NPR logo Concert Outfits: A Brief History

Concert Outfits: A Brief History

Why are outfits important to the concert-going experience? Perhaps less so as adults, but certainly in our youth, what we wore to shows acted as cultural signifiers. Our clothing exemplified and demonstrated our level of fandom, our knowledge of the artistic and social context from which the band or musician came, who we were, who our friends were and who we wanted to be; or, at least, what we wanted to be perceived as being.

As I've noted on this blog before, Madonna gave the first concert I ever attended: 1985, with my father, Seattle, Virgin Tour, the Beastie Boys as openers. (They were were subsequently booed off stage.) But, really, the important aspect of this fifth-grade experience was what I wore. For starters, I wasn't allowed to wear what I wanted: lace gloves, lace bow in my hair, a sweatshirt with the neck cut out so that it would fall off one of my shoulders. Not seductively, just loosely. But, no, I was too young. Instead, in zipper jeans and an oversized magenta T-shirt — with sleeves neither long nor short and large enough to be water wings — I stood next to my dad and watched in awe as a reporter from the Seattle Times interviewed the Madonna look-alikes in line ahead of us. Older, cooler, freer. Never again would I attend a concert with one of my parents.

The night before the tickets went on sale for Sinead O'Connor's 1990 I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got tour, there was a huge sleepover party. That way, everyone could wake up and stand in line together. And what would any self-respecting Sinead O'Connor fans do to show their appreciation for her music? Shave their heads, of course! But if you lived in the suburbs like I did, and you weren't quite willing to commit to the shaved-head look, with the inevitable "So, are you a skinhead or a SHARP?" questions, you would only shave your head underneath other hair. Subtle, daring, and in the winter... brrrrr. From the base of my hairline to halfway down the back of my head, beneath a thick flap of hair where no on could see it, was a glowing, shy, pale scalp. The grow-out process was part Monchichi doll, part Pat the Bunny touch-and-feel book. I couldn't wait to be whole again. Don't ask me how the concert was; I never even went.

1991. Sonic Youth, Nirvana, STP show. (If you think STP stands for Stone Temple Pilots, you would be mistaken.) I got dressed while listening to a Nick Cave CD that my friend's boyfriend brought over. I wore a burgundy flight jacket purchased from the Army/Navy store, black 14-hole Doc Marten combat boots and a tie-dyed (!!) Ramones T-shirt that could not have been sanctioned by the band. Again, my sizing was way off. Perhaps I needed my friends so badly in those days that I made sure there was room for them inside my shirt, just in case. Cut-off jean shorts and leggings completed the look. In a rare, accidental moment of good taste, the leggings were a solid color, as opposed to the horizontal striped sort that were popular in Seattle back then. We listened to Jello Biafra w/ D.O.A. in a Subaru Wagon as we crossed the bridge into the city. Krist Novoselic was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt on stage that night and Sonic Youth was cooler than the next 10 years of my outfits combined.

I've realized that I often mistakenly think back on concerts as having been an experience between the music and me, when in fact the experience was more about my friends and me. That experience was one that began hours, even weeks before the show, often in the form of extraneous activities — like getting dressed (shaving our heads) or listening to the band's recorded music. Getting ready for the show was as ritualized an activity as the show itself; sometimes, it was the most memorable part of all.

Feel free to share your favorite concert-going outfits and getting-ready rituals that you recall from either way back when or from more recent outings.