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From the retro garb The Beatles wore on the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to Britney Spears’ naughty — and nearly nude — ensembles, we offer up some of the most memorable rock outfits.
Sexy, transgressive, exotic, wild, out-there, obnoxious — rock ’n’ roll style has been all those things and more. It began as one of the best ways to establish that teenagers, who copied it, had different tastes from their parents. And a big part of that style was the drop-dead fabulous, says-it-all, one-of-a-kind outfit. Think Elvis Presley in black leather, Jim Morrison in brown leather pants with a concha belt, or Janis Joplin wearing scarves around her head, purple velvet pants and a flyaway top and swigging Southern Comfort laced with chocolate syrup.
Part of rock style usually comes from the roots of the performers themselves — or it doesn’t work. Presley, for example, not only copied the licks and vocal riffs of African-American musicians, but took some of the first money he ever made back when he was still working as a truck driver and spent it in the Beale Street haberdasheries that catered to black musicians, hustlers and pimps. That meant bright, flashy suits with big shoulders, pegged pants and shirts with extra-long collars. These outré duds helped define him as a bad boy, and made him seem sexier than ever. Later, when his anodyne movies had made him seem square and dopey, the sexy black leather getup for his comeback TV special emphasized that he was trying to move back to his wicked “Elvis the Pelvis” roots.
David Bowie actually started his career as the boyfriend of theater impresario Lindsay Kemp and, at the time, frequently appeared in drag. The cross-dressing Ziggy Stardust, then, with his bright red hair and lightning-bolt makeup, was a natural.
And who can forget Sonny & Cher? The matching striped bell-bottoms and fake fur vests, the poet’s shirts and her ironed-straight hair were as critical to the development of rock ’n’ roll as their music was beside the point. And where would Jimi Hendrix be without his huge Afro with scarf headband, not to mention that pin-striped vest and bells?
Elsewhere, synchronized outfits were as important to girl and boy groups as synchronized dance moves. Paul Revere and the Raiders’ faux Revolutionary War costumes were as integral to their act as The Supremes’ souped-up versions of Sixties fashion. Close harmonies and identical costumes are a match made in heaven. Diana Ross wore cute geometric versions of the minidress, while the Raiders could have charged Bunker Hill any time they so desired. Later, Stevie Nicks’ curly locks and flowing white dress were symbols of her status as hippie-rock-chick. And The Beatles’ flamboyantly retro outfits for “Sgt. Pepper,” too, cemented their status as stylish hippies.
Rock icons, however, can change their spots, too. Certainly The Beatles and Madonna — whose most famous fashion statement is Jean Paul Gaultier’s bullet bra — altered both their looks and their music every few years, while Courtney Love actually transformed herself into a completely different person when she went from ripped, baby-doll thrift-store dresses and ratty hair with bad skin to smooth locks, a flawless complexion and a smoother Valentino evening dress.
Meanwhile, suits aren’t just a business uniform. They can be used to confer a new respectability, as they did when Astrid Lindstrom first put The Beatles into collarless suits, or they can be worn to show off high style — as Bryan Ferry’s colorful, bold-shouldered Antony Price suits for Roxy Music did. Then, too, they can parody the whole thing, as David Byrne’s big suit was meant to do.
Speaking of transgressive, few rock ’n’ rollers today have reputations quite as equivocal as Michael Jackson’s. It’s easy to forget how he set the rock world on its ear with his music, dancing and style — including a hat tipped down over one eye and fluorescent socks — in his Moonwalk period. Adam Ant has developed a dicey reputation over the years, too, but it was his New Romantic gear of poet’s blouse, makeup, sashes and so on that first got him noticed as an artist.
There have been other breakthroughs. Patti LaBelle’s spacey space-age looks by Larry LeGaspi, for example, were important, while hip-hop acts such as Lil’ Kim came up with an outrageous new fashion language, as in her bare-nearly-all getups complete with pasties. There are those, too, whose flamboyant fashion crossed over into traditional ideas of high style — like Jennifer Lopez in her famously plunging Versace dress with no visible means of support, except possibly gaffer’s tape. And who could forget the endless tummy-baring of Britney Spears, especially in the nude-looking beige, net and sequins version? Not that innocent, indeed.