Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Dressed For Success: Fashioning the Beatles, by Deirdre Kelly

The Beatles with Little Richard, 1962 (Photo: Horst Fascher/Redferns)

“Now I'm stepping out of this old brown shoe
Baby, I'm in love with you
I'm so glad you came here, it won't be the same now
I'm telling you.

I may appear to be imperfect
My love is something you can't reject
I'm changing faster than the weather”

– “Old Brown Shoe”, George Harrison, Abbey Road.

Although composed and recorded in the late phase of their stellar career, a humble but lovely gem by the always underrated Mr. Harrison for their last masterpiece Abbey Road during their slow motion breakup, the tune “Old Brown Shoe” still seems to encapsulate some of the supersonic swift living the band survived through during the magnificent eight years of their astronomical rise to fame and fortune. “I’m changing faster than the weather” also seems to echo both the breathtaking musical stylistic shifts they underwent as well as to mirror the under-reported fashion styles they first embraced, then embodied and finally shared with the rest of us lesser mortals. Deirdre Kelly’s masterful and insightful documenting of their dramatic clothing coolness, Fashioning the Beatles: The Looks that Shook the World, now finally addresses their nearly supernatural chic and how it paralleled the shockingly inspiring evolutionary leaps they took in the art of the popular song. It’s a literary gift of the highest order.

Sutherland House Books, Toronto.

That subtitle: the looks that shook the world, is far from being mere hyperbole, even if it evoked, for me anyway, John Reed’s chronicle of revolution Ten Days That Shook the World, since it might also have been titled Eight Years That Shook the World. It's a fabulous and important tome, and I've read literally a ton of Beatles material over the years, but I can't remember one I've enjoyed and savored page by page quite as much as hers. Kelly’s exhaustive detailing of the band’s apparel, whether matching or intentionally mis-matched, and their various gifted designers, their looks’ custom bespoke quality and their own attitude toward their altitude is simply splendid. It's beyond solely music or their pop celebrity and importance altogether (although the reader of course automatically knows that this is a Beatles-lover's tome to be sure) but it's in a whole other league of journalistic endeavor, and beneath the surface of appreciation for who they were historically, it’s not so secretly about the politics of desire, the allure of style appetite, the compulsions of our collective fetishes and the unconscious projection of what they represented culturally.

I enjoyed it immensely, and appreciated it even more: it’s very well written and researched beyond in-depth, featuring a truly unique narrative lens: clothes that made the men. Others have noted how the band had a "distinctive sense of style", but none, or very few until Kelly, have explained precisely why, how come, and from what sources their own near fetishistic attraction to looking super-cool originally arose and evolved personally for them. I loved her chronicle of how style and fashion, image and persona were pivotal garnishes atop their musical brilliance. In that respect it reminds me somewhat of the knowing spirit of my late friend Kevin Courrier’s book on the Beatles, Artificial Paradise, in which he explored the dark side of their utopian dream together. In this tome, Kelly explores the bright and shiny side of their free wheeling way of wearing the finest and rarest of garb, while still somehow maintaining their charming working class ethos. But even before they began being outfitted in the coolest and finest limited edition Saville Row clothes in London, subsequent to their core image being altered forever by their epochal encounter with Astrid Kirchnerr in Hamburg which refashioned their hair downward and their apparel in gritty black leather, they were already held in thrall to another supercool black ethos. In addition to their rock rhythm, it was the trim and tight shiny suits worn by many of their black idols, the snappy dressing dudes who (in addition to the white interloper Mr. Presley who borrowed the rock and roll they had invented and popularized it with white audiences) virtually inspired the teenaged Liverpool lads to become musicians overnight when they first encountered the raucous new musical form on imported records from America.

Hamburg 1960, before Ringo joined the band and cemented their beat forever.

When the musical revolution that would inspire the lads to begin launching their own inspiring innovations in music, and as Kelly astutely points out also allowed them free reign to launch a fashion and style revolution almost as dramatic, first found the band’s founders John and Paul in 1957, they were basically rough and ready teddy-boys. Soon enough though, as they were beginning to sweat on speed in Germany and then really begin cooking at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, their personal style began to echo and emulate their idols. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Guy and a host of other bluesy black rocking titans were always seen strutting on stage in slick suits that accentuated the raw sensuality of this new music vibe. Of special significance to their early style sensibility was the swaggering androgynous sweaty-spirit of Richard Penniman.

Paul McCartney (the secret leader of the band for years and years once they really got going) was 14 years old when he first watched Little Richard performing the title song “The Girl Can’t Help It” in the 1956 film starring the multi-talented Jayne Mansfield. This may have been actually the first music video ever produced by the way. His life would never be the same, and neither would ours, once he met the official leader of the band Mr. Lennon. After seeing Richard performing “Ready Teddy”, which he took to be a personal message to him, he was mesmerized and adopted (as often as his bandmates would let him) Penniman’s raging growling throaty shriek, and soon enough he’d be attired in shiny shark suits similar to his idol. He also early on learned (with a little help from their visionary manager Brian Epstein) that visual image and fashion style was almost as important as being a genius. And this is where Kelly’s excellent book delivers its remarkable service. Prior to their avid adherence to strict codes of hand made tailored suits, usually courtesy of Dougie Millings, I was so caught up in their bright and shiny musical brilliance that I barely noticed how sophisticated and elegant these guys really were. Even today, until Deidre’s book descended and launched a day by day, year by year evolutionary document of their apparel, as well as how seriously they took their hand crafted look, I’m not sure I fully realized at all how dapper and self-confident these guys really were.

The Beatles in 1963. (Photo: Andy Wright)

Nik Cohn summed it up succinctly in the epigram from Today There Are No Gentlemen, that opens her timely tome: “I can’t overpitch this, the Beatles changed everything. Before them, all teenage life, and therefore all fashion, existed in spasms; after them, it was an entity, a separate society.” Hence perhaps the exactitude of George’s nostalgic observation, “I’m changing faster than the weather.” He knew whereof he spoke. And so does Deirdre Kelly. As Tony Palmer, director of  “All You Need Is Love” observed: “The Beatles didn’t set out to be the trend. They were innately stylish young men who, by constantly changing their appearance (mostly to please themselves), altered the look of a generation, not once but time and time again. Why? Because they were original. They did not follow fashion. They took it in new directions, becoming the leading style makers of their day. Their look permeated contemporary culture much like their music.” And Gawd they were just so damn cool that their fashion forward outfits, chosen and worn on a whim for their own personal amusement, are still just as hip over half a century later. Palmer is also right on target when he lauds Kelly’s incredibly well researched work as an unparalleled survey and analysis of the Beatles as the enduring epitome of pop style. Pop culture itself was always, of course, about things and trends that quickly go in and out of style, but not these four gents: they were so far ahead of their time that they still seem to exist in a future that is still arriving.

McCartney had his usual low key, almost ironic sense of their own importance to the times, “We were slightly—you could call it arrogant or confident—in our own sense of fashion.” Kelly is even more on point: “With their boldly original outfits, high-stylized hair and mustaches, the Beatles projected a radical personal appearance that made them not simply different but extraordinary. Crafting a look that spoke volumes about who you were, where you came from, the music you liked, how you viewed the world and your place in it, was what the Beatles had in common.” And her book commences its chronicle long before they were even officially known as the Beatles, while still ruffians, teddy-boys, proto-punk howlers and finally, amazingly enough, cool, calm and collected balladeers writing the soundtrack for our collective future. And once the year 1961 started, an era Kelly calls that of Cosmetic Conversion, they never looked back. “The Beatles all gladly put on suits, making the trip across the Mersey to be properly fitted once they realized the value to their career of being smartly dressed.”

The legendary Fats Domino accepts the well earned adulation of the Beatles during their ascent, 1964.

Thence commenced their whirlwind merry-go-round public and private life that swept all the rest of us, gob-smacked and gazing in awe at these chameleon-like geniuses who seemed to take it all in their very lengthy strides, along with them for the ride of a century. One of the (many) pleasures of this book is the fact that, being smartly chronological in presentation, it simultaneously takes us on the roller coaster ride of the swift and stunning musical evolution while also bringing us behind the scenes into the tailor’s fitting rooms where their ever changing clothing choices were literally embodying the quirky personalities behind how they dressed for this or that event in public, and also in private. Thus, the chapters tumble across our breathless memories in a robust cascade of the essential Beatle calendar. 1960: tough leather; 1961: cosmetic conversion; 1962: gold-coloured cufflinks; 1963: uncollared; 1964: well hello mop-tops; 1965: kings of corduroy; 1966: from mod to god; 1967: raging retro; 1968: who’s minding the shop (their insanely utopian and disastrous foray in their own private/public Apple fashion empire); 1969: unraveling the threads; 1970 and beyond: slouching towards immortality, which is the almost mystical address where they and we all currently reside, otherwise known as history.

The author’s tone is a consistent combination of cheeky style maven and amazingly knowledgeable band-fan, with this brief except being a perfect example of how detailed a study it is and how expertly she shares it with the rest of us. Epstein was canny enough to bring his wards to the attention of the hippest designers of the time, to make their looks and images come to life in the most memorable way imaginable: “Dougie Millings had been making bespoke clothing for pop groups since 1958. Sealing his reputation as the ‘tailor to the stars’. The clothes might have been a bit flashy but they were beautifully crafted and well made. Epstein made the appointment for them to arrive at 63 Old Compton Street. He encouraged them to arrive with their own thoughts. Judging by the estimated 500 suits Millings would make for the Beatles in the next several years, they had no shortage of ideas. The group asked Millings to make something smart but not ostentatious. They wanted to look ‘a little bit different’ than the other groups. ‘We don’t want to look like The Shadows’, Millings recalled John saying that day.

The result of their first encounter was chic and elegant: a three piece chocolate-brown suit with a velvet collar that had been inaugurated by the Teds. The Beatles wore the hand-stitched garment with pink and white gingham penny-collar shirts with Portofino cuffs adorned with gold-coloured cufflinks. They completed the look with inch-thick black ties and their leather Cuban heel boots. The rush to sophistication was noticeable, and perhaps not unexpected with them spending increasing amounts of time in the capital, meeting the press, making the scene.” Well, to put it mildly, they didn’t just make the scene, they made the scene: they were the scene, until they stopped being a group, and even for decades afterward. To this day in fact, having the two living Beatles still with us, Paul and Ringo, and continuing to perform and stun us, by not simply following any wayward trends in our jaded 21rst Century but rather being seemingly beyond all trends. Even when only half the group is still alive kicking, they aren’t just dapper elderly dudes, they are, in fact, still Beatles. And they always will be. And Kelly’s book will be an opulent archive of their amazing era, within them or without them.





Deirdre Kelly has written on dance and pop culture since 1985, starting as the Dance Critic and Pop Music Columnist for the Globe and Mail and continuing through today as the dance correspondent for the Dance Gazette in London England. For years, she has been our resident dance critic here at Critics At Large, where she also writes on fashion and the Beatles. Kudos to Sutherland House Books for bringing us her fabulously vertiginous saga of what made the visual style image of the greatest pop band in history so emblematic.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work is a book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, published in January 2024.

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