Here’s a prediction, as the Grammys and the Brit awards loom: the next day, no one will remember what any of the rock stars wore as they clutched their statuettes on stage.
Note: we are talking here about rock stars, the bands with guitars and serious expressions – the likes of U2 and Coldplay – not their more colourful R ’n’ B or pop counterparts. Lady Gaga’s latest sartorial outrage, Rihanna’s new hairstyle, Beyoncé’s love of Tom Ford (she modelled for his spring/summer 2011 show) all may attract comment as said celebrities sashay down the red carpet. But Coldplay’s Chris Martin? Whatever he wears, it’s doubtful that it will cause havoc at Top Man.
Yet it was not always thus. Indeed, fashion designers are currently fascinated by the days when rock stars really did influence what people wore. From Diane von Furstenberg and Marc Jacobs in New York to Gucci in Milan and Balmain in Paris, this year’s spring collections are infused with the spirit of the 1970s, that most flamboyant and risqué of rock decades – the era of glam and punk, a time when David Bowie persuaded a generation to dress like sexually confused aliens and the New York Dolls swaggered around Lower Manhattan in torn fishnet stockings, leopard-skin prints, silk scarves and platform boots.
Glam began in Britain in the early 1970s, when native traditions of camp and effeminacy were seeded with rock. The result was Marc Bolan in his feather boa and glitter singing “20th Century Boy” to teens shuffling around in stack heels and bouffant hair on Top of the Pops. Bolan’s friend Bowie exported glam to the US, where Lou Reed and the New York Dolls stripped away any innocence and injected it with a nihilistic attitude and druggy self-destructiveness. It was then brought back to London as punk by Malcolm McLaren, who set up the Sex Pistols as a British version of the New York Dolls – and, not coincidentally, sold the look at his shop on King’s Road.
It is specifically this transatlantic period in the mid-1970s, when glam shaded into punk, that designers are celebrating. Marc Jacobs cited the New York Dolls as an inspiration for the shiny satin jackets, dramatic flared trousers and glittery platforms in his spring show, alongside Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Bowie, in his 1976 Thin White Duke phase, was the reference point for Dries Van Noten’s autumn 2011 men’s wear collection, with models sporting slicked-back strawberry blonde hair and fur-collared overcoats. Balmain’s ripped T-shirts, studs and zipped leather trousers shifted the focus to punk, like the bondage straps decorating Riccardo Tisci’s clothes for Givenchy.
All this goes in hand with a general interest in the mid-1970s – Gucci’s silk disco gowns and jumpsuits could only be more Studio 54 if Bianca Jagger rode in modelling them on a white horse. Yet the rock theme also marks a departure. It moves away from the Mad Men-style fashion that dominated the catwalks a year or so ago; it is a shift from a stylish but demure version of femininity to a more showy, extrovert, even confrontational style.
Much the same evolution occurred in the mid-1970s in music. The original rock ’n’ roll revolution was largely a male-only affair; women were as mute as the immaculately dressed wives in Mad Men. As the decade progressed, however, a new, assertive variety of female rock star began to emerge. The soothing voice of Karen Carpenter gave way to a throatier, tougher type of vocalist: Suzi Quatro, Patti Smith, Joan Jett. Quatro wore a black leather catsuit in tribute to Elvis Presley; Smith cultivated an androgynous look, a reverse New York Doll; and Jett dressed like a 1950s biker.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring collection is directly inspired by Jett, whose band was depicted in last year’s film The Runaways. “It’s romantic rock ’n’ roll, tight stretch fishnets and big boots,” the designer said. At his show, models wore spiky black wigs and red leather hotpants. “Cherry Bomb”, by Jett’s hard-rocking band the Runaways, blasted on the soundtrack. Gaultier even had a genuine rock star on hand to model his clothes on the catwalk: the Gossip’s Beth Ditto, one of Jett’s few modern successors.
The legacy of Quatro’s leather suit (scorched in the memory lodes of a certain generation of British men) also lives on. The biker look that has emerged as one of spring’s major trends, in collections from Burberry and Marios Schwab, for instance, bears a Quatrovian echo. But does it work today? Off-stage, can you dress like a 1970s rock star and get away with it?
In one sense, yes: glam rock and punk’s themes of self-expression and role play are as relevant in the 2010s as they were 35 years ago. But there is a big difference too. In the mid-1970s rock was primarily the agent of generational rebellion. That’s no longer the case in an age when its audience stretches from children to pensioners. This is why rock stars look so ordinary these days: instead of the public trying to emulate their style, they emulate ours. The irony is, if fashion has its way, soon we will be emulating not their look but the look of their forefathers. The circle, thanks to the often surreal world of style, has been squared.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
‘It’s a lifestyle, not just a look’
Roberto Cavalli, designer
“When I started my fashion house in the 1970s, rock ’n’ roll was the centre of the universe. My friends and clients were rock stars, and must-haves included chains, fitted trousers, Cuban heels and, most importantly, an attitude and presence. Rock ’n’ roll isn’t something you can simply pick up and drop down whenever you feel like it – it is a way of life. Anyone can put a ‘look’ together, but with this style you have to feel it from the heart, and have a certain swagger. My spring collection is inspired by rock ’n’ roll, from the silk scarves to the open-neck shirts.”
Cameron Silver, owner of Decades, a vintage store in Los Angeles
“Anyone who authentically lives the look would never buy the designer versions of rock ’n’ roll style now. But I think fashion lovers are intrigued with the notion of looking rebellious regardless of their stature. It’s ironic to think the woman in thousand-dollar torn-up jeans and a studded leather jacket may actually be running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund.”
Suzi Quatro, rock singer
“I’m the originator of the leather jumpsuit, which is no mean feat in itself and quite a responsibility. When we were launching the single ‘Can the Can’, I just thought it was sensible, not sexy. I was an energetic performer and it fit like a glove. Rock ’n’ roll is about being edgy and not fitting in. It’s about saying, ‘I am my own person. If I want to wear a leather jacket to a black-tie event I will.’ It’s a personality statement, not a fashion statement.”
Rita Watnick, owner, Lily et Cie, vintage haute couture, Los Angeles
“Girls weren’t afraid to be boys, so boys weren’t afraid to be girls. The difference now is that designers are creating looks and saying: this is what you want to buy, so buy it. Back then it was: This is what I want to be; now I’m going to be it.”
Stephen Webster, jewellery designer
“My first encounter with rock ’n’ roll was glam rock in 1972. I loved the whole package, the showmanship. Then at art school, it turned into punk rock. The fashion, the music and the attitude all went together. I’d shop in markets, wear things for women and rip them up a bit.”
Sylvain Sylvain, New York Dolls guitarist and band member
“Wearing that stuff in New York City you took your life in your hands getting to the gig. Lots of people didn’t get it or appreciate it. I liked to wear black rock ’n’ roll leather chaps on stage, tight with zippers. I’d wear them with velvet, anything. It was all unisex. We used to dress crazy just to go to the supermarket. I remember going once in 1972, when our bass player was wearing a zebra-skin faux fur coat. This guy in there turned to his friend and said: ‘The things you see when you ain’t got a rifle.’ That was the attitude.”
Zandra Rhodes, designer
“I used to wear shawls with green feathers, a transparent smock, jodhpurs with white high boots from Biba and sequins round the eyes. I thought I looked normal!”
Interviews by Lucie Greene