The Sartorial Brilliance of 1980s UK Indie Pop

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Flipping through A Scene Between, Sam Knee’s tribute to the style of 1980s British indie acts such as The Pastels, Orange Juice, and, of course, The Smiths, I had to admit to myself that even though hardly a day goes by when I don’t find myself listening to music from that time and place, it was a later band that took most of its influences from that era, Belle and Sebastian, who first got me searching thrift stores for paisley button-up shirts and anoraks to which I could fasten Jesus and Mary Chain badges. But soon enough, I came to realize that my true sartorial heroes had mostly broken up long before I was old enough to appreciate their greatness.

Stephen Pastel. Photo credit: Jim Barr

Rock and roll has always been about substance and style. It’s left up to the maker of the music and its audience to decide which is more important, but there are plenty of examples of artists who could balance the two. From Bo Diddley in his great checkered sport coats, glasses, and rectangular guitar that pumped out a revolutionary sound to Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, music and fashion have always worked together — something fans and critics alike have unjustly bemoaned for decades, clinging to the idea that it should only be about the music.

The Smiths. Photo credit: Martin Whitehead

And sure, the music is the most important thing — but that doesn’t mean bands have to be a couple of guys in sweatpants who can really wail on their guitars. The distinctively bookish fashions of the the acts featured in A Scene In Between complemented the bands’ musical talent, songwriters who liked to sing about poets, and fixations on authors from Oscar Wilde to Kafka. And that’s what makes the book so interesting: there aren’t any long essays about the perfection of Television Personalities’ “Part Time Punks” or how influential The Vaselines went on to become, or any firsthand accounts of the time Instead, A Scene Between lets the pictures do the talking, and they say a whole lot.

The Sea Urchins. Photo credit: Mick Geoghegan

Looking throughout the book, you can’t help but think of these bands’ US contemporaries, like K Records founder and Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson, but the styles that actually dominated the American underground at the time tended to be more extreme, more rooted in older stateside traditions like rockabilly and the blues, as well as the dark goth styles that were becoming more and more prevalent. Bands like The Gun Club, X, and especially The Cramps wore pompadours and dressed like Sun Records zombies, in fairly sharp contrast to UK twee: short, almost preppy haircuts; ’60s mod dresses; bead necklaces; baggy wool sweaters; and tight jeans. While records by those Slash Records bands are now considered iconic, it’s the sartorial influence of bands from across the pond that is most prominent in any hip neighborhood or indie rock festival circa 2013.