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June 15, 2012 7:10 pm
The first sighting of Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages, the cinema adaptation of the 2009 Broadway jukebox musical set during the days when hard rock groups Mötley Crüe, Guns n’ Roses, and Poison ruled the airwaves, shows him getting unsteadily to his feet from under a heap of naked women. He is wearing a cowboy hat, leather chaps – and a devil’s head codpiece.
It’s a startling new look for the Cruise-ster. Indeed it would be a startling look for anyone. Yet there was a time and a place when such attire was almost de rigueur for the partying gentleman of leisure. That time was the 1980s and the place was Sunset Strip – the celebrated stretch of sleazy nightclubs and bars at the heart of Los Angeles’ hard rock scene. And perhaps most startlingly of all, the look is making something of a comeback.
Michelle Obama recently appeared at an awards ceremony in a pair of skin-tight leather trousers created by up-and-coming designer Wes Gordon – a sophisticated update on a staple ingredient of the LA rock wardrobe. Hollywood-based designer Jeremy Scott opened his spring 2012 show with Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” and male and female models in bandanas, denim and chaps cavorting on the catwalk.
Meanwhile, off the runway, a generation young enough to have been conceived to the strains of Ratt’s “I Want a Woman” have revived elements of the Sunset Strip look. Studded leather bracelets, high-top sneakers, denim jackets and dark stretch jeans have been reclaimed by hipsters. The style is worn with an ironic smirk – yet there’s also an undercurrent of fondness for the era’s fun-loving spirit. Even its most notorious hairstyle, the mullet, has had a kitsch revival. It appears that people love dressing up as Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx and singing along to 1980s hard rock hits.
To understand why, it’s worth going back to the roots (pun fully intended) of what became known as “hair metal”. It was one of the rare eras in fashion history when men were licensed to dress more flamboyantly than women. LA hard rock fashions were like the music: big, brash, sex-obsessed. Extravagant manes shook along to power chords. Guitarists in tight ripped jeans and T-shirts cranked out trashy riffs. It was a celebration of masculinity so over-the-top that it became camp. As Poison’s Bret Michaels said: “We’ve always said it takes a real man to wear make-up.”
Singers adopted falsetto wails and pranced around like peacocks. Spandex manufacturers saw orders go through the roof. Industrial quantities of hairspray were shipped to California. Scarves and bangles aped Keith Richards’ gypsy guitar-slinger look. Feather boas, leopard print blouses and make-up channelled the New York Dolls. Over on Wall Street, financiers with slicked-back hair and braces made money. On Sunset Strip, rockers with shaggy coiffures and drug habits spent it.
Meanwhile, women wore ... well, not much. Fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, miniskirts, fingerless lace gloves, stretch jeans – anything to show off the “long legs and burgundy lips” of Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”. In this male-dominated world their role was mainly decorative. In other words, they dressed like strippers.
Such preposterous splendour couldn’t last. LA’s hard rockers were partly architects of their own undoing, brought low by alcoholism, substance abuse and egotism. But their baroque style also fell from favour as the Reagonomics boom turned to bust in the 1990s. Grunge, centred in rainy Seattle to the north, brought thrift-store values to the fore with plaid shirts and decrepit jeans. Hair was worn lank and dirty. Sunset Strip’s peacocks were derided as “poodle rockers”. “The dream is over,” a sorrowful Van Halen sang in 1991. Or at least it was – until Rock of Ages came along.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s rock and pop critic
Get the look: Rock follies?
Skinny leather trousers, ripped and faded jeans, gothic jewellery, pale denim jackets ... elements of the the hair metal look are all over the catwalks and the high street. Just don’t wear them all at once – and stay away from the hairspray.
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