50 Years after Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles' Retro Military Jackets Continue to Inspire

As the seminal Beatles album turns 50 this month, here's a look back on the enduring allure of Swinging London's flea market chic.
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Photo: Instagram/@thebeatles

Photo: Instagram/@thebeatles

Everything old is new again. But while we've been busy cooing over Gucci's awesome retro game, have we forgotten that we've seen it all before? I don't just mean the clothes — the pussy blows, embroideries, the frills and furbelows and Dapper Dan's logo sleeves — but the entire concept of a generation plundering fashion's history and styling it up to make it feel new.

Fashion's a hamster wheel, so this has been happening over and over for as long as I've been writing about clothes (nearly 20 years). But when did it all begin?

The Sixties, of course, like everything else.

The idea of old clothes as a fashion statement was born in Swinging London, when the muso boys and model girls paraded down the King's Road, Chelsea in Art Deco outfits and antique military jackets bought from Portobello markets or the new boutiques.

As detailed in the recent exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), "You Say You Want a Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966-1970," this period "shook the foundations of post WWII society" as the counterculture, flea market fashion, teenage buying power, the sexual revolution, second wave feminism and rock royalty all exploded at the same time. Ah, the music! There will never be another Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Rolling Stones. Rock n' roll grew out of the blues, which no one disputes belongs to America, but it took a bunch of English upstarts to appropriate it and add it to the era-defining pop culture mix. No wonder so many of fashion's current crop are inspired by all this.

Gucci's Alessandro Michele loves it. As he told the New Yorker last year, he's keen on the Queen's style and digs British Punk and New Romantic iconography, while his dalliance with dandyism (floral suits, kipper ties) harkens back to the heyday of one of David Bowie's favorite London tailors, Mr. Fish. You can trace a line through all that back to London in the second half of the 1960s.

A look from the Gucci Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Gucci Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

Like Michele, Burberry's Christopher Bailey finds the era in London fascinating. Paul Smith's ideas were formed there. Manolo Blahnik arrived in fashionable Chelsea in 1968. The milliner Stephen Jones wasn't there, but his muse, the Italian Vogue fashion editor Anna Piaggi, was. Anna Wintour was a teenager in Sixties London. Grace Coddington began her career there. She used to haunt the Chelsea Antiques Market in search of vintage gear, although no one used the word 'vintage' back then — it was called 'tat.'

Anna Sui's love for Swinging London style is clear. Her current retrospective at the city's Fashion and Textile Museum is full of mentions, from George Harrison's William Morris print jacket (he got it from the original Granny Takes a Trip at 488 Kings Road), to her psychedelic poster collection and reverence for the print work of another icon of the era, Zandra Rhodes.

When Pierpaolo Piccioli tapped Rhodes to collaborate for Valentino this season, he said it was her punk roots that drew him — "what I like about 'punkness' is its compulsive necessity for freedom, the subversive attitude versus the status quo" — but that didn't spring from nowhere, did it? Rhodes arrived at art school in London in 1965 and opened her first boutique there in 1967. It was the summer of love: the year The Beatles' eighth album dropped, and the military jacket trend reached its apex.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" spent 27 weeks on top of the British charts, 15 weeks in the U.S. and in 1968 won four Grammys. This was back when records were pressed on vinyl and packaged inside cardboard sleeves big enough to see the artwork (I know. Can you imagine?) And this art, executed by the artist Peter Blake, featured John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr decked out in sherbet-coloured, military-style suits.

The previous spring, two friends — 26-year-old John Paul and his mate Ian Fiske, 24 — were pleased to see more traffic come by their London shop. I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet occupied 292 Portobello Road, at the crummy end of the city's famed Portobello Market. They'd been selling bric-a-brac, and not too much of that, when Paul plonked an old Victorian soldier's coat in the window in the hope of attracting trade. It worked.

"It really happened by accident," Paul told a bemused reporter from The Ottawa Journal in February 1967, for an article titled New Boom in Old Clothes. "When Swinging London's mop-topped mods and their switched-on dollies go shopping for clothes these days, they more often than not head for Portobello Road, a teeming boisterous street market better known for cockles, mussels and antiques than fashion," wrote the journalist.

A look from the Burberry Fall 2016 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Burberry Fall 2016 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

John Paul bought a job lot that was going cheap from Moss Bros, the venerable Covent Garden-based suit hire joint. Brass buttons, fancy epaulettes and frogging were the next big youth culture thing.

Eric Clapton was seen in military tailoring. Jimi Hendrix, who found his famous Hussars' jacket in the Chelsea Antiques Market, was roughed up by thugs in the street who thought he was disrespecting the armed forces. "He knew he was being subversive, but he also just really liked to dress up," his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham tells me. "Jimi loved to dress up." In May 1966, Mick Jagger ducked by Lord Kitchener's Valet and spent four quid on a red Grenadier guardsman drummer's jacket, which he wore to sing "Paint it Black" on the popular TV music show "Ready Steady Go!"

While the fuddy-duddies dubbed antique clothing "fancy dress," the kids had a different perspective. Dressing in crumbling finery purloined from the attics of the establishment, then going dancing and doing drugs in these clothes, was an act of rebellion, particularly as secondhand had long been considered second-best. 

Nova, a popular British fashion magazine at the time, described "a state of anarchy in fashion — a 'why not?' that has toppled all of the unwritten rules that used to inhibit the choice of clothes." The white gloves were off; the ironically worn army uniforms, on. "The questioning and rejecting is going on in more significant areas than fashion," noted Nova, "but it is in dress that it shows the most."

No one can remember which Beatle was with the artist Peter Blake when they passed by discussing ideas for the "Sgt. Pepper" cover, but it was probably Paul McCartney, who mentions the shop in the book, "The Beatles Anthology": "At the time everyone was into that I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet thing."

The Beatles, however, decided against antique. Recalls McCartney in "Anthology": "We went to Berman's, the theatrical costumiers [in the West End], and ordered up the wildest things, based on old military tunics. That's where they sent you if you were making a film: 'Go down to Berman's and get your soldier suits.' They had books there that showed you what was available. Did we want Edwardian or Crimean? We just chose oddball things from everywhere and put them together." The "bright psychedelic colors, a bit like the fluorescent socks you used to get in the Fifties (they came in very pink, very turquoise or very yellow)" were picked to be explicitly garish, to "go against the idea of uniform." John Lennon borrowed the WWII medals they accessorized with from ex-Beatles drummer Pete Best — they'd belonged to his dad.

When Gucci or Saint Laurent or Isabel Marant next mines the now-classic military trend for its perennial cool factor, remember it was once properly subversive. Before fashion sold out to the man.

Clare Press is a Sydney-based British fashion journalist with particular interest in vintage style and sustainable fashion; you can also listen to her new podcast, Wardrobe Crisis.

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