Deirdre Kelly, the author of the new book, Fashioning the Beatles: The Looks that Shook the World (Sutherland House), shares the back story to some of fab four’s most famous looks.
A Canadian-made obsession
John Lennon obtained a distinctive clothing item from Le Château when he and Yoko Ono were in Montreal in May, 1969, during the second of their honeymoon bed-ins. The black velour zip-front jumpsuit was then a Le Château specialty, sold by the Canadian clothing brand by the thousands in different fabric weights and colours. The unisex style, with a slightly flared leg, suited men and women. Ono got one too.
Lennon famously wore his on the cover of the Beatles’ Hey Jude album, personalizing it with an embroidered Aztec-pattern fanny pack, wide-brim black Spanish-style hat, likely a handcrafted creation from London bespoke hatter Herbert Johnson, and pointed-toe Beatle boots. After he was seen often wearing the gender-blurring garment (notably, on a return trip to Canada to meet then prime minister Pierre Trudeau that December), the jumpsuit for men became a hot trend. It signalled the dawning of a new era of sexual liberation but just as importantly the enduring allure of the Beatles as the leading style makers.
When Toronto rock journalist Ritchie Yorke joined American-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins on a trip to China as representatives of Lennon and Ono’s global peace mission, he wore a black velour Le Château jumpsuit as his uniform. Lennon had given it to him as a gift. Minnie Yorke, Ritchie’s widow, has it lovingly preserved among her late husband’s effects at her home in Australia where the jumpsuit’s instant karma shines on – like the moon and the stars and the sun.
Boots made for progress
No footwear is more identifiable with the Beatles than the black leather boots with pointed toes and Cuban heels that the Fabs wore with nearly everything in the early 1960s. A skinnier version of the centuries-old Chelsea, Beatle boots – as they became ubiquitously known – entered the fashion lexicon after Lennon and Paul McCartney spied a pair of Spanish flamenco ankle boots in the window of Anello & Davide, a theatrical and ballet footwear shop in London’s Chelsea District, during one of their late-night prowls.
The Beatles had coveted the boots after first seeing them on members of a rival band in Hamburg. They all wanted something similar, prompting the Beatles’ principal songwriters to return the next day to order four identical pairs but with the addition of elastic inserts and taller two-inch heels in place of the stacked heel of the original. The Beatles wore their customized footwear with jeans and, more provocatively, with their new slim-cut bespoke suits. The high heels and tapered silhouette together elongated their naturally lean line, making the Beatles appear effortlessly modern and sleek, the very essence of youth and progress.
As the Beatles’ fame soared, their distinctive footwear also grew in popularity. Fashion manufacturers raced against each other to replicate the Beatle boots, copies of which sold in the millions the world over, to fans as well as to bands such as the Byrds and the Dave Clark Five. In 2015, then British prime minister David Cameron was seen wearing Beatle boots at No. 10 Downing St., prompting GQ to declare them “the smartest, most versatile boot a man can have in his armoury.”
A counterculture sweater
The unofficial uniform of artists, beatniks and wandering poets, the black polo neck sweater – or turtleneck as it is called in North America – proved irresistible to the Beatles once they saw it on Astrid Kirchherr during their first trip to Hamburg in 1960.
The young Teutonic photographer had modelled her all-black look on Juliette Gréco, the French actress and chanteuse (and McCartney crush) who wore black polo necks in the style of the Left Bank intellectuals. To the Beatles, the austere and informal sweater represented freedom and non-conformity. They wore the counterculture sweater often in the 1960s, with jeans or bespoke jackets. It identified you as a rebel.
Steve Jobs carried that attitude into Apple’s corporate events in the 1980s and 1990s when, instead of an Armani suit, he wore black turtlenecks – custom made by Japanese designer Issey Miyake – when announcing the latest in revolutionary technology.
The Beatles provided more than sartorial inspiration. Founded in 1976, eight years after the Beatles’ same-named multimedia company, Apple Corps., Apple highlighted creativity as its main attribute – something the Beatles, quite literally, wore on their sleeves.
A sheepskin coat with hippie-chic pedigree
Lennon turned heads when he appeared at the May, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band launch party in an embroidered Afghan sheepskin coat worn with the white fleece on the inside and the yellow skin on the outside over a frilly floral shirt.
As mod was giving way to hippie street style, serial entrepreneur Craig Sams – founder of London’s first macrobiotic restaurant (Lennon was a regular) and later the organic Green & Black’s global chocolate bar brand – imported the coats from Kabul where local artisans richly hand-stitched them, using colourful silk threads. He then sold them at such cool boutiques as Hung On You and Dandie Fashions on London’s King’s Road. Granny Takes a Trip, located on the same hip street, experienced a spike in sales after Lennon was seen wearing one while walking out of the shop. George Harrison and Ringo Starr followed next, wearing their Afghans at the press day for the All You Need Is Love broadcast and while filming Magical Mystery Tour.
These Beatles sightings and others were all well-documented and photographed, sparking what Sams, on the Sweet Jane fashion blog, has called “a global craze” for Afghan coats. Demand was such that “within a few weeks no sheep between Istanbul and Kabul was safe. Suddenly they were worth more for their skins than for their meat as people hastily killed them, skinned them, did machine stitched embroidery or quick hand stitching and rushed them to the U.K. and other countries where the market was booming.”
In the haste to get the coats made, some of the skins weren’t properly cured, causing them to emit an unpleasant dead-animal odour. “They smelled horrible,” said John Pearse, Granny’s chief tailor and co-proprietor, who came to regret having ever sold them at his boutique. “Even the Beatles stank whilst wearing the coats,” Pearse said. “It was one trend I wished they’d never started.”
Hallmark glasses that continue to make a spectacle
“Blind as a bat,” Harrison once said of Lennon, who squinted while he performed. Notoriously shortsighted, the Beatles’ rhythm guitarist had needed prescription lenses from a young age but had been too self-conscious to wear them in public until forced to do so by director Richard Lester for his role as a low-on-the-totem-pole soldier in the 1967 film How I Won the War.
It was fitting that a grunt like Private Gripweed would wear the generic round government-issue glasses, which Britain’s National Health Service handed out for free to the nation’s needy. Lennon had qualified to receive a pair of round Windsor glasses as a child growing up in Liverpool. But he detested them, thinking the glasses “common.”
After making Lester’s war comedy, Lennon began to see things differently. From 1967 onward, circular glasses became his signature style. Lennon wears round wire frames on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, in the film Magical Mystery Tour, on the rooftop of Apple headquarters at 3 Savile Row for the Beatles’ last live concert together, and throughout his time as a solo artist.
Like his best suits, Lennon’s eyewear was bespoke, handcrafted by Oliver Goldsmith in London and by Manhattan optometrist Gary Tracy after he moved to New York in 1971.
Eventually, John Lennon-style glasses became a thing, adopted by Ozzy Osbourne and replicated by designers such as Tom Ford for their own fashion collections. Today, they are a timeless style statement. Like the Lennon original, they make you look.