Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.
I started paying attention to One Direction because of a pair of boots. I spotted them on Harry Styles's feet in December 2013 during a cozy holiday episode of "Saturday Night Live," on which One Direction was the musical guest. The shoes were black and sparkly — courtesy of Saint Laurent, of course — and, unfairly, far from something I expected any member of a boy band to wear. In fact, the five gentlemen on my television didn't look anything like what I expected of a boy band. They didn't look like boys at all.
I learned later this was simply One Direction's way. Throughout the group's five-year run, the fivesome (and then foursome) was adamant about doing things their own way: no dance routines, no overly styled coifs and certainly no matching outfits.
Yet, they were still a boy band in the sense that they were mainly a vocal group with a separate, supporting instrumental company. They were young and heavily marketed to a young female demographic, firing off saccharine pop hit after hit to increasingly higher sales. They each famously fulfilled a different "role" in the group, either consciously or not; Styles has even alluded to as much himself.
As is the case with all musical artists, fashion played a huge part in that, but a boy band's sartorial priorities are different than those of other groups. Traditionally, boy bands dress cohesively, if not uniformly, and their members must also express themselves as individuals. It's a fine line to walk.
Today's boy bands are a far cry from those even 10 years One Direction's senior, yet alone when they first peaked in the 1960s and again in the early aughts. In the boy band's earliest days, matching was less of a guideline and more of a rule. This dates back to their roots in late-19th century barbershop quartets and, by the 1940s, doo-wop groups, including The Ink Spots, a wildly popular pop vocal band from Indianapolis. It wasn't until the 1960s that family groups like the Jackson 5 and The Osmonds brought boy bands into their current form, singing their close harmonies in coordinating pastels and bell bottoms.
When The Beatles made their North American debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964, they followed this trend, each wearing the same black Edwardian suit and floppy mop-top haircut. This uniformity more or less continued to varying degrees through their next five albums until 1967, with the start of the far-out "Sgt. Pepper" era. Even so, the technicolor military get-ups they wore to both tour and promote the album were coordinated in their own way — just like One Direction on "SNL," and just like every boy band before and since.
"You don't want everyone to look the same. You want them to be in the same realm, but not look like the same person," the Backstreet Boys' longtime stylist Tierney Burchett tells me over the phone. "A lot of artists don't have as much of an opinion as these guys do, [but] it helps me shape their overall look and make them look like individuals."
By the 1980s, a new era of boy bands began, with the likes of New Edition, New Kids on the Block and Menudo — all of which exhibited a much more casual dress code than had been seen previously. Where Menudo, a Puerto Rican group, often turned to acid-washed denim, New Edition performed their R&B hits in coordinating solid T-shirts and track jackets and wore custom-made matching suits for their red carpet commitments. New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) even took it down a notch further — with graphic tees, distressed denim and sneakers — striking more of a sartorial resemblance to One Direction than any other group at that time.
Before boy bands reached their second peak in the early aughts, 1990s juggernauts like Boyz II Men and hip-hop duo Kriss Kross reverted back to the head-to-toe matching uniforms of three decades prior — Boyz II Men with their elaborate baseball caps and bow ties; Kriss Kross with backwards jerseys and baggy jeans. Blackstreet did, too, but to a lesser extent. The four-man group often coordinated in black and white, but rarely did they wear the same pieces; the 1997 MTV Europe Music Awards, and their iconic silver suits, are a famous exception.
Boy bands didn't truly hit a fever pitch until a few years later, in the early 2000s, when groups like LFO, 98 Degrees, NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys created a style so airtight that a cliché was born. That formula — matching fedoras, tight tank tops, JNCO jeans, spiky hair — not only redefined boy band style entirely, but also posed to be a challenge for groups looking to start fresh in the late aughts.
In the Backstreet Boys' case, Burchett has worked hard to bring the group into the current age. They've continued to work steadily since forming all the way back in 1993 and brought Burchett on board eight years ago. From the time she began with the band, the Backstreet Boys launched into a new era with a new label, a slew of new performances (including two world tours, one of which was alongside NKOTB) and a new album. Their Las Vegas residency, "Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life," ran from March to July 2017. All of this meant no more snakeskin pants, bandanas or Kangols.
"We've really tried to grow with fashion, and that's definitely something we worked on for this Vegas Residency," says Burchett. "We wanted everything to be very up-to-date and 'with' current fashion as possible." She explains that they've been conscious not to make anything too explicitly nostalgic of what the group wore in their "Millennium" heyday. "It's cool to see them going from whatever the fashion styles were then to now," she says. "And they look really good, too — they pull off 2017 very well, I must say."
Despite the fact that the members now have an average age of 41, this once-boyish coordination still governs many of Burchett's styling decisions. "If they weren't so great, it wouldn't have been as easy or as enjoyable as it is," says Burchett. "They all worry about looking cohesive and looking the part as much as I do." She adds that they're all completely different with completely different clothing tastes, but, as professionals, they're more than willing to make concessions as needed to fit the same general aesthetic.
That also extends into their stagewear, a category that was admittedly not a concern for a group like One Direction who very definitively didn't dance. But the Backstreet Boys' choreography is still intensive, and their clothing must hold up accordingly.
Burchett tells me about a set of Tristan suits — one in powder blue, another in a deep, royal navy — that the group wore during their 20th anniversary "In a World Like This" tour, which spanned from 2013 to 2015. "That was actually one of my absolute favorite looks we've ever put them in," she remembers. "[They] didn't have a single rip in one of those pants or jackets — nothing. That's unheard of. When you have something that doesn't break and works with the dancing and the choreography, it just makes the costume [process] so much easier."
That's not to say that durability isn't a concern for groups like dance-averse One Direction, but there are always other priorities. In the case of the Jonas Brothers, a Disney-cradled family band comprising of Kevin, Joe and Nick Jonas, the aesthetics were more vintage-inspired than they were contemporary to reflect their own eclectic musical tastes.
"Everyone takes from the past and picks pieces that touch their own personality," their longtime stylist Michelle Tomaszewski tells me. For the Jonas Brothers, this often took the form of 1980s-era icons like Elvis Costello or Freddie Mercury, starting with skinny jeans and skinnier ties and progressing to more formal attire. "During that time when the Jonas Brothers came out, men didn't really wear suits. Things just started out with jeans and T-shirts."
To do Kevin, Joe and Nick justice, Tomaszewski found it important to thoroughly understand each of their personalities to reflect their individualism and from there, tie it all together for consistency's sake. (Where Joe preferred bright, out-there colors, Nick liked a bit of polish and Kevin was more of what Tomaszewski calls the "dandy" of the group.) "They started out wearing just Ed Hardy," she says. "We took some vintage with some modern and mixed it together to make it their own."
Tomaszewski is proud of the work she did. "From helping them create their own look, I think it's helped place them on the map as being the style icons they are today," she says. "That was what I wanted them to be and it succeeded."
Boy bands reached their third and most recent peak in the early 2010s, towards the end of the Jonas Brothers' tenure. In 2010, Simon Cowell famously assembled One Direction after the group's five members were cut from their solo auditions on "The X-Factor." They coordinated quite a bit in the years surrounding their first two albums — a particularly matchy-matchy performance on "Today" immediately comes to mind — but that wasn't for them. By their third album, the group was more or less wearing whatever they wanted, or so it seemed to us on the outside: Louis Tomlinson with his white tees, Niall Horan with his sporty bomber jackets, Styles with his glitter boots. That was that.
When One Direction went on hiatus in 2015, they left big shoes to fill. There are some contenders to fill them, though, like pop rock band The Vamps, R&B and soul group Mic Lowry, gangly pop quintet Why Don't We and seven-member South Korean powerhouse BTS. ABC series "Boy Band" hopes to add to the pool, too, and they're leaning into fashion to do it.
"Boy Band" is a music competition show — featuring Emma Bunton, Nick Carter and Timbaland — that starred 30 male vocalists aged 14 through 24 competing to form a winning group, and with it, a Hollywood Records contract. When I ask Soyon An, the program's costume designer, about her role, she tells me an anecdote about a group she dressed for their performance of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," an Aerosmith power ballad written for the 1998 sci-fi disaster film "Armageddon."
"There was some back and forth within the creative team, saying that we should pay homage to the movie. We were like, 'Well, we don't want to put the boys in spacesuits.' You know what I mean? That's really weird," says An. Instead, she put together a moodboard with a slew of high-fashion, rock 'n' roll references — "some Balmain, some Balanciaga, some Gucci" — with pointed-toe boots, scarves and "a couple pictures of Steven Tyler." The end result was predictably very black and white, but did come complete with star detailing and orange accents, the latter of which referenced "Armageddon"'s astronaut suits.
I ask An what styles have been most popular among the show's contestants, and she points to the usual suspects, namely Justin Bieber and former One Direction heartbreaker Zayn Malik — both of whom turned to fashion to stage a career comeback themselves. "I had them do tear sheets when I first met them. How do I quickly get to know all of these boys in a fashion sense?" says An. "Now they see that the sky's the limit for them. They see that their style evolution is happening right before their eyes."
When I remark how cute that is, An responds by saying, "Yeah, we're definitely having a blast."
That's what it's all about, anyway, right? What's the point of a boy band if it's not a blast for everyone involved?
Homepage photo: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison wave to fans on July 2, 1964 as they return to London from a tour in Australia. Photo: Getty Images