It starts, like everything else, with Elvis Presley. Before the boy from Memphis first shimmied his way onstage, fashion and music were only connected in as much as artists had to wear something when they performed. After him, rock stars would be the biggest influence on what young people wore for the next half a century.
It wasn’t just Presley’s charisma that made music the primary channel for influencing – and defining – youth identity. Rock and roll – or, at least, his whiter, more sanitised, more marketable version of it – exploded into life at the same time as the concept of the teenager. In the ’50s, kids suddenly found themselves with leisure time, and with money. They spent both on music, and then, the clothes that their icons wore. As mass media collapsed the walls that locked people out of culture, young people started to define themselves less through class or locality. You were what you listened to, and you told people what you listened to through your wardrobe.
“When Elvis broke onto the scene in the mid-’50s, he made it cool to be an outsider,” says Zoey Goto, a journalist and author of the book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits. “Ripping up the rulebook, Elvis’s style communicated that it was now okay for guys to wear pink, for white boys to wear zoot suits, and for your wardrobe to differ from your dad’s. Overnight, Elvis radically changed the way that the youth of America dressed itself.”
For the 50 years that followed, rock stars were the world’s style influencers. Each new sound, from glam to mod to punk to metal to grunge, brought a new look and new tribes who clamoured for its key pieces. Subcultures defined themselves in opposition to what came before: punks rejected glam’s sequins and platforms in battered leather and ripped jeans; grunge rejected metal’s studs and leather in second-hand knitwear.
Admittedly, rock music’s immediate fashion influence has waned over the last decade, as menswear has become more risk-taking and guitars have been supplanted at the sharp end of the charts by synths and drum machines. But its legacy endures – so much so that they may as well hand out leather jackets with every Fender Stratocaster.
The Evolution Of Rock Clothing
The Elvis youthquake struck in the ’50s, but by the ’60s, his influence was waning. “The ’50s was the golden era when Elvis had the most direct influence on the man on the street,” says Goto. “Beyond that, although Elvis spent much of the ’60s starring in movies, some of his onscreen outfits still managed to strike a style chord, such as the iconic hibiscus print shirt worn in Blue Hawaii.”
That decade instead belonged to The Beatles, who inspired their fans into Beatle boots, black suits and bowl-like mop tops. By the end of the ’60s, as the band – and rock music more widely – started dabbling in psychedelics, fashion got countercultural, too; military uniforms were ripped-up and repurposed as a statement against America’s involvement in Vietnam, and wearing DIY gear like tie-dye shirts and self-made jewellery marked you out as someone who’d turned on, tuned in and dropped out.
The death of the decade of peace and love, marked by a Hell’s Angels-organised murder at the Rolling Stones notorious Altamont concert in December 1969, also heralded a fragmenting of the rock landscape. Sounds diverged, and so did style, from the over-the-top glam of Bowie, Slade and T. Rex, to the country-tinged southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who signalled their good-ole-boy backgrounds with western shirts, leather vests and the occasional cowboy hat.
Then came punk, the bomb that blew up how rock music sounded and how it looked. Where glam embraced spectacle, punk was about authenticity, and strove to make music democratic again. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t play your instruments – if you could learn three chords, you could write a punk record.
And if you couldn’t afford proper fashion, so what? Battered jeans, bombproof Dr Martens and a leather jacket would do. Its influence endures today, from the look’s originator, Vivienne Westwood (and all those designers inspired by her) through to Raf Simons’s punk and post-punk fits, or Undercover’s graphic tees.
The ’80s saw pop bands nudge rock out of the mass-fashion conversation, but their ubiquity and uniformity set the scene for grunge – like punk, it clapped back against the mainstream with thrift shop finds that put a countercultural spin on middle-aged favourites like knitted cardigans and checked shirts.
Its impact was immediate (and controversial) when designer Marc Jacobs tapped the look for his 1993 Perry Ellis collection. It got him fired, but also made his name – and inspired grunge’s real fans to decry his high-fashion (and high-priced) versions of their second-hand favourites.
By the ’90s, rock music’s hegemony was being challenged. Pop was re-ascendant, and rap was frightening mothers in ways that guitar music hadn’t in decades. Though the Britpop wars re-ran the battles of the ’60s between mods and rockers, it was rave and hip-hop that had the most sartorial influence – the decade still looks like either sagged jeans or bucket hats, depending on whether you obsessed over Compton or the Hacienda.
The 2000s provided perhaps rock music’s last big trend, as the (now much regretted) indie boom drove a generation of young, asymmetrically haircutted men into the women’s section of Topshop, where they loaded up on skinny jeans and too-small T-shirts.
Still, though rock’s decades-old signifiers survived – scrawled-on T-shirts, beaten-up denim jacket and Converse that had seen better days still lived in the wardrobes of any man who refused to remove his Reading Festival wristband. And they still abide, even if you haven’t listened to a song with guitars in for the last decade.
5 Seminal Rock Looks And How To Wear Them Today
Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock Double-Denim
Okay, so it’s a costume for a film, but inmate Elvis’s jeans, denim jacket and Breton top – arguably the most stylish prison uniform of all time – turned into a case of life imitating art. In the film, Elvis’s performance in a nationally broadcast, jailhouse talent show turns him into a sensation once he gets out.
It turned out to be just as influential in reality, inspiring not just the modern music video, but also the way a generation dressed, by presenting a cleaned-up spin on the battered denim the beatniks had adopted as a uniform.
How To Wear It Today
Double denim never dies. “It’s a timeless look,” says Goto. A few years ago, we’d have advised you update it with a slimmer cut and some differentiation between the shades. Today? Wear it exactly as Elvis did – although maybe swerve the quiff unless you’re actually heading to a costume party.
Mick Jagger’s ’70s Tailoring
Jagger’s been a rock style lodestar since the ’60s, and still wears skinnies and a silk scarf better than almost anyone. But for all the flamboyance, it’s the bad boy edge he brought to grown-up clothes that still resonates (there are not that many opportunities to try a suede jumpsuit offstage after all).
After being busted for possession in 1967, he turned up to court three years later in a trim, tweed double-breasted suit that he wore as nonchalantly as if he were in town to challenge a parking ticket.
How To Wear It Today
Jagger often wore his sensible tailoring over a floral shirt – and that mix of formal and fun is precisely how you should approach your suits today. For every buttoned-up element, add a note of something unexpected, be it chunky trainers, a track top or, like Mick, something silky. It’s the rock and roll way.
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Jumpsuits
Before Bowie, rock stars were just people, only more famous – the man on stage was no different from the version you might bump into in the street. Bowie created characters; in the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, he could move between identities and images, reinventing himself and his music.
Ziggy’s sequined jumpsuits and mane of red hair were arguably his most iconic look, and were revolutionary for the way they challenged gender norms. Today’s androgynous designers and pop stars owe him a debt.
How To Wear It Today
If Bowie leaves any legacy, it’s about the confidence to wear whatever you damn well please, and to make your wardrobe work for your identity. So if sequins aren’t for you, you can still tap his look in a neutral boiler suit or even dungarees – just add a tee beneath and a jacket on top to turn it into a workwear spin on the tracksuit.
The Ramones Beaten-Up Uniform
The Ramones had a wardrobe that was even simpler than their songs (and there are few things simpler than that). Converse, drainpipe jeans, biker jacket – just swap in whatever T-shirt suits your mood / is clean that day.
Just as punk’s influence never entirely leaves the charts, this archetypal spin on the rock and roll look remains the blueprint for everyone from Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent to Hedi Slimane at Celine. Its beauty lies in both its ease, and its customisability – it’s up to you how blown-out you wear the knees of your jeans, or how battered you like your leather jackets.
How To Wear It Today
Don’t overcomplicate things. Maybe a little less leg skin on show would be no bad thing, but at heart, this is an outfit that resigns from trends in favour of something timeless. Keep it tight, keep it dark and keep it lived-in.
The Strokes Mid-’00s Ode To Rock Clothing
Some would argue that the Strokes’ skinny jeans and black boots were just a 21st century spin on the Ramones’s template, but we’d ask what’s wrong with that? The proof of its efficacy is in all those photos that lurk in the depths of your Facebook profile – skinny jeans, trucker jackets, Chelsea boots and tees featuring bands you kept meaning to actually listen to (Spotify, how we needed you then).
Albert Hammond Jr and co were also more adventurous than you remember – the odd leopard print shirt, striped blazer or suede jacket would always find its way onto their tour bus.
How To Wear It Today
The Strokes built almost every look around denim, then played with silhouette by mixing up shapes – skinny jeans and boxy blazers, or skinny jeans and cropped Harringtons, or (yes) skinny jeans and loose safari jackets. It’s all about playing with form until you find something that makes simple pieces feel stage-ready.
5 Pieces Of Rock Clothing To Add To Your Wardrobe
The Leather Jacket
This is rock and roll wardrobe 101. The leather jacket comes in thousands of different guises, but you want a Perfecto-style biker jacket that, ideally, doesn’t look brand new. If your allegiances lie with punk, then daub curses on the back. If you’re more grunge, sleep in it for a week. If you’re more Elvis, try it with matching leather trousers.
A wardrobe building block that, depending on the fit and the degree of brutality you enact upon them, could steer you anywhere from emo to hair metal. Whichever way you go with your black jeans, odds are you want them slim and with at least a couple of cigarette burns in the thigh.
The real show happens backstage. And then, at some point, you wake up and have to face either your fans, your press or your tour manager. Black – very, very black – sunglasses will hide the damage and help you face the daylight without throwing up. Or they’ll at least make you look like you’ve been up to something more interesting than a night in with Netflix.
The rock and roll suit is a pick-your-poison option. If you’re a Specials fan, it should be black. If you dig Pulp, then go corduroy. If you’re more Jimi Hendrix, then think Gucci-alike crushed velvet, with optional silk scarf knotted around your neck.
A Pair Of Converse
Converse was the go-to footwear choice for everyone from Dee Dee Ramone to Kurt Cobain, so much so that the original basketball shoe is more famous these days for time spent in the moshpit than on the court. Any style will do, whether you prefer plain white or leopard print, but one truth endures – boxfresh Cons are about as rock and roll as your mum’s Abba LPs.