One Memorable Look: Mr Marc Bolan’s Glam Rock Panache
Mr Marc Bolan, “Born to Boogie”, 1972. Photograph by Apple Corps/Imago Images
The year 1971 is widely regarded as a pivotal one in music. It is when Mr John Lennon sang “Imagine” and Mr Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On”. It was also the year that Mr Marc Bolan, the lead singer of T.Rex, cemented his place as king of a new genre – glam rock. He did this via irresistible songs, such as “Ride A White Swan”, and a sense of style that arguably changed menswear for ever.
While filming Mr Ringo Starr’s documentary Born To Boogie at Lennon’s estate in Ascot, Berkshire, Bolan was in his pomp. The outfit he wore – red trousers, a leopard-print blazer, low-cut Lurex top and Mary Jane shoes – would be daywear for Mr Harry Styles or Lil Nas X now. In the beard-and-brown-jumper 1970s, however, Bolan looked like a creature from another planet.
His pioneering style was underlined by his equally flamboyant TV appearances. When T.Rex performed “Hot Love” on Top Of The Pops in 1971, Bolan wore a satin sailor suit. Another time, he wore metallics and glitter make-up, a look that confirmed a new decade’s pop star had arrived. In 2020, U2’s guitarist the Edge told The Guardian about the first time he saw Bolan on TV. He was “magical, but also sexually heightened and androgynous, with this glitter and make-up. It’s funny, the go-go dancers of the era were the legendary Pan’s People – he was way more intriguing sexually than they were. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Bolan’s make-up may have been the result of him messing around. In an interview with the BBC in 1974, he said the glitter was spontaneous. “There was some of my wife’s glitter and I just spit on me fingers and stuck it under me eyes. I thought it looked cute.” An alternative reading is the influence of Ms Chelita Secunda, a stylist and wife of Bolan’s manager at the time. She reportedly put glitter on Bolan’s face one afternoon. Mr David Bowie and Sir Elton John were there, too, and joined in. As the DJ Mr Jeff Dexter says David Bowie: Starman by Mr Paul Trynka, “The birth of glam rock was definitely at Chelita’s.” If these men formed the triumvirate of this decadent style, Bolan was perhaps the one with the longest-standing interest in fashion and image.
Mr Marc Bolan filming “Born To Boogie” at Ascot Sound Studios, the recording studio at Mr John Lennon's Tittenhurst home, Ascot, 1971. Photograph The Estate Of Keith Morris/Getty Images
He was born Mark Feld in 1947 in Stoke Newington, north London. By the time he was a teenager, he was well known on the mod scene. He wore bright orange suits to school and stole Levi’s, such was his desire to have the prized American imports in his wardrobe. He modelled briefly, despite his small stature, and appeared on the cover of Town magazine. In an interview inside, he revealed a clothing collection that included “10 suits, eight sports jackets, 15 pairs of slacks, about 20 jumpers, three leather jackets, two suede jackets, five or six pairs of shoes and 30 exceptionally good ties”.
In the mid-1960s he changed his name and pursued a career in music in earnest. His looks (much like his friend and rival Bowie’s) fluctuated with his sound. He experimented first with a Mr Bob Dylan-esque coffee-house poet style with a baker boy cap and rollneck. By the time he formed Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, he had his trademark curls, but mixed with lumpy knitwear and flares of the hippy era.
Influenced by swinging London and the flamboyance of Mr Syd Barrett, co-founder of the band Pink Floyd, Bolan was light years ahead of his time in terms of creating a style that did away with distinctions between men’s and womenswear. He wore women’s clothes by Biba, wedge heels, lip gloss and experimental label Alkasura, which designed his “Hot Love” outfit.
In an interview with Mr Cameron Crowe for Creem magazine in 1973, he was well aware of how a look like this could boost a rock star’s career. “Ninety-five per cent of my success is the way I look,” he said. “The Beatles were mop-tops. The Stones were dirty, never-washed bad boys. That’s what people pick up on. The music is secondary. You do have to have good music, though, after the initial physical contact. But initially, it’s got nothing to do with music.” His fans certainly imitated his looks. Glitter became a prerequisite at shows as T.Rex’s fame grew.
“In the beard-and-brown-jumper 1970s, Bolan looked like a creature from another planet”
Bolan was the complete package. Sir Elton told The Guardian that his friend was “the perfect pop star. His songs were great. His records rocked. He had attitude. He had performing skills. He looked fabulous. He dressed the part.” But it was perhaps his commitment to his look, which was wrongly seen by reactionary rock critics as evidence that he didn’t take music seriously, and his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 29 in 1977 that have muted his musical legacy.
Still, things are changing. In 2020, T.Rex entered the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and AngelHeaded Hipster, a tribute album of Bolan and T.Rex covers by musicians including U2, Mr Nick Cave and Peaches was released. This month, T.Rex 1972, a six-LP vinyl boxset of the band’s music is released. The recognition is long overdue, but it suggests that music culture is finally changing. As Bolan knew in 1971, sound and vision are not mutually exclusive.
Artists such as Mr Lenny Kravitz, Prince and Slash have all made nods to Bolan’s look. And more than 50 years on from that leopard-print blazer and Lurex top, it remains something to emulate. Just ask Styles, who wears Bolan-worthy JW Anderson and Arturo Obegero red flared sequined co-ords in the video for his latest single, “As It Was”, while the woman he dances with wears the same outfit in blue. “What’s feminine and what’s masculine, what men are wearing and what women are wearing – it’s like there are no lines any more,” Styles told The Face in 2019. It’s a statement that could just as easily have been uttered by a red-trousered Bolan in 1971.
T.Rex 1972 is out now
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