When the radical forces of rock, fashion and politics intersect, the result is high-impact style.
This story first appeared in the August 29, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Those who dismiss the radical credentials of pop music fashion as just so much mass-marketed hype probably have never heard of the Zoot Suit Riots. In one of the only incidents in recorded history where men’s wear brought an entire city to its knees, the Zoot Suit Riots centered on suits worn by jazz-loving African- and Mexican-Americans during World War II. Zoot suits consisted of draped pants and broad-shouldered jackets (Think Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Then again, don’t.) Because it used a lot of material, the zoot suit flew in the face of wartime fabric restrictions. Given that the hedonistic jazzsters who wore it (including a young Malcolm X) displayed distinct draft-dodging tendencies and were less than enthusiastic about the war effort, the zoot suit soon became the World War II equivalent of sporting the peace sign during the Vietnam era. As a result, zoot-suiters often became targets for racial violence operating under the guise of patriotism. It all came to a head in 1943, when a group of sailors in Los Angeles attacked some Mexican-American zoot-suiters, and the violence quickly escalated — with the police taking the side of the white rioters.
The zoot suit incident demonstrated the combustibility of fashion, music and politics — and it was only the beginning. As rock music replaced jazz as the most transgressive musical genre, rock fashion was often declared guilty by association. It was Elvis’ clothing, so staid by today’s standards, as well as his pelvis-throttling routine that led one member of the Senate Subcommittee of Juvenile Delinquency in 1958 to conclude that “the gangster of tomorrow is the Elvis Presley type of today.” But it wasn’t until the Sixties that rock and rebellion became irrevocably linked to fashion. Chroniclers of Sixties rock fashion generally invoke Jim Morrison’s “Lizard King” leather look, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin’s Flower Power chic, and Jimi Hendrix’s flared “clown pants” and over-the-top ornamentation. With the exception of Todd Haynes’ glam-rock epic “Velvet Goldmine,” less attention has been paid to the radical androgyny of Sixties unisex rock men’s wear.
Gender-bending chic is often attributed to David Bowie, but its real pioneer was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. An eccentric and volatile personality, who allegedly brought a dog leash with him on dates, Jones engaged in heavy sartorial experimentation — though he tended to favor fur, immaculately tailored mod suits and the occasional tunic or Nehru jacket. When Jones died unexpectedly in the summer of 1969, it took no time whatsoever for Mick Jagger to appropriate his androgynous style. Jagger’s choice of outfit at the Brian Jones tribute concert in Hyde Park in 1969 — a short white moire dress over voile and pipe-stem white pants — was likened by one observer to “a little girl’s white party frock.” Influenced by Jones’ and Jagger’s precedent, in the early Seventies the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper and Bowie further mined the androgynous look, at times to the point of full-blown transvestitism.
Rock history has been riddled with oppositional music genres bent on each other’s destruction; luckily, rock fashion is generally more inclined to cross party lines. While punk rockers were at the forefront of the “Death to Disco” movement in the late Seventies, disco and punk nonetheless fed off each other. The Clash, one of the foremost punk bands, embraced disco on their epochal “Sandinista” album. Eventually, the fusion of punk and disco fashion culminated in the frillier proto-goth look of Eighties new wave groups Depeche Mode, the Cure, and one-hit wonders like The Fixx and Flock of Seagulls.
Another case of cross-pollination between musical cousins occurred in the late Seventies and early Eighties with the emergence of rap. Early rap was heavily influenced by disco music: The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (often touted as the first rap song) took its base line from Chic’s “Good Times.” Fashion followed the same tune. Not only did old-school rap embrace the same hedonistic themes as disco, it also mimicked the glitzy flash of disco clubwear. Though early rappers sometimes rejected the “label whore” mentality, rap soon abandoned whatever resistance it may have had to designer names. On “Raising Hell” Run-DMC rapped “Calvin Klein’s no friend of mine…don’t want nobody’s name on my behind,” but the next year Def Jam Records’ Russell Simmons had secured them a $1.5 million endorsement deal with Adidas. It was as good a signpost as any to signal hip-hop’s inevitable descent into its current status as a kind of hip shopping guide.
For rock and hip-hop, the Nineties was the decade of sampling, cutting, pasting and — in the best cases — reinterpreting the sounds of previous decades. Often, performers simply carbon-copied some previous rocker’s style: Lenny Kravitz is, in this regard, sartorially just refried Hendrix, while Marilyn Manson is Alice Cooper redux. Other artists had more imagination. Nineties rapper and fashion plate Notorious B.I.G. adopted a lavish “gentleman pimp” persona inspired by the cult gangster movie “King of New York” — complete with bowler hat, suit and assorted regalia. Subsequent artists have been more literally derivative: Rapper DMX appropriated Tupac Shakur’s thug persona, minus any authenticity; Madonna and Britney had a fling where they emulated each other; and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani has molded a composite rock persona that’s part Debbie Harry, part Betty Boop. Rock’s cannibalization of its own history and iconography has become, at this point, as much an art form as writing a hit song.