Style Essay: How To Find Your Own Way

When it comes to what you wear, Jon Savage argues you should always look far and wide for inspiration

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The Pet Shop Boys nailed the time and the aesthetic in their single “Being Boring”: “I came across a cache of old photos/And invitations to teenage parties/‘Dress in white’, one said, with quotations/From someone’s wife, a famous writer/In the Nineteen-Twenties”.

The song is set in the early Seventies, when I turned 18/19. It was a strange time. I’d seen the Sixties on television as they unfolded, but now all that was gone. In its place was a sea of cheesecloth and Falmer jeans. What to do if you wanted something different?

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When you’re young you find inspiration/In anyone who’s ever gone/And opened up a closing door,” the Pet Shop Boys sing and it’s absolutely true.

As teenagers still do today, you made up a patchwork quilt from what was available: on the radio, in the record shops, in the second-hand clothes shops and in the antique markets, in the stalls and boutiques – mixing old and new. From this collage of stuff something fresh emerges: a new style, a new way of looking at the world.

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So, 1972 was a pause for me: a hiatus between school and university; a formative time during which, within limits, I could dream of who I might be.

I travelled, worked in a mundane job, smoked pot, listened to David Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Gene Clark, Little Feat, The Rolling Stones and Nuggets. In music, I was a modern, but for much of the time, my head was in the Twenties; I couldn’t help it, but I was obsessed with art deco and that whole interwar period that was still present in Seventies Britain.

I was given Bevis Hillier’s book The World of Art Deco in September 1972. The introduction cited “a large, white and modernistic” house with “five porthole windows”, a flat roof upon which the “daughter of the house, Fuchsia” is “reading the latest Aldous Huxley novel, Point Counter Point”.

Brother Reggie wears huge Oxford bags, flicks his cigarette ash into a futuristic chrome ashtray, and sips cocktails from “a frosted and black-enamelled conical glass”.

Lavishly illustrated with all kinds of glamorous objects, this quickly became a standard text. I was off and hunting for deco on a budget, and it soon came my way.

I had a book called The English Sunrise by Brian Rice and Tony Evans, which had photos of the sunrise motif in vernacular British architecture, and soon enough I found a fabulous cloud-shaped mirror, with peach-bevelled sunrays. Then there was the Twenties walnut boardroom table, the black-enamelled cocktail shaker, the monoplane cigarette lighter et al.

Now I wonder where this came from. I was brought up in the suburbs of west London – many of which were built during the interwar period. My grandfather ran a building firm, and he built a beautiful wood-panelled house just opposite Gunnersbury Park.

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We’d often go to the country via the Great West Road or Western Avenue, with all those wonderful Wallis, Gilbert and Partners buildings: the Hoover Building, the Gillette and Firestone factories, the Pyrene Building.

This deco obsession deepened during my university years. I read my way through the great American Twenties modernists – John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, F Scott Fitzgerald – and British intellectuals like Cyril Connolly and Aldous Huxley.

I found the beautiful, large, bound original edition of Huxley’s 1936 semi-autobiographical novel Eyeless in Gaza, which – with its casual brutality and chopped-up time scale – became a particular favourite. I liked the confidence of these books, their large narratives, their ambition in summing up a time and place.

For a long time, I wanted to be Aldous Huxley. Inevitably, this found its way into fashion. In the centre of Cambridge, there was a street market which I haunted. It had a great record stall, Andy’s, and various clothes stalls.

What they had for sale quickly formed the basis of my wardrobe: you could buy beautiful old Twenties tweed suits for £2, plus four trousers for £1 and raw silk shirts for 50p. My best buy was a pair of huge grey flannel Oxford bags, which came up to my solar plexus, for just 50p.

The idea wasn’t to be an old fogey. The term didn’t exist then and, anyway, the truly conservative students (of whom there were many) didn’t dress like that. Indeed, one of them came up to me and charged me with being “effete”. That was a compliment. They also threatened to throw me in the river, but when I said, “OK, let’s do it now”, they backed off.

Vintage was avant-garde then, and there were very few people who assumed that style – we’d recognise each other and try not to fight over the best items.

I’d wear these ancient items with chenille scarves and clothes from different periods: a waisted Sixties jacket, a pair of Forties zoot suit trousers. It sounds ghastly and it probably was, but it was fun to experiment.

The stuff was so cheap you could make a mistake and it wouldn’t matter. In my digs, I had deco items, carpets, bits of furniture, pottery, but the music was always a mix of classic Sixties – hard mod 45s, bought from the Rock On stall in Golborne Road in west London – and the new releases of the day.

By 1974, things were on the move. High Twenties retro was moving into the mainstream with the Robert Redford-fronted The Great Gatsby – a large-budget film that, like today, promoted a huge marketing campaign.

David Bowie had said goodbye to Ziggy with an album, Pin Ups, that replicated those crunchy Rock On singles. Sparks released two albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, with iconic sleeves that, like David Live (Bowie’s first official live album), moved retro forward into the Forties and beyond.

Through all this, my hair was still long: parted to one side, flowing over my shoulders. The big change came in 1974 when, inspired by Huxley’s collection of short fiction, Brief Candles, I cut it off and brushed it back – the way I still wear it today. Nobody prompted me, it just seemed right.

That autumn, Roxy released their single “The Thrill of It All” and I saw Dr Feelgood for the first time. Suddenly, you could feel this pull forward – an undertow that swept you off your feet. The pace of life sped up. 

Jon Savage is a writer, broadcaster and cultural commentator.

Taken from Esquire's Big Black Book: the style manual for successful men, on newsstands now.