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Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” chats with WWD about thongs, miniskirts, bell bottoms — and a newcomer to the show named Madonna.
Well before teenagers turned to MTV for their music fixes, their parents turned to “American Bandstand.” And before teenagers clamored in Times Square for “TRL”’s often casually-dressed Carson Daly, they went wild for Dick Clark, the perfectly coiffed, baritoned-voiced host of “American Bandstand.”
The ever-polished, seemingly ageless Clark is one of the most influential figures in modern popular music. Hundreds of musical acts made their television debuts on the show like Aerosmith, Prince and Madonna. During his 33-year tenure as host, Clark was not merely a witness to groundbreaking music, dance crazes and rock luminaries, but to fashion excesses, as well.
The music variety-dance show, which began airing on national television in 1957, spanned nearly four decades of styles, from the polished innocence of the Fifties to the hippie fashions of the Sixties and from the Seventies disco era to Eighties glam. But while the fashions changed dramatically over the years, the host of “American Bandstand” did not.
WWD turned the mic on the man who first made the TV music interview famous, and asked for his retrospective fashion musings.
WWD: Do you feel that “American Bandstand” influenced fashion trends?
Dick Clark: The very first time I ever became aware of it was in the Fifties. The little girls from West Catholic High School used to come to the show in their school uniforms, and when the nuns saw the show, they screamed bloody murder. So the girls began wearing sweaters over the tops of their uniforms with dickie collars sticking out. Within a matter of three or four weeks from the time the show debuted in 1957, the world of retail was wiped out of dickie collars. Little girls ran into wherever the hell they bought clothes in those days and said “I gotta have the Philadelphia collar.”
WWD: What would you say was your favorite era of fashion?
D.C.: The disco period, without a doubt. It was the most colorful and bizarre. People came on in high boots with live goldfish in the heel — not very politically correct, but nor was that period. Then there were the bell bottoms, the skin-tight dresses and the little short skirts. Young people never looked so attractive and interesting. Attractive is the wrong word in retrospect, but I guess some of that stuff is coming back.
WWD: Was “American Bandstand” always influential in how it dictated trends, or did it waver?
D.C.: “Bandstand” was a window to young people’s world. It conveyed the message to those who didn’t know what to wear, what kind of language to use, what kind of music to buy. It was probably the first reality show. People of that age are very impressionable. They follow the fashion leaders and those who were fashion leaders on “Bandstand,” pretty much whatever they wore there was swept up.
WWD: Was there a particular band or artist that embodied fashion for you?
D.C.: I have always thought it was The Beatles, although they didn’t appear on “Bandstand” other than on videos. Part of the reason for their success was the way the German photographer [Astrid Kirchherr], who fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle, cut their hair, gave it the shaggy look and put them in leather. Instead of the usual bar band look, they just had all the right stuff and that took off. And then they got into the Cuban-heeled boots and the little tight pants. Whatever they wore was it for the world.
WWD: Did Madonna’s ensemble strike you when she was first on in 1984?
D.C.: Yes, that was the first thing that caught my eye. I thought it was bizarre, and then I looked at the audience and I saw they were all swept up in it. On that very same day we had Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, two very colorful and interesting performers. You knew in a moment, if you watched the audience’s reaction, that Madonna was going to be huge, and she turned out to be.
WWD: Do you think the synergy between fashion and rock ’n’ roll is a natural one?
D.C.: It always has been. One of the most logical connections is what black kids wear, how they dance, how they talk. In the world of fashion these days, a certain segment of the population is absolutely controlled by blacks. You’ll see baggy pants and shorts down to the calf on a deserted island somewhere where there’s no urban population. When it was new, baseball hats on backward were worn by whites and blacks and Chinese and purple people all over the world and it was a black thing. That’s been going on since the Twenties when jazz put words into our language, and it was predominantly controlled by blacks. They’ve always been in the forefront.
WWD: What is it about music and fashion that ties them together?
D.C.: I think for young people, it’s keeping up with the Joneses or whatever the proper phrase is today. Nothing ever changes, you want to be accepted by your contemporaries. ‘If that’s what they’re listening to, that’s what I’ll listen to, I’m going to wear that.’ I mean look at all of these women running around with these little skimpy spaghetti strap tops with their guts hanging out — some of whom can afford to do that and many of whom can’t. The belly button is the focal point now of fashion. I was in a restaurant sitting at the bar last night and this lovely young woman sat down, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her because her thong was hanging out over her pants. I said to my wife, ‘Take a look at that, it’s a fashion statement.’ But does that tie in to rock ’n’ roll? I guess it does because if you go to a club that’s what you’ll see, low cut pants and so forth.
WWD: What’s the sexiest you’ve seen?
D.C.: There’s always been highlights like the craze with the ripped T-shirt. Then all of the miniskirts, good God almighty. That was the rage. Some women had the legs to support it, some didn’t, but everybody had to have a short skirt on. But the sexiest period has got to be right now. They’re showing a lot of flesh, to the point to where forty years ago people would have collapsed in apoplectic fits.
WWD: Did “American Bandstand” have any clothing restrictions?
D.C.: In the old days when we first went on, we put the boys in coats and ties because it made them look like they weren’t street hoodlums and juvenile delinquents, and that made parents feel more comfortable. In the Sixties, at a certain point, we insisted that the girls wear skirts because both boys and girls had the same length of hair and if they all wore pants, you couldn’t tell them apart. As years have gone by it’s a free for all, you wear whatever you like.
WWD: What was the worst fashion era?
D.C.: It’s only funny in retrospect, when you look at the old films and you think, ‘Good God, how did we do that?’ I saw an old piece of film the other day with me in a Nehru suit, except I was several pounds leaner in those days. I didn’t like the look much, but I guess that was the influence of The Beatles. They were into the psychedelic Maharishi mode and everyone began to wear whatever The Beatles wore.
Again, it moves beyond just clothing to facial hair, pierced ears and pierced navels, and lipstick or no lipstick. It’s all follow the leader stuff.
WWD: What would it be like now?
D.C.: Well it’s already coming back in another form, through nostalgia. There is a new show on NBC called “American Dreams,” and it uses “Bandstand” as a backdrop in the Sixties. But if we were to launch a new show it would be reflective of what is going on today. It was on for almost 38 years. It’s a mirror held up to a young world.