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Black leather made yesterday’s music idols look dangerous and sexy. But where are the new style makers? By Melisande Clarke

Periodically, someone wears something that so captures the Zeitgeist that it is burned on the retina of fashion forever. Grace Kelly and her Hermes bag, Chanel’s first little black dress, Olivia Newton John in leg warmers these images can never be erased. But for unforgettable clobber, nobody does it better than a rock idol. Today, singers are so tricked up it’s hard to tell where the talent ends and the clothes begin. And if they’re not making the fashion faux pas, a stylist or a designer is doing it for them.

However, there was a time when performers’ raw magnetism seeped into their gear, transferring cachet to the clothes. What they wore spoke volumes about who they were, and nothing said, “Je suis un rock star” like a pair of leather pants.

The elevation of leather daks into the rock’n’roll wardrobe came in the late 60s when music and fashion collided on television as Jim Morrison poured his love god bod into tight leather trousers to sing Light My Fire on The Ed Sullivan Show, ignoring the director’s plea to cut the racy line “Girl we couldn’t get much higher”. A style was born. Morrison certainly breathed life into leather, but he wasn’t the first.

In the post war period, black leather jackets were associated with bikers and danger, an image that was enhanced when Marlon Brando wore one as a motorcycle menace in 1954’s The Wild One. The message was clear: wearing a leather jacket was asking for trouble. Unless you happened to be singing at the same time.

Elvis Presley is often credited with having been the first to take leather from the streets to the stage, but before 1968 he had worn it only once for a publicity shot. It was rockabilly bad boy Gene Vincent who first performed in the threatening attire.

In 1956, Vincent’s first single, Be Bop A Lula, was a hit, but his career had since stalled. That changed when he met producer Jack Good, who, with a background in Shakespearian theatre, knew how to create drama. Good had expected Vincent to be as dark and sexy as his hit song but what he got was a “young waif who looked as if he needed a nanny and a cup of cocoa”.

In Joshua Sims’s book Rock Fashion, Good says, “I imagined how Gene Vincent could be portrayed as an introverted villain. Black was the colour of introversion” and leather was the obvious choice.

Vincent’s dangerous new stage persona, accentuated by a limp (the result of a motorbike accident), and his white country music meets black rhythm and blues sound went on to inspire many musicians including The Beatles. His influence is apparent in the band’s early leather look that was later replaced by Pierre Cardin inspired suits and uniform mop tops a stylistic change that reportedly displeased John and delighted Paul.

Thereafter, it was hell for leather. Punks splashed their jackets with graffiti and badges, and everyone from Suzi Quatro to Duran Duran put their mark on it. Versions of the enduring unadorned black leather jacket have been worn by Madonna, Cher, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox, Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Another traditional rock’n’roll accessory is dark sunglasses. Although tinted specs have been around since 1885 and became fashionable in the 30s when film stars adopted them, it was the association with rock music that made them dangerously sexy. In the hands of musicians, sunglasses became shorthand for “I’m extremely cool, possibly famous and probably stoned”.

In time, a fashion launched on the back of a singer or, even better, someone singing in a movie, could become an icon overnight. In 1980 John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd wore Ray Ban sunglasses in The Blues Brothers. As a result, the Wayfarer style has a place in The Guinness Book Of Records as “the best selling sunglasses style in history”.

Other accessories given a leg up by the music fraternity are Dr Martens boots and shoes, the brand which has earned an entry in The Oxford English Dictionary. The black leather eight eyelet lace up boot was originally an orthopedic shoe created by Dr Klaus Maertens. In the late 50s, English boot making company R Griggs Co improved on his design, anglicised the name and, in April 1960, produced the new boot.

In the 70s the footwear became popular with punk bands and rockers. Griggs Co came to the party, aiming its advertising to this ready made market. The Who’s Pete Townshend liked them because the famous air cushioned soles gave good bounce and the ska band Madness wore them almost exclusively. They reached their height when Elton John slipped into a towering pair of Doc boots with red laces as the Pinball Wizard in the 1975 movie Tommy. However, it was Doc shoes that went on to become a fashion staple during the 1980s.

By the mid 90s, popsters were all being styled with the same brush more sexy than savvy. Now, the chances of a singer, male or female, instigating a unique look are slim. Is there anything memorable about the outfits worn by try hards Christina Aguilera (left), Lil’ Kim or Pink, except that there is a lot of flesh, too much make up and no taste involved? The last person to stand out in a crowd was Madonna and even she seems to have misplaced her mojo.

Of course, there’s Bjork (with a little help from designers Hussein Chalayan and Marjan Pejoski), who is undoubtedly an individual. But who wants to look like a goose? Perhaps it’s time to take our lead from a new arena. Anyone for tennis?
dr martens will boot Je suis un Rockstar