Incredibly it is 25 years this month since Come On Eileen hit the number one spot in the US for Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
The song – and the album that spawned it Too-Rye-Aye – had taken the UK and Europe by storm the previous summer, as had the Caledonia soul be-denimed look concocted by Dexy’s leader Kevin Rowland, one of the great visual avatars in rock and pop fashion.
//Dexy’s in 1982//
The image – ear-rings, straggly curls and stubble, pinafore dresses, used dungarees and gypsy scarves, sandals and pumps, coalman’s jerkins and berets with pheasant feathers – is the one most associated with Dexy’s. Yet the band sported the clothes for less than a year and the irony is that by the time of the Stateside success, the group’s restless frontman was already moving on stylistically, looking to both Main Street USA and back to his youth as a “peanut” in north-west London in the late 60s for inspiration.
Here, with previously unpublished quotes, we reveal exactly how Rowland rapidly rang a series of changes over a few short years in search of “the great lost look”.By the time the first line-up of Dexys splintered in late 1980, Rowland had already come up with a fresh image to replace the “New York stevedore” style of Dexy’s debut album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and first Number One Geno.
//The so-called “athletic monk” look of 1981//
Matching the lifestyle of the new group, which was dedicated to an almost monastic regime of purity of body and soul, the elements foreshadowed the 80s fitness fad: boxer boots, wrist- and head-bands, singlets, simple white t-shirts and designer sweatpants.
//Projected Passion tour t-shirt//
These were combined with tiny ponytails taken from sketches of 18th century sailors and custom-made hooded jackets based on those worn by Liverpudlian casuals, and showcased during the incendiary shows on the choreographed Projected Passion tour of theatres of 1981.
//Dexy’s by the water 1981//
However, lack of record company interest undermined Rowland’s confidence in the concept, and when Dexy’s music swayed into a more pastoral direction the following year, the group’s look once more evolved; by the spring of 1982 the “athletic monk” phase was over.
“It was good because it flew in the face of what was happening,” says Rowland. “Little did I know that it would be the look Dexy’s is most associated with, but in reality, we had it for less a year.”
He explains how it was created: “Debbie Baxter, a costume-maker working at the Mermaid Theatre in London (who later married original Dixons bassist Pete Williams), had been helping us with clothes since late 81. She gave that look a tougher edge, but, by the end of that year, we wanted to move on. It was a dilemma and for the first few months of 82 we were flummoxed.
“We started to look a little Dickensian, with little caps, but saw that Animal Nightlife were wearing those.
//Animal Nightlife early 1982//
“We were into the idea of being scruffy, but of course only in exactly the right kind of way. Everybody and his brother was now dressing up, to the point where it meant nothing. Sometimes you have to try lots of ideas that don’t quite work or hit the note, untill you find one that does.
//Single cover summer 1982//
“Debbie would show us drawings she had done, some of which we’d like, and some of which we didn’t. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but one day Debbie suggested denim dungarees. She made some up for us. We boiled them in my kitchen in effort to get them them to fade, but they still didn’t look right . Then we heard that Flip (the used/dead-stock store with branches in the King’s Road and Covent Garden) had some in, so a couple of us went down there and bought a load.
//Flip in The Face 1981//
“I remember during the Too-Rye-Ay sessions opening a big refuse sack and passing them round to the guys. Some of them had already left the band and were only recording the album on a session basis, and basically the band was in tatters, so some weren’t as reserved about their feelings as they might have been a few months earlier. There were guffaws from one or two, but eventually it all came together.
“It’s a bit like music: to get something that looks right and effortless, you have to go through periods when things are anything but effortless. You’re experimenting and maybe getting it wrong, and then finally it comes together. I love it.”
Appearances onstage and in videos also made a style icon out of violinist Helen O’Hara, whose image was imitated nationwide. “Debbie made me the pinafore dress I wore, which actually I really hated,” confides O’Hara. “I wanted to be one of the lads and wear the dungarees but Kevin was against that. Then I found some old skirts in Oxfam shops and improved upon the way I looked.”
//Erin O’Connor evokes the “Eileen” look, 2007. Pic: Wireimage//
By the time Come On Eileen hit number one in America in April 1983, Rowland was “messing with the Celtic look, making subtle changes”, says Dexy’s graphic designer Pete Barrett. “Kevin started to wear his trousers inside out, which reflected what else was going on in fashion at the time. Vivienne Westwood was doing similar trousers with pockets on the outside at Nostalgia Of Mud“.
//Staff inside Nostalgia Of Mud, 1983. Pic: Robyn Beech//
Not that Rowland was even aware of what was being designed at Westwood’s extraordinary London shop. One day that spring, near the record company HQ on Broadway, New York, he experienced a style epiphany. ”I spotted a guy with an Ivy League haircut, short and brushed over to the side like Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was wearing a check shirt, parallel trousers like Sta-Prest and a pair of GIs or plain cap shoes,” he recalls.
//Dexy’s on Madison Avenue, 1985//
“The guy was drunk, staggering around the streets, but the clothes intrigued me because that look had disappeared by then. At least, you would never see it in England. It was the Ivy League look that had been fashionable in the London suburbs of my youth.
//Billy Adams, Kevin Rowland and Helen O’Hara, 1985//
“Then, in January 1983 I was walking down Madison Avenue Too-Rye-Ay’d up, dressed in a heavy overcoat with my beret with a feather sticking out of it. I stopped outside Brooks Brothers and saw the clothes we had worn years ago: raised edging on the seams, hook or off-centre vents in the jackets, patch pockets. The jackets were so subtle it was untrue, because at first glance they looked very square.
//Extract from This Is What She’s Like 1985//
“I kept on looking at the clothes people were wearing as we toured the States that year. In Texas outside a restaurant I saw these two guys. They had parallel pleated trousers on, with plain cap shoes and button-down shirts, short Ivy League haircuts and were standing with their hands in their pockets, which gave their look a shape that made them exactly resemble a couple of well-dressed hard-nuts from Harrow in 1969.
//Billy & Kevin from shoot for Don’t Stand Me Down, 1985//
“I loved the fact that this ultra-conservative look was still going strong in America, and was worn only by squares or people who had to wear it for their work. At that time there didn’t seem to be any British equivalent, until Jeremy Hackett later re-defined the British look.”At first I bought a pair of Florsheim Imperials (plain caps or GIs) for old time’s sake, but I kept looking at them in wonderment, at their beauty. I would sit in my hotel room at night looking at them. I was dreaming about them. I felt so inspired again. I began to fantasise about wearing lots of Ivy League stuff and looking really clean and crisp.
“I knew this look could be great and massively popular. It seemed so opposite of what was happening and yet so 100% right. I was going on stage in America wearing dungarees and an old overcoat, but during the day I was going to the record company and asking for cash so that I could raid Brooks Brothers.
“Then, in spring 83, when I went to my Dad’s 65th birthday party, I wore some of the gear and my sister-in-law said: ‘You look like an extra from The Graduate‘. I was delighted.”
//Kevin Rowland with THE LOOK author Paul Gorman 2006//
Kevin is currently working on a new Dexy’s album and a book about his life. For his exclusive essay on “the great lost look” and how it empowered the recording of Dexy’s superb album Don’t Stand Me Down see chapter 13 of THE LOOK.
Meanwhile the future of the UK’s greatest Ivy League outlet J. Simons is under threat. The lease at the shop at 2 Russell St in Covent Garden operated by John Simons since 1980 ends in June 2009 and John is looking to connect with potential investors. Those with funds or ideas as to how to keep this important independent open contact John here.