You probably know the story. After forming in Liverpool in the 1950s and establishing themselves as one of the most popular beat outfits in Hamburg, The Beatles went on to achieve frankly astonishing feats — securing 20 hit singles, breaking America and crafting one of the most enduring concepts albums of all time. Yes, the Fab Four’s era-defining climb to the top is well-documented, though it’s rarely been talked about with an eye on one of the most essential components of their success: their fashion.
It’s important to remember that no other artist – apart from Elvis Presley – sparked the kind of mass adoration The Beatles saw with Beatlemania. Arriving at a time when more families had a television set than ever before, The Beatles represented a new kind of celebrity culture, one that was shaped by the ubiquity of programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. The prominence of television made style and design more important than ever, imbuing clothing with a new significance. Understandably, The Beatles’ classic straight-cut look, which saw them sport mop-top haircuts and formal suits, was essential in helping the group establish a strong public image.
They’d picked up the look while still in Hamburg, where they picked up a taste for leather attire. By the time the Fab Four returned to England, however, there was a sense that the whole German nightclub look was looking a bit tired. As Paul McCartney once recalled: “It was a bit, sort of, old hat anyway, all wearing leather gear, and we decided we didn’t want to look ridiculous going home because more often than not too many people would laugh,” he began. “It was just stupid. We didn’t want to appear as a gang of idiots. And Brian suggested that we just, sort of, wear ordinary suits. So we just got what we thought were quite good suits and got rid of the leather gear.”
Epstein hired the services of one of the most well-known tailors in the UK and American entertainment industries, Dougie Millings, who had previously crafted outfits for the likes of Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, the Four Tops, Buddy Holly and The Temptations. The clean-cut look saw The Beatles evoke the aesthetics of European intellectual circles – a style that had much cache amongst the youth of France and Germany. For Beatles fans, the band’s iconic haircuts were the cutting edge of European high fashion and seemed to distinguish John, Paul, George and Ringo from their more brazen American contemporaries and gave the American press much to write about. Indeed, American writers found it nearly impossible to mention The Beatles without also mentioning the length of their hair. Equally newsworthy were Millings’ iconic collarless grey suits, which saw the designer tap into the stylings of ’60s high fashion innovator Pierre Cardin.
By 1965, The Beatles were beginning to shed their formal attire. Both Lennon especially had grown weary with the world of pop and seemed far more interested in evoking the introspective meanderings of American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. As they continued to experiment with songwriting and production techniques, their style evolved in tandem. Their step away from the uniformity of pop was reflected in their abandonment of the matching monochrome that had defined their image so far. In their first official photo shoot in 1967, the quartet appeared in individually styled outfits, sporting distinct mutton chops, beards or moustaches. The vivid hues of the Sgt. Pepper’s era were symptomatic of a wider counter-cultural movement, one which viewed clothing as one of the most effective ways of asserting the individual spirit. It’s no surprise, then, that The Beatles, who had been lumped together and regarded as a single entity for most of their young lives, were keen to slather on the technicolour plaid.
But even as the individual members of The Beatles began to form identities away from the band, they continued to style themselves as a unit. Take the matching Sgt. Pepper’s marching band suits, for example, perhaps the most vivid encapsulation of the aesthetics of the psychedelic era. Taking inspiration from sources as varied as Indian and Tibetan ceremonial dress, Victoriana, Art Nouveau, and circus, The Beatles’ psychedelic period was a swirling pool of imagery completely detached from a single grounding principle.
Like their musique concrète-inspired ‘Revolution 9’, the group’s style was an eclectic patchwork of influences and connotations held together by four increasingly divergent personalities. As their hair grew longer and their wardrobes became more distinct, the Beatles found themselves increasingly at odds until, at last, it all came crashing down.