Style isn’t the same as fashion. It’s as much about the ability to carry off someone else’s visual nightmare with panache as it is about always picking the exact right thing to wear in any circumstance. Although, it can also be about finding the look that works for you and sticking to it, come what may.
The bands in this list are all adept at using clothes to say something about themselves before they’ve even struck a note. And they’ve all been cited as hugely influential, not just among fellow musicians, but with their fans too.
10. The Clash
Never knowingly underdressed, the Clash took their initial fashion inspiration from the provocative clothing of the Sex Pistols—who had in turn been dressed by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood—spraying paint and stenciling messages all over their clothes. They later moved into a more classic 1950s movie star mode of dress (apart from Mick Jones, who remained a rock dandy), with Joe Strummer developing a nifty justification for the punk disdain for flared trousers, sneering “Like trousers, like brain.” All of which remains inspirational to iconoclastic punks (the early Manic Street Preachers pinched the stenciling thing wholesale), despite the fact that anyone with cheekbones like Paul Simonon could wear whatever they want and still cut a dash.
Never mind the music (for a second at least), what pop music needs most are peacocks with an immaculate sense of style and no discernible sense of shame. Elvis Presley in his loud pink shirt; Little Richard‘s outrageous pompadour and zoot suit; everything David Bowie wore in the 1970s; Pharrell Williams in his massive hat; Grace Jones using her body as a human statue; Björk turning up at the Oscars red carpet wearing an egg-laying swan. This is the lineage Outkast placed themselves within, and while all eyes naturally turn to Andre 3000 and his extraordinary style creations (he plays multiple characters in this video and they ALL look great), props must also go to his bandmate Big Boi for meeting the rest of us mere mortals halfway.
8. Duran Duran
Pound for pound, Duran Duran are the most consistently stylish of all of the British invasion bands of the 1980s. Culture Club‘s Boy George made more of an individual impact, Depeche Mode reached out to a more isolated audience and A Flock of Seagulls became the butt of too many gags even then. Duran Duran (like their rivals Spandau Ballet) are a band of handsome men, each with their own sense of style. Roger Taylor‘s matinee idol good looks contrasting strongly with the frosty femme fatale pout coming from Nick Rhodes. Simon Le Bon may have the swagger, but it’s John Taylor that effortlessly makes anything from military epaulettes to a burgundy lowlights look handsome.
7. Siouxsie and the Banshees
London punk rock began as a fashion movement with music, and Siouxsie Sioux was its first supermodel. She would attend Sex Pistols gigs with her showoff mates, each one dressed in various provocative outfits designed to shock (one of which involved both naked breasts and swastikas, double trouble), and becoming as much a part of the show as the band themselves. Having decided to form a band themselves, Siouxsie and the immaculate Steve Severin left some of the visceral shock tactics behind, but never lost the urge to show off. While no one in the band will take credit for the goth style of many of their fans, their tastes ran to big hair (either black as night or platinum blonde), loud patterns, geometric makeup, big boots, Lou Reed shades, and Aladdin trousers. Which may sound extreme, but consider this: Which other ’80s band could welcome someone as fashion unique as Robert Smith from the Cure as their guitarist (twice) without him standing out like a sore thumb?
6. Run DMC
Early hip hop had a very clear sense of style, involving strong use of Kangol hats, rope gold chains and loud sweatsuits. And Run DMC were a part of that, but they also changed it. They rocked leather jackets, black Levis, black felt trilby hats and white Adidas shoes with no laces, an unfussy look that matched the lean, muscular sound of their records and loudly signaled that they were representing street reality, not showbiz (much like N.W.A. would, a few years later). And when Public Enemy wanted to visually telegraph Chuck D as an everyman speaking truth to power, he came out dressed in monochrome street clothes and a baseball cap, an update of the Run DMC template made all the more stark next to Flavor Flav‘s brightly colored comic creations.
5. Roxy Music
There’s only one singer in the history of rock music to match Bryan Ferry for style, and that’s David Bowie (who only misses his place at the head of this list because he is not a band). But even if you play down Ferry’s contribution, the rest of the band had what it takes to stand out even when all of their chart rivals were breaking out the tinfoil T-shirts and glittery platform boots. Why, in this clip alone, Phil Manzanera looks like a superhero bitten by a radioactive preying mantis, Andy Mackay like he came from the set of a cartoon remake of West Side Story, and Brian Eno appears to be wearing a shredded mirrorball. It takes the supercilious expression on Ferry’s face to bring home exactly how cool this all is.
4. Sly and the Family Stone
The key to the Family Stone visual aesthetic is that they’re all individuals coming together for a common cause. As they explain in this clip, that meant finding their own style (lots of crochet-work and loud patterns—it was the late ’60s, after all) and then agreeing on a common color for the day’s events. It’s a different approach from the uniform suits of the Motown acts or James Brown, and one that helped them dazzle their hippy audience. And it proved to be a hugely influential approach to dressing a big band of individuals. The Jackson 5 were similarly eye-catching, in a coordinated way that differed from, say Parliament/Funkadelic. And you can see echoes in the look of Prince and the Revolution, for whom the key colors were purple and peach.
3. The Supremes
The Motown finishing school approach may have felt suffocating to the artists at the time, but by bringing in stylists and experts in deportment and dancing, it provided the first glance of what modern pop music would turn out to be, especially for women performers. The Supremes led the charge. They began as three raw Detroit kids from the housing projects with diverting voices and no decorum, and ended up statuesque and regal; actual queens of pop ready to perform in any venue for any audience and wearing the heck out of some immaculate gowns. You can see echoes of this makeover approach in every reality TV pop act, where the star is alchemized into gold from base materials, but if it was a foolproof approach, we’d all be Diana Ross.
2. The Beatles
There aren’t many bands with the sartorial power to change a nation’s haircuts overnight, but that’s exactly what the Beatles did, first in Europe in 1963, and then again in America in 1964. They also opened the changing room curtain on that constant peacock parade that is mod fashion, ensuring that no self-respecting rocker would be seen dead out of their cuban-heeled boots for at least five years. In their wake came the more sartorially diverse moptops the Stones, Who, Kinks and Small Faces (the Brit-rock connoisseur’s dandy band of choice), which in turn provoked loving tributes from the Jam, the Smiths, and Oasis. Heck, Paul McCartney even managed to make walking across the road in a suit and bare feet look cool. THAT is swish.
While they may not match up to Bryan Ferry in the James Bond style stakes, Ramones put together the single most iconic and influential look in rock, bar none. The ripped jeans, leather jackets, sneakers and cartoon T-shirts were not a permanent part of rock ‘n’ roll’s onstage wardrobe, being a throwback to ’50s biker chic and the days when people worried about juvenile delinquents. And because they all wore the same outfit, Ramones came across as a band, a street gang and a cartoonish family too. It’s a perfect look for what became punk—one that Sid Vicious was particularly fond of—and remains the closest thing rock ‘n’ roll has to a permanent school uniform.