The Beatles as Fashion Gurus

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
May 2, 2014
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Last week, LPA hosted a public program on The Beatles and their circle as an influence on fashion in England and here. Phyllis Magidson, Curator of Costume and Textiles for the Museum of the City of New York, and I developed an illustrated conversation on their transitions from Rockers to Mods to Hippies with an occasional visit to Teddy Boys. The black, needle-nose ankle boots stuck around until the trips to India.

I have a public list on BiblioCommons, the Library’s online catalog, of illustrated books that we consulted on fashion and clothing of the period, 1963- 1967. They are either at Mid-Manhattan in the fashion section of the circulating art collection or here in the circulating technical theater collection shelves on costume design, generally in 391.009. Also on those shelves (real and referential), you can find similar books on other 20th century decades’ fashion, clothing or popular culture, so you can also check out the outfits from the '50s and '70s. There are also large files of magazine pages, sketches and cartoons in the Picture Collection.

Most sources combine fashion with social history, although focusing on the music and fashion industries, what Vidal Sassoon called “a melting pot of creative young people and then suddenly all these working-class boys from the provincial cities were converging on our scene with their own ideas. There was a sudden marriage of their music and our look.” (quoted in 1963: The year of the Revolution (by Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve).

Our conversation and the Q&As revealed a fascination with uniformity of hair and outfit for The Beatles—inspired by the Capitol Records promotional photographs of them in the collarless, bound lapel suits by Cardin London. They resemble British school uniforms. Their other standard outfits for that February first week were dark wool suits, looking more like well-made street clothes. As you can see in both Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles and the excellent, must-see Motown exhibition at the Schomburg Center, uniformity of outfits was generally required for male and female singing groups. Two of the audience questions dealt with this on-stage uniformity and whether the Rolling Stones had ever dressed identically. Since they had been cast even then as the rebellious anti-Beatles, most responders found the idea improbable, if not insulting. But one of our references, From 1963: The year of the Revolution (Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve), included in its oral histories, a statement by Keith Richard that they had been forced to wear identical houndstooth jackets for an appearance on the British tv variety show, Thank your Lucky Star (on ITV, 1961-1966).

The Beatles started to add individuality very quickly—John’s Greek sailor’s cap and George’s turtlenecks emerged quickly off-stage. You can see that in the press conference photo with last week’s blog and this blog's photograph of Lennon in the recording studio. Both are by Michael Peto, who photographed them for the Manchester Guardian. With The Beatles' adaptations of British Empire military and marching band jackets for Sgt. Pepper, we showed images of fans buying similar garments at the Carnaby Street Army and Navy shop in Fashions on a Decade: The 1960s (by Yvonne Connikie). By the time they adopted “ethnic” outfits for their Magical Mystery Tour, they were not even agreeing on which ethnic traditions to adopt—mostly in Indian woodblock prints, but Ringo is wearing a dashiki.

John Lennon (in his Greek sailor cap)

Photograph: John Lennon (in his Greek sailor cap). Photograph by Michael Peto, ca. 1965. Michael Peto Collection. University of Dundee