion archetypes — from the fresh-scrubbed San Onofre beach-surfing crowd to the patchouli-grubby Haight-Ashbury hippies. And that was just the Sixties.
Acts like The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, whose collegiate looks harmonized with cheery choruses, spurred a gaggle of “Beach Party” movies, washing lifestyle-envy over the rest of the country. Female fans exchanged beehives for braids and dressed the part — halter tops, Keds, polkadot bikinis (which, in yellow, would spur a song of their very own).
The Beach Boys opted for white pants, matching loafers and striped or madras shirts. But their favorite accessory, according to Kevin Jones, who manages the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s archives, was blue- or green-tinted square-frame shades. “I always think of them when I see someone on the East Coast wearing sunglasses on an overcast day, surrounded by skyscrapers,” said Jones.
Perhaps more famous: the Haight-Ashbury hippies, epitomized by Janis Joplin’s granny glasses, embroidered caftans and swinging beads. Seamstress Linda Gravenites, who created bohemian velvet-pirate looks for Joplin, “said she always tried to match a person’s fantasy life to their clothes,” recalled author Marian Hall, who interviewed Gravenites before she died several years ago. Hall, whose book “California Fashion: From the Old West to New Hollywood” was published this year by Harry N. Abrams, said Gravenites had retreated to a contemplative life in northern California, creating stained glass art. “She recollected that time fondly, but said she left the scene because too many people were dying.”
Another deceased stylist, Holly Harp, created Stevie Nicks’ much-emulated “diaphanous, witchy-poo look,” said Cameron Silver, owner of L.A.’s Decades vintage store, which recently did a retrospective on Harp. “Holly got all those Bay Area rock stars out of blue jeans and into ombré chiffon and burned-out velvet,” added Silver.
Besides peaceniks, California also gave rise to punk groups like mosh-pit darlings Black Flag or Elizabethan-pale Exene Cervenka of X, whose floral housedress plus clunky workman shoes preceded Courtney Love by a decade. Then there’s local bad girl Joan Jett, of the rubber-and-steel jewelry, raccoon-smudged eyes and pierced nipples.
Jett’s songwriting partner Kenny Laguna recalled Jett “was the first to go into those S&M shops to buy handcuffs that she used as belts. She bought Sid Vicious his belt and a bunch of stuff for the Sex Pistols at the Pleasure Chest.” But Jett also revealed an appreciation for finer fashions when she wore a $5,000 Claude Montana leather jacket in the “Hate Myself For Loving You” video. “Epic Records nearly had a heart attack over paying for that coat,” Laguna said.
With local vintage stores always packed with discards from starlets and TV shows, L.A.’s rockers embraced a patched-together theatricality. “Of course, you’re influenced by Tinseltown, and it’s all about the clothes being very costumey,” said The Go-Go’s vocalist Jane Wiedlin. “I was really into themes: I’d do a nymph thing with a green minidress and dress it with fake leaves.”
The Go-Go’s early aesthetic, which included lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s taking the stage in a Hefty bag, was informed by “punk rock fashion and poverty” said bassist Kathy Valentine. “We’d get into town, pull out the yellow pages and hit the thrift shops. Way before ‘Flashdance,’ Belinda would be in our rehearsal room busily chopping out the neck and arms of sweatshirts.”
Groupies would Go-Go to concerts wearing piles of clanking jewelry, wide belts and chiffon hair scarves. “[They had] their own mall version of what we were doing, but it seemed they were always two years behind,” Valentine said.
If a fashion moment happened in Los Angeles, producers pounced — transmitting it from stage to viewers at home. Bob Mackie’s backless and cutaway costumes for “The Sonny & Cher Show” established mermaid-torsoed Cher as a midriff queen before today’s midriff queens twinkled in anyone’s eye.
“Network executives fussed and said, ‘Nobody wears stuff like this,’” Mackie said, “but then halter dresses and backless gowns started flying out of the store, mainly because she could wear it so well.”
Bare skin became de rigueur during the “monsters of rock” metal-band era of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Daniela Clarke, designer of denim label Frankie B. and wife of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke, recalled the band’s groupies attempts to out-vamp each other. “We had the highest of boots, the shortest of miniskirts, tattered and torn jeans,’ she said. “Rock stars were dating models; fashion and music were really intertwined. Stephanie [Seymour] and Axl [Rose] were hanging out. She always looked breathtaking.”
Rose’s sporting a kilt onstage sparked a frenzy among women, as did the band’s combinations of Versace or Armani jackets, scooped up whenever the band toured Italy and paired with tattered jeans.
At this musical moment, Californians are entranced with Orange County native Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, whose signature look juxtaposes starlet makeup (platinum hair, ruby lips) with skater-tomboy clothes. “She has a vintage Fifties girlie vibe, with skater-Orange County hacked-off, baggy pants and little bikini tops, all in poppy-bright colors,” said Stefani’s stylist Andrea Lieberman. “She’s very passionate about what she likes, and it all comes together in a completely funky way.”