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A Musical Fashion Exposé

By Nicholas S. Racheotes

Here’s an idea for your next party game. After the guests have been sufficiently hydrated, challenge everyone to quote song lyrics that mention clothing. The first one who fails must do something embarrassing. (That part of the game I leave to you.)

Over the decades, fashion in song has reflected social norms in amusing and intriguing ways. Clothes make the musical context and offer what pass as alluring statements of a given era. Let’s not get too intellectual about all this—let’s explore instead.

Beginning in 1919, not so very shy but somewhat demure lasses could hit the town in a “sweet little Alice blue gown.” They would fawn over their reflections in store windows and presumably catch the eye of every passing swain. By the 1930s, Fred Astaire was putting on his top hat, knotting up his white tie, and dusting off his tails. Personally, I’d have paid handsomely to see the intermingling of that getup with a sweet little Alice blue gown on the rumble seat of a Ford Roadster on a moonlit night. That would be an impression that would stave off the Depression, for sure.

By the 1950s, matters had turned decidedly worse. Thousands of guys had thrown off their battle fatigues and dress blues. They were lamenting the fact that the current generation had sunken into juvenile delinquency and heart-rending loneliness. The fool who was the terror of Highway 101 sported black denim trousers (yes, trousers, not pants), motorcycle boots, and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back. Otherwise, when stood up by his date, you’d find him in a white sport coat (yes, sport coat) with a pink carnation (I’ll leave that alone), all dressed up for the big dance.

Footwear comes into plenty of songs, as well. Cowboys wore jingling spurs. (Nobody ever asked the horse’s opinion of that fashion statement.) You were country and a tramp according to Carla Thomas and Otis Redding if you wore brogan shoes. You were absolutely killing when strutting around in your high-heel sneakers with that wig hat on your head, though I can’t imagine how ladies walked in those things. If you could afford them, a pair of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” (they later became “shiny, shiny, shiny” when Velvet Underground penned “Venus in Furs”) would lift you in a folkie’s estimation.

The total makeover for those aristocratic patriots who owned yachts and helicopters and who wouldn’t be caught dead or alive in battle fatigues and dress blues was quite elaborate. Dodie (I wonder if she ever forgave her parents for that) Stevens had a boyfriend arrayed in tan shoes with pink shoelaces, a polka-dot vest, and a big Panama with a purple hat band (I wonder if he ever forgave his haberdasher for that).

Polka dots take me right to the beach. When a young woman whose modesty far exceeded her interest in keeping up with the style of the French Riviera showed up on the beach in an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini, she created quite a stir, not as you might think, but by hiding out and hiding it the best she could. The Beach Boys, in a display of all-American modesty, dressed their surfer guys in sandals and baggy shorts. Later, they would break down and dig a Hawaiian island doll in a French bikini by a palm tree in the sand.

To top things off, let’s consider hats. Bob Dylan again sang of a dame’s “leopard-skin pill-box hat,” which resembled a mattress perched on a bottle of wine. I confess never to have seen either.

To top things off, let’s consider hats. Bob Dylan again sang of a dame’s “leopard-skin pill-box hat,” which resembled a mattress perched on a bottle of wine. I confess never to have seen either. The Chad Mitchell Trio poignantly sang about busing to achieve school desegregation when an open-minded white society lady addressed her African American maid:

Which hat shall I wear, the red one or blue one? Which hat shall I wear to the PTA? The red hat’s becoming; the blue one’s a new one Mary, come here. Tell me which do you say?

She ends by awarding the maid, “the green silk with a tear” (after telling her to do the floors and windows).

When Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones burbled about their b-b-b-b-black slacks, they included a red bow tie and derby. They also confessed that girls sighed when they walked by, little wonder. Amy Grant made hats a metaphor for all the tasks she had to perform, but there was nothing metaphorical about Joe Cocker and Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Maybe I should leave it there, but I’m yielding to temptation.

In music, at least in part, women have evolved. Some might say that they have been less “objectified.” I’m not that sure, but “the devil with the blue dress on” has given way to the “girl in a short skirt and a long jacket” who is “touring the facility” and “using a machete to cut through red tape.” She’s probably taking charge and not necessarily an angel who wants to wear anyone’s red shoes.

What a strange sartorial trip this has been, from the simple Alice blue gown to the anything-but-chaste “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Let’s get back to the era of parlor games. No cheating now—without using any of the above, make your collective lists and imagine a suitable punishment for the person who can’t add a contribution. (Maybe they should have to wear a polka-dot vest to work for a week.)

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.

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