Dress code

Nick Smurthwaite is a little starstruck by the Barbican’s Rock Style exhibition

It would be hard to overstate the influence of rock style in the second half of the 20th century. Whether it was Freddie Mercury’s mascara or Johnny Rotten’s safety pins, we gazed upon our chosen idols in awe of their looks as much as their music.

Rock Style, at the Barbican Centre in London, is the first major exhibition to celebrate the influence of rock and pop musicians on popular culture. Stage costumes, but also photographs, original record covers, vintage magazines, concert footage and video are all on show, visual examples of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Since the 1950s, musicians have explored every imaginable style and invented new ones along the way. Glam, Grunge, Punk, Indie, Hip-Hop, the pendulum has swung furiously from one extreme to the other.

The urge to be different, to be noticed, has always driven performers to sartorial excess, going right back to the 1950s with Little Richard and Chuck Berry, two great survivors of rock.

But it was their doomed contemporary, Elvis Presley, who first embodied the zeitgeist with his sleak black hair, smouldering looks and pelvic gyrations. His transition from virile, leather-clad biker to bloated self-parody in a jewel-encrusted jumpsuit was one of the great tragedies of the rock ‘n’ roll years.

Elvis was already international when The Beatles first started playing Liverpool’s Cavern Club in the late 1950s. In those days they favoured black leather jackets and T-shirts, like their US role models. It was only when manager Brian Epstein came on the scene they acquired the identical moptops and homogenised Pierre Cardin suit sans collar. Today they look twee and choirboyish, but at the time they seemed like the last word in pop chic.

The death of Epstein and the Fab Four’s foray into hallucinogenic drugs and Indian mysticism led to a series of image transformations that set the pace for the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did the music become more interesting and complex, but the musicians appeared to reinvent themselves physically with each new album.

The main constituents of the Beatle style were English mod, San Francisco hippie and Hare Krishna mystical, with a dash of camp military style for good measure.

Over the next decade and a half, the hippie-eastern look dominated the music scene on both sides of the Atlantic, only to be usurped by the advent of Glam Rock, Heavy Metal and, most radical of all, Punk. While in the States Punk was pretty well confined to the music, in the UK a whole generation of young Englishmen and women embraced it body and soul. It became the counter-culture to end them all. The 1960s had seen such an unprecedented explosion of youth culture, extending well into the 1970s, that the next generation needed a new wave big enough to wash it all away.

The market leaders were Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, then an item, who had a shop called Sex on London’s King’s Road. Between them they created the prototype of the Punk look – spiky hair, deathly pallor, snarling expression and dishevelled Oxfam ragbag held together with chains and safety pins. Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash reflected the disillusionment of youth in the 1970s in their behaviour as well their music. This contrasted with the optimism and creativity of the 1960s. You still see the odd Punk skulking around town, but a quarter of a century on, he’s more ghost than rebel.

If you had to name one male and one female performer whose sense of style had been most influential in the rock-pop pantheon – the ultimate style icons, if you like – who better than David Bowie and Madonna? Self-conscious and narcissistic they may be, but their ability to reinvent themselves kept us guessing (and amused) for three decades between them. Bowie took the Glam Rock look of Marc Bolan as his starting point and then used his keen creative instincts to fashion original and compelling characters as musical conduits. His back catalogue is studded with jewels of rock style.

Madonna proved equally chameleon-like in her presentation, celebrating and sending up her sexuality at the same time. The famous Jean-Paul Gaultier gold bustier with twin peaks, which she wore for the 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, is sure to prove a popular attraction at the Barbican. In some of her later videos there was often the feeling that Madonna was trying to push back the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of sex and violence for the masses. There was a sado-masochistic edge to her imagery that saw a knock-on effect on high fashion in the 1990s. Clothes and accessories have always been designed, but it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that the designer has become a key figure in the projection of a new talent.

“Designer pop has reached its apotheosis,” says Dylan Jones, style writer and editor of GQ, in his introduction to the Barbican exhibition. “Never has the fashion industry and its designers played such a vital role in the pop process. We’re more likely to find out that some wannabe rock god is partial to the likes of Gucci, Prada and Richard James before we find out what his records sound like.”

The other big shift of emphasis is the age of the record-buying public, hence the proliferation of bands such as Steps and SClub7, aimed at a pre-pubescent market for whom the overall package seems almost more important than the song. There are plenty of committed musicians around, of course, but the likes of Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Noel Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft would run a mile if anyone tried to force designer outfits on them. It’s a mark of their individuality that they studiously eschew the whole packaging process. Who can blame them? The idea of trying to top David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Elvis, Prince, Puff Daddy and other maestros of style is justtoo daunting. Perhaps we’ve had the golden age of rock style. Looking at the Barbican’s sumptuous show, it is hard to imagine that the stars of tomorrow will ever match the peacocks and posers of the past 50 years.

Rock Style: Music + Fashion + Attitude is at the Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2 from 5 October to 14 January 2000

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