The phonogram and radio brought us the artist’s music but television brought their fashion and style straight into our homes for so many of us to try and emulate. Whether it was Elvis’s hair and signature leg shakes or the haircut the Beatles sported along with their sharp suits and ties when they arrived in America, the visual would now forever link music and fashion.
The visual would now also allow us to see for ourselves what was happening in society. Marches or protests led by Martin Luther King or Malcolm X would come into our homes. The violence that erupted at the Chicago Convention in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy or during the Watts Riots would also come into our homes.
Music and fashion started to more and more reflect these upheavals in society. Musicians wanting to make a statement about what was going on in society would at times dress in a style where fans and the public would know where their sympathies lay. Other times, they wrote songs asking “What’s Going On” or “can you guess my name”. Sometimes they even answered their own questions such as when Mick Jagger asked “who killed the Kennedys” and answered it for us, with “it was you and me”.
Below, Marissa Charles reviews the rather incestuous relationships between music and fashion in the 20th century. In doing so, she ends up drawing a triangle connecting three music icons who also became fashion icons. A blues man, a jazz man, and a musician who was also a rock 'n’ roll star.
Blues and jazz men have always had a reputation of being well dressed. The individuality that allows them to improvise and create music at the spur of the moment when performing also brings out the need to stand out in a crowd when dressing.
Marissa starts at the crossroads with Robert Johnson where the aspiring guitar player may have met and made a deal with the devil but unfortunately no one was there to record it. Luckily all Marissa needs is a few photos and his records to explain how the bluesman’s clothes mirrored both his music and surroundings. She moves on to Miles Davis and how the jazzman’s style and clothes changed with his music. From perfection, symmetry, and suits to freedom, openness, and the removal of formality and suit ties.
And finally being a British girl, Marissa can’t help getting into the style icon of London and rock industry of the 1960s. Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones whose roots lay in blues and R&B musically also took the blues and jazz men’s sense of fashion and adapted it for the rock and media age.
Marissa Charles on some of the founding fashion icons of music
Fashion and music share a tightly-woven path. A musician performing to an audience is a great catwalk to becoming a style icon. Over the decades however we can see many an artist’s influences stitched not only into their stage performances and attire but into their everyday fashion style.
And the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman is not limited to politics, high society or the literary circles of writers and intellectuals. The music industry is littered with artists where a girlfriend or wife has sewn (sometimes literally) their lover’s looks/style and image together. At times, this has resulted in a distinctive masculine-feminine style and personality which combined with the stories behind their creation are deserving of their own novels or films.
But to find and reach the Birth of Cool I am going to start with the birth of the blues and Robert Johnson.
There are only two official photos of Robert Johnson and a myriad of ever more fabricated anecdotes of his short life and career even if they have taken on a mythical status. So should he actually be given the status of style icon? Yes, because it is precisely because of these legends combined with what he achieved in such a short time period and how influential his recordings became that he did become the first fashion icon of music.
If we break down his style and look, we see a man who was surviving the Great Depression while wearing a three piece suit of the era. Nothing extraordinary, a simple 3 piece pinstripe “London Drape” suit with a striped tie and dark felt Trilby hat. But he wore it in a southern United States still coming out of a civil war and now entering into or already in the middle of an economic depression of a level never seen before.
It was a very sharp smart look that was in stark contrast however to his musical style which was emotionally loose, eerie at times, and almost childlike in its delivery. Someone back then was already thinking of image and style as in one photo portrait of Robert Johnson, the guitar he was holding, could not have been his. It was likely only a studio prop as he played a Stella or Kalamazoo which acoustically is a more likely match with the guitar templates echoing through the depression and the Second World War right up to the 1950s.
Miles Davis now takes the stage.
Davis's early look followed in the tradition of the blues and jazz men before him and his music reflected this look and tradition. Clean cut impeccable look, clean sharp perfect jazz. Slick perfect hair, slick perfect short sounds.
Davis started to relax both his sound and style by the time he was recording Kind of Blue. Almost gone was the suit. Replaced by open shirts, knitwear, and chino type trousers. Like a true chameleon The Bitches Brew album brought not only jazz fusion but his second transition and third style. His experimentation and new direction was not limited to the introduction of electric instruments into his music. With the civil rights struggle in Black America still ongoing he became interested in both the Black Panthers and African Movement. Agreeing with their argument that black America had to regain its sense of identity by even redefining personal style, Davis began to wear dashiki tunics, leather, and grew and wore his hair in a more Afro style.
Though Miles Davis was focusing on America and what changes were coming to his society he was still glancing across the Atlantic interested in the British bands and musicians who seemed to have few rules when it came to fashion, whether, it was the more refined Victorian velvet flares or the vintage military jackets that came across as the outfit that was just thrown on at the last minute just before going out.
That particular garb of vintage military wear came from and originated from both the streets and a memory of the Second World War which was still dominating British society and its living standards. Many believe that much of the new look British fashion of the 60s originally emerged not from the shop or fashion boutique but from the individual and streets.
Brian Jones not only helped create the London fashion scene of the 1960s but personified it and what music would now mean to fashion or maybe what fashion would henceforth mean to music.
Jones absolutely loved clothes and sourced his wardrobe from second hand vintage places. Wearing anything from Victorian blouses, Edwardian frock coats, long silk scarves on his legs as well as neck, costume jewellery, and at times, even his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg’s clothing. She was his muse but not necessarily the woman behind the man when it came to his evolving fashion icon status. Jones preened himself for hours at a time to get whatever his get-up was for that day right. When it came to fashion, style, and image he courted and counted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Terry Southern as his friends and proteges. You can even see the influence he had on his fellow Rolling Stone when Keith Richards donned a short white fur coat as did Jimi Hendrix. But truth be told that short white fur coat was borrowed from Anita Pallenberg.
His musical style was just as diverse and dandyish. Jones could and would play lead and rhythm guitar, harmonica, sitar, recorder, sax, drums, and many more instruments that were not always part of a rock ’n’ roll repertoire.
Robert Johnson (always formally dressed despite times and environment), Miles Davis (a perfect mathematical symmetry whether in music or style which gave way only when his music and principles demanded it), and Brian Jones (always an individual in the most English of senses even in fashion), each in their own way, laid the foundation for the influence music would have on fashion. They were each in their own way true fashion icons.