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Rock’s most outrageous rebels have dared fashion to follow where they lead, always dressing against the grain.
Rock itself began as a fringe movement, the illicit music teenagers sought out late at night at the far ends of the radio dial. It was better than Perry Como. Sexier. Tougher. And since the Fifties, when rock gained momentum in the form of r&b, the best rock style has always been anti-chic and one step ahead.
Of course, no matter how many legions of fans adopt their style in homage, most anti-chic stars cherish the outsider status they’ve worked hard to achieve. After all, that’s what makes their rebellion look so attractive. Rock stars can offer everything that those living in Squaresville fear most. They play to fashion’s id, championing a look that is by turns hard, androgynous, pauvre and garish. They sneer at the sucker stuck on cleanliness and respectability. They mock good taste. They defy conventional sexiness.
In the mid-Sixties, the culture at large dug synthetics and pinned its hopes to the promise of a technologically enhanced future. But the hippies went back to nature with style, playing up a faux innocence that countered the era’s cold, hard reality. Hand-embroidered peasant tops, ponchos, serapes, Indian headbands, sandals and, of course, long hair all worked to create a natural and androgynous look: The boys, with their long locks, looked like girls; the girls, wearing pants and no makeup, looked like boys. They were nothing like the leather-jacketed toughs of yore — or the geeks in the Establishment they protested against.
With folksy flair, San Francisco’s flower children led the way. Thousands of befringed fans turned up for the Human Be In in 1967 and at the Monterey International Pop festival that summer, imitating Jimi Hendrix’s gypsy style and the Rolling Stones’ flamboyant Mick Jagger. In 1969, the dazed who gathered in Bethel, N.Y., for the three-day Woodstock festival numbered over a million.
Nevertheless, rock’s newly anointed gods and goddesses realized part of their power came from publicly denying their sway. A bejeweled, boa-ed and bell-bottom wearing Janis Joplin claimed fashion simply didn’t matter. “Clothes are not such a big thing for us,” she told Look magazine. She was everything a star wasn’t supposed to be: unpretty, raunchy and as hard-rocking as the guys. Even harder.
After Woodstock, however, the party was over, or so the story goes, with the hippie movement all but burnt out in the festival’s aftermath. But no matter. By 1971, a handful of new, countercultural stars were bombarding the collective consciousness with outrageous antics all their own.
Alice Cooper and David Bowie pioneered a new school of anti-chic. Bowie’s turn as Ziggy Stardust, a glittering androgyne in tight pants and air-brushed makeup, ridiculed the glamourous peacocks of the hippie era. In costumes so exaggerated they were sci-fi, he hit the stage, and wherever his platform-booted rock caricature went, the kids followed. Still, Bowie’s look wasn’t meant to outrage, he explained in 1976, “but instead to do what is unexpected so as not to bore people.”
Meanwhile, Alice Cooper used good old-fashioned magic marker as eye makeup to enhance his lurid looks. “When I chop up a doll, break out of a straitjacket or hang myself on stage, the audience knows I’m parodying what they see everyday on television,” he said in 1971. Of course, for most parents, Cooper’s methods weren’t so easily understood. But that was the point. After all, Cooper was the first rock star to wear a boa constrictor as an accessory.
Kiss had taken the glam look deep into the mainstream and as far as it could go by the late Seventies, but anti-chic rockers from Patti Smith to chameleon Boy George have reworked the androgynous spin again and again, with New Wave bands, such as Devo and Blondie, giving it all an artsy, eccentric edge.
And then came punk. Aggressive. Destructive. Bleak. No rock statement has been as blunt. Punk style was mean. And it was irresistible. No sooner had young rock lovers recovered from the shock of punk’s impact then they found themselves shredding up their jeans or stockings, fastening safety pins to their tatters and joining the fray.
Even the princes of punk, as provocative and dark as their message was, couldn’t escape the ambiguities of fame and fashion. “I am sick of working with the Sex Pistols,” Johnny Rotten whined after the band’s sellout tour of the States in 1978. “Everyone was trying to turn us into a great chic group.” Their provocative clothes begged attention and imitation, while adherence to punk philosophy demanded failure, not success.
But the Pistols were never as hung up on remaining unfashionable as the doomed grunge heroes of Seattle. Kurt Cobain, dressed in an old lumberjack shirt, fuzzy thrift-store cardigan, busted-up combat boots and shredded jeans brought tough punk attitude and hippie boy sweetness together in one potent combination — grunge. Suddenly in the early Nineties, Salvation Army was a trendy place to shop à la Courtney Love, and imitators worked wax into their hair to achieve her dirty, stringy locks.
“A hippied romantic version of punk” is how Marc Jacobs described his infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 1993. But you can’t catch a shadow. If rock’s anti-chic is fashion’s psychological foil, then the moment when Jacobs threw the spotlight on grunge — zap! — it was gone. Ironically, so was Jacobs. The execs at Perry Ellis sent him packing. They just didn’t get grunge.
Later, teens everywhere traded in their flannel shirts and combat boots for hip-hop’s baggy jeans and sneakers. But while hip-hop style was born on the fringe, its stars were only too happy to accommodate young shoppers hoping to adopt the look. Russell Simmons launched Phat Farm so that rap fans could get their gear, while P. Diddy gave them Sean Jean. Hip-hop’s stars exuded chic, not anti-chic, and were happy to join the mainstream.
For rockers who want to preserve their outsider status, a little-known bootleg still being traded among Nirvana aficionados serves as a cautionary tale. As grunge style became mainstream fashion, Cobain belted out “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip.”
“Perry Ellis came along with his broom and his silk,” he sings with all the sputtering, sneering sarcasm he can muster, “and he erected a beautiful city, a city of stars.”