"Fashioning the Beatles" delves into the band's iconic, impactful looks that were "worth emulating"

Deirdre Kelly traces the Fab Four's evolving fashion and strategic styling as part of their unparalled success

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published September 19, 2023 7:18PM (EDT)

The Beatles celebrate the completion of their new album, 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. May 19, 1967. (John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)
The Beatles celebrate the completion of their new album, 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. May 19, 1967. (John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

In many ways, Deirdre Kelly's "Fashioning the Beatles" is long overdue. We take it for granted, as a kind of pop-music commonplace, that the Fab Four transformed rock 'n' roll's sartorial style during the 1960s. Subtitled as "The Looks that Shook the World," Kelly's book takes a deep dive into the Beatles' fashion sense, arguing that the group's image was not only integral to their success, but the self-conscious product of John, Paul, George and Ringo's interest in fomenting change. 

The author of "Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection" (2012), Kelly traces the history of the band's concerted interest in honing their look. During a 1969 interview, John Lennon addressed this aspect of the Fabs' legacy, remarking that "I was ashamed to go on the Continent and say I was British before we made it. The Beatles have tried to change Britain's image. We changed the hairstyles and clothes of the world, including America — they were a very square and sorry lot when we went over." For his part, Ringo Starr adored wearing "colorful clothes," adding that "because we did, it allowed a lot of other people to do the same."

In "Fashioning the Beatles," Kelly documents key shifts in the Beatles' appearance, from their leather-clad Hamburg days through their heady embrace of psychedelia during the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" era. As their music revealed one monumental innovation after another, so too did their look, which not only expressed their individual senses of identity, but also demonstrated their collective interest in serving as touchstones for their generation. "I think we gave some sort of freedom to the world," Paul McCartney has observed. "I meet a lot of people now who say the Beatles freed them up."

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As Kelly astutely notes, it is precisely this sense of freedom that catapulted the Beatles — both as musicians and proto-fashionistas — into our international conscience. In its own way, the bandmates' fashion sense exists as a vital aspect — nearly six decades later — of their staying power. There is perhaps no better example of the group's look serving as a fashion event than the June 1967 "Our World" simulcast in which they performed "All You Need Is Love" for an audience of several hundred million viewers. 

Decked out in their Carnaby Wear finery, the Beatles wowed their worldwide spectators with the stunning audacity of their wardrobe. As Starr later recalled, "We loved dressing up, and we had suits made for the show. Simon and Marijke from The Fool made mine. It was so bloody heavy, I had all this beading on, and it weighed a ton."

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But as always, the Beatles' fashion choices that fabled night had been worth their heft in gold. With the Summer of Love fueled by the groundbreaking sounds of "Sgt. Pepper," the band left an aural and visual imprint for the ages. Inevitably, Kelly writes, "The clothes tell the story." As "Fashioning the Beatles" so presciently reminds us, the group's look was an irresistible part of their unparalleled success. "It is why so many people couldn't take their eyes off them in the sixties," she points out, "and new generations of musicians, designers, and fans find them captivating and worth emulating today."

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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