The tracks of our years are studded with references to the way we looked and the clothes we wore.
Marty Robbins’ White Sport Coat And A Pink Carnation captures in a phrase the prom dress code and etiquette of 1957 teenagers, just as four years earlier Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers And A Hula Hula Skirt caught the essence of the cheesy cabaret acts and exotic dancers which entranced uptight London bankers. (A brilliant choice of song for the nightclub scene in the film Scandal, about the 1963 Profumo affair.)
The rock and roll years are captured through images of blue suede shoes, blue jeans, pointed toe shoes, leather jackets, courtesy of Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent in particular.
And so on through the decades – Sham 69’s Hersham Boys in their lace-up boots and corduroys, the Burton suits noted by the White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Suggs and the boys in their Baggy Trousers.
Some images reach further than the here and now. Bob Dylan’s Brand New Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat, with its nod to Jackie Kennedy and its evocation of the ambience of Andy Warhol’s Factory, transcends the particulars of the song.
The apricot scarf worn by Carly Simon’s subject in You’re So Vain captures a timeless attitude of preening self-regard.
In songs, as in life, clothes reveal not just a place and a time, but character and personality. Here are three great sartorial songs – one is a famous classic and the other two deserve to be.
I Wish I Knew What Dress To Wear
Ginny Arnells’ 1964 classic song of teenage angst draws us straight into the girl’s bedroom as she chooses what to wear to a party where her ex-boyfriend will be with his new love.
She wants to look good to prove she doesn’t care, although she still loves him and cries herself to sleep every night.
The emotions are operatic in their intensity and are expressed in an affecting country-tinged ballad which effortlessly conveys the mix of confusion, uncertainty, bravura, heartbreak.
We ponder with her the list of possibilities, the blue or black silk pumps, the shade of powder, the bracelet, the hairstyle, the chiffon scarf, the new white gloves (hmm, 60s’ sartorial fashion wasn’t quite so rock and roll for small-town girls) which will armour her against the misery of seeing her beau with the other girl.
Your heart goes out to plucky little Ginny, knowing that is this just the beginning, and that she has years and years ahead of putting on her lipstick with a brave smile.
Sugar Pie Desanto is Ginny’s worst nightmare with Soulful Dress, her stomping R and B song released by Chess Records in 1964, which oozes confidence and danger.
She doesn’t faff around wondering if she should wear blue or green or yellow. She bursts into the room in her strappy soulful dress which rides high with slits up both sides and cut low at the front and the back.
Watch out, girls, she’s going to round up all your fellows and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Sugar Pie toured the UK in 1964 and appeared on ReadySteady Go. She was at the CrawdaddyyClub in Richmond, famously associated with the Rolling Stones.
Would Sugar Pie have seen off the Stones’ women? Even if you’d been there, chances are you would have been cowering in the Ladies and missed it.
Famous Blue Raincoat
It moves from the concrete evocation of a time and a place, a cold four in the morning at the end of December on Clinton Street in New York, into a realm of allusions and impressions which are both mysterious and emotionally coherent.
The song depicts a love triangle, two men and a woman. The man in the blue raincoat and Jane, the narrator’s woman, became lovers. He treated her to ‘a flake’ of his life, and took from her eyes the trouble which the narrator had assumed was there for good.
The men are brothers and they are enemies, locked in a relationship of love and hate, as in many of Cohen’s songs.
The famous blue raincoat has a visual and emotional impact which extends into other songs. It could be worn by other men in other songs whose echoes permeate this one. Its wearer goes ‘to the station to meet every train’. He is there in the blue raincoat, every day, looking for his Lili Marlene.
He could be the man in the Stranger Song, who is sure ‘we’ll meet between the trains we’ve waited for’ and who knows it is ‘time to board another’. A man who carries an old schedule of trains in his pocket is one who moves on, who disappears from sight, an enigmatic figure in the familiar coat.
He could be the man in other complicated triangles, a player in the master and slave scenario in The Stranger Song for example. The famous blue raincoat seems timeless, embodying complex relationships of desire, forgiveness, acceptance.
Forensic analysis of who is who and just where the raincoat came from is not the way I like to experience the song, just as I like to listen to ‘Suzanne’ without knowing factual details. The tea and oranges that come all the way from China lose their mystical appeal when you can link them to a named person and her grocery store.
Leonard Cohen has spoken about the raincoat’s origin, saying he thinks it was a Burberry coat from London and that it originally belonged to him. But the most revealing comment he made about it was that it ‘hung more heroically’ when he took out the lining, and that it ‘achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired’. Those lines are a poem in themselves.
There’s a man who knows about the romantic symbolism of clothes, who understands how a tear at the shoulder can convey world-weariness and worldly wisdom, and how a raincoat embodies a particular emotional territory.
Never before nor since have gents’ tailoring alterations acquired such poetic impact.