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Fashion and Music
by Meredith E. Rutledge, Assistant Curator,
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum


Fashion and style are the natural visual counterparts to creative musical expression.

Ever since Elvis Presley first appeared on national TV in 1956, rock and roll and fashion have been inextricably linked. As critic Dave Marsh wrote in his biography of Presley, Elvis was not unkempt, but unruly, fresh, arrogant, surly, raw and powerful, his lip curling, hips shaking, knees swiveling.

In other words, Elvis was the living antithesis of mainstream culture in the 50's. And his image was as revolutionary as his music. It was Elvis who defined the two extremes of rock style. Back in the mid-50's, he laid the blueprint for the rock and roller as rebel - the black pants, the jacket, the hair, the snarl. It's an image that has survived for nearly five decades.

Every would-be punk who comes along starts with and doesn't deviate much from the basic vocabulary developed by Elvis. Similarly, the alter-image Elvis created in the latter half of his career, with his over-the-top extraordinary spangled and bejeweled jumpsuits, continues to be a source of inspiration. Would Elton John or Cher have ever gone onstage in some of their more outlandish costumes if it hadn't been for Elvis?

Elvis' look, and the look of the other artists who came in his wake, from the darker, tougher Gene Vincent to the more clean-cut Buddy Holly - had a profound impact on fashion.

Slicked-back hair, black leather jackets and tight fitting jeans suddenly became the uniform of rebellious adolescents everywhere -- using the uniform as a bond with one another and to induce a level of tension between themselves and the public.

The impact of Elvis was even felt in England, where groups like the Beatles started out in the late 50's mimicking both the music and look of their American rock and roll idols. Once Brian Epstein became the Beatles manager, that all changed - their hair became neat and clean, collarless jackets and matching pants and ties replaced black leather. Once the Beatles invaded America their impact on popular style was as profound as that of Elvis.

In the ultimate compliment the fashion world can pay, the Beatles look came to be described by the band's own name, their collarless Pierre Cardin-inspired suits became Beatles suits, their haircuts were Beatles haircuts and their Cuban-heeled boots, sported by artists as diverse as Xavier Cugat to James Brown, became Beatles boots.

By 1967, when the Beatles released the album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, another stylistic revolution was taking place. British designers such as Ossie Clark, John Stephen and Mary Quant formed the core of the fashion British invasion that gave the world Mod and Carnaby Street inspired styles, worn by the Who, Marianne Faithful and the Beatles.

What to wear became totally about self-expression and fun. The "peacock revolution" - allowed men the freedom to wear bright colors, prints and frills unseen since the era of Regency dandies. Conventional suits and ties were gone, replaced by an array of flowery shirts, Indian tunics, granny glasses and other eccentric accessories.

The great rock and roll and blues singer Janis Joplin defined the look in America, defying convention and creating her own look from thrift shop clothes, contributing to her image as a rebellious, free spirited woman. It was the beginning of the psychedelic era and once again rock and roll artists were influencing the style of millions of people.

By the early 70's it was not enough for a musician to just come onstage and play, a rock concert had to be an over-the top visual and visceral experience. This created mutually beneficial alliances between designers and performers - like the relationship between Bob Mackie and Cher or Elton John, Gianni Versace and Elton John, Larry Le Gaspi and Kiss and Giorgio Sant'Angleo and the Rolling Stones.

Rock and roll fashion during the 70's splintered into the categories of glam, disco, and punk. Designers such as Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, whose designs were rooted in the London underground club scene, helped define the images of these new genres. The Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash gave the fashion industry a gritty, spitty edge.

Punk fashion -- for all its nihilism and desire to destroy or ignore everything that came before -- adopted the iconic rock and roll look - the black leather jacket and jeans, albeit embellished with rips, badges and safety pins -- and those two items remain the seminal items of clothing that are the universal symbols of rock and roll.

Madonna's interpretation of street style during the early 80's club scene created the Madonna wannabes - little girls in midriff tops, boy toy belts and rubber bracelets in middle school. Madonna and other rockers eventually worked with designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler, which further augmented the musicians' role as fashion icon and brought those designers work to the mainstream.

Eric Clapton is a very interesting study on the rock and roll fashion flow chart - he started his career in the early to mid 60's with the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, and while with those groups he wore early Mod looks - button-down collars, ivy league jackets, buckskin shoes.

Then Clapton graduated to psychedelic peacock revolution clothing while performing with Cream, then adopted the more casual jeans and t-shirt look with Derek and the Dominoes and his early solo work. Then in the 80's Clapton began to wear elegant Armani suits while performing.

Rock and roll is such a powerful medium that an artist and his or her style has an impact that extends well beyond the stage and can profoundly touch people in a way that other pop culture celebrities do not. It is not an exaggeration to say that Elvis, the Beatles, Janis Joplin and Madonna were cultural phenomena that literally changed the world. They redefined the images of what was considered sexy, hip or cool.

From the glam rockers of the Seventies to the New Romantics of the Eighties to the grunge stars and hip-hoppers of the 90's, rock artists have consistently introduced styles that, whether they come from the streets or the runway, filter into suburban Middle America.

In the same way that rockers borrow from the past to create new sounds, they continually go back to the past for stylistic inspiration. Buddy Holly begets Elvis Costello. James Brown leads to Prince. Bono recycles Elvis. Neil Young becomes the godfather of grunge. Alice Cooper gives rise to Marilyn Manson.

The look that an artist or band projects is often the defining image of a whole musical movement or genre. Think of the tie-dye t-shirt and the Grateful Dead or the plaid flannel shirt and grunge rock. Hip-hop style is so crucial that clothing, jewelry and the whole look are frequent subjects of hip hop songs.

In the new millennium, the link between rock and roll and style continues -- look at the power teen idols like Miley Cyrus and hip hoppers like Jay Z exert on contemporary style. Indeed, no other aspect of popular culture has shaped fashion in the way that rock and roll has.


By Meredith E. Rutledge, Assistant Curator,Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Copyright 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum


ClevelandWomen.com fashion advice for women and girls in Cleveland and beyond


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