Happy birthday, Paul! (with a few notes on style)

Nice jacket.

Where can I find that jacket?

DEVIN McKINNEY  •  Today is Paul McCartney’s 72nd birthday. He shows no signs of slowing, save for the current illness which his spokespeople will identify only as “a virus” and which has forced him to cancel several dates on his world tour—a contingency unprecedented, as far as I know, in his career. (Surely it’s ironic in some way that he’s taking his rest in Tokyo, cite of his traumatic 1980 pot bust.)

What can you say on Paul’s birthday but “Happy birthday”? What can you ask but the same question you’ve asked on every Beatle birthday since whenever: “Christ, where did all the time go?”

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Here’s something. I realized this only recently—because you can go on realizing things about The Beatles your whole life long—but of the four of them, Paul has always had my favorite sense of style. He wasn’t the only Beatle who knew, or cared about, how to present himself: they all looked amazing in 1964 and ‘65, evolving from post-Edwardian jackets and ties to turtlenecks, Nehru collars, and Rubber Soul suede; and especially in 1966, when their black wool turned to red velvet and butterscotch plush, the solid ties grew flowery and the pinstripes fattened and the Beatles, as if simply falling into it, achieved a collective look that is still the most irresistible in the annals of pop style.

In terms of pure individuality, Ringo was perhaps the most flamboyant dresser of all of them. But Paul’s looks have been to me the most consistently admirable and attractive, the most (to use the only word that fits) stylish. In pictures, he is almost always dressed as I would dress myself, had I the money to spend, ready access to every designer in the world, and the ability to claim fashion-consciousness as a professional necessity.

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Mullet, glam, and glisten. But you must admit, he looks like a rock star.

There’s been a wayward period or two when Paul was chasing depeche mode—I think of the Late Psychedelic phase when, right along with the others, he went a little dopey and touristy with Indian gear; and the early to mid-1970s, which were marked by mullets, glam jackets, and glistening pectorals—but mostly he’s hewed to a couple of classic looks, which we might label City Paul and Country Paul.

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City Paul: tailored but de-conventionalized.

The first involves a nicely-tailored suit or jacket-trouser-tie combo, complemented or de-conventionalized in some tasteful way. The second involves funky pullovers and flashy shirts that look like great thrift-store grabs and, when added to burly denim and work boots, predict hipster style from the late ‘90s to the present—but without the hipster headache because Paul was wearing that stuff for working in. When he went to town, expecting to be seen, he usually wore city getup: nicely-tailored suit, etc.

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Country Paul: clothes for working in.

But even such an orthodox human uniform as the suit could be offhandedly transformed by McCartney cool. John, interviewed in 1969, had a pretty canny thing to say about that: “Paul’s idea of being different is to look almost straight, but have one ear painted blue; something a little [more] subtle.” The great example of that is, of course, the cover of Abbey Road, where Paul’s elegant dark-blue suit and crisp white shirt undone at the neck are at once confounded and perfected by his eschewal of footwear. By the whimsical decision to wear sandals to the photo shoot, and then to slip them off before the stroll (“It was a hot day,” he shrugged at the time), Paul made an image so beguiling yet intriguing—so almost straight—that people had to invent a cockamamie death rumor just to rationalize it.

lindas picsWhat really got me thinking about McCartney style was flipping several weeks ago through Linda’s Pictures, the 1976 collection of, well, those very objects. It was one of my first Beatles books, and over those early years I spent many hours absorbing Linda’s beautiful, mysterious, quite various camerawork. At least half the book is shots of Paul—alone, with kids, cats, or horses, sitting in a junkyard car, fixing the barn roof, etc. In many shots he is strikingly handsome, set off against Scottish mist or sunny meadow, and whatever he wears seems the perfect thing to be wearing at that moment; however he is seems the right way to be. That so often goes for his music, too, I realized: Paul’s physical and creative being appear as if they are quite uncommonly unified, blissfully joined, each part expressing every other part. Not that everything he does succeeds, but there is so seldom an impression from him of great labor, of trying to make something fit where it was never meant to go—one reason, I have no doubt, why critics find him short on ambition and complication: even his failures tend to be well-proportioned failures.

Linda-McCartney-gl_1912542cWhen I got to the two-page spread of Paul’s painted toes holding a glass of Irish cream, it made me smile. I wear nail polish sometimes, for fun and to change it up a bit, and that’s probably because when I was quite young and ready to be influenced, Paul McCartney—who, in his style as in his music, will try anything, experiment freely, toss it up and see where it lands, in a spirit of humor and giving—told me it was okay. I’d forgotten all about that small but meaningful fact.

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Then again, nobody’s perfect.

Happy birthday, Paul. If Gore Vidal was right when he said that “style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn,” then you are—after your own subtle, ear-painted-blue fashion—a modern exemplar.

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  1. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    Whoops fashion, ‘and he was’
    Devin you little celebrational piece on Paul and fashion is almost more interesting than what Paolo Hewitt wrote in ‘The Beatles and Fashion’ http://www.amazon.com/Fab-Gear-The-Beatles-Fashion/dp/379134563X
    I am not sure whether one would call Ringo’s style (or should we say Richie, since ‘Tune In’) flamboyant as it was more dandy-style – that had a touch of ‘stoicism’ and ‘skeptical reserve’ to it. Or is subversiveness? Whether Richie was conscious of that I don’t know. He sure must have known Ray Davies’ song ‘Dandy’ which displayed a nice mixture of disgust and admiration for the neighborhood guy that looked so classy. Maybe Richie just liked the style that came from the early sixties styles, and was a way for middle class folks to be aristocratic – somewhat against the levelling egalitarian ideas of those days.
    If he was conscious of the styling in 1966 and later 1969 and early seventies it would make sense too. Though Ringo might have been the ‘love and peace’ guy, even until a few years ago, but he was part of a little band who never liked the egalitarian ideas – not as a band back in Liverpool nor a citizen on England in the sixties, they didn’t want to pay taxes, purposefully they avoided taxes and got themselves tangled up in delusional global financial constructions – ‘Taxman’ from early 1966 was already a sign of that Beatles’ attitude.

    Paul seems to be the more modest, smart fashionable guy… I assume it was his attitude, his talent, and not a developed craft. Now after having read and reread your article I would like to see more details on fashion in these biographies. It is not there in ‘Many Years Ago’ and too little in ‘Tune In’.


    • OK, @Rob, I’m throwing a flag on this one (or giving you a yellow card, if you prefer). The Beatles were actually quite indulgent towards the demands of Inland Revenue, which taxed their peak earnings at astronomical percentages–83%, plus a super-tax of 15% on top of that, so 98%. For which they received…the MBE. Oh, and Lennon’s National Health glasses. To suggest that The Beatles were anti-egalitarian, or unpatriotic, for not liking paying 98% tax is too harsh. And the important thing is: they paid it.

      The Beatles were victims of a British class system that was so determined to look down on them for their accent and their origins and their profession that they didn’t even get respect as they were helping to resurrect the British economy. The 60s were when Britain finally emerged from the economic doldrums it had suffered through since WWI, and (like Italy) it was primarily cultural cachet that led them there. The Beatles were the first, and biggest, transfer of cultural cachet. As of 1962, there was no indication that England would become the world’s hot-spot for the next ten years. By 1964, it was inevitable that it would be. Without The Beatles, you can subtract literally billions, if not trillions (US definition), of capital inflow to Britain.

      So even though one can make the case that The Beatles initiated a significant and enduring uptick in the British economy–the effects of which are felt to this day–they were not recognized for this. Their obvious pique at this class-based snub is what I hear when they complain, not greed. Unlike the Stones and Led Zeppelin and Bowie and Freddie Mercury and Rod Stewart and the endless number of other musicians and actors to leave the UK for tax reasons, The Beatles did not emigrate at any time during the height of their success to shelter their income.

      And there’s another facet of this: in the creative fields, success this year does not necessarily lead to success the next. Hindsight makes us say, “Why was George bitching about taxes in 1966?” It was because he didn’t know his future. He’d grown up poor, was very aware of the ephemerality of fame, and saw 98% of his current income (the only income he could count on) vanishing into government coffers–which were, and are, controlled by precisely the snobs who never gave The Beatles any respect. George knew what was in store for them if they ever had to go, cap-in-hand, to someone with money. Seltaeb, for example, was controlled not by J/P/G/R or Epstein or even NEMS, but a group of young, upper-class businessmen looking to make a buck off all those screaming (lower-class) fans. When you think of where J/P/G/R came from, and the intensely classist Britain they faced even in the 60s, I’m amazed they didn’t pop off a lot more than they did.

      In 1966, George didn’t know that they’d record Pepper, White and Abbey Road, their biggest hits; didn’t know that Allen Klein would get them a vastly better royalty deal; didn’t know that they’d last for another year, much less another 50–nobody else had. So under those conditions, I think their griping is excusable–and I’m speaking as someone whose outlook is quite a bit more left than most. I have no patience for John Lennon’s selfish attitudes circa 1980, for example.

      My take–and YMMV, of course–is that after The Beatles had given 98% of their peak earnings to Britain, they were entitled to look for shelters, because any artistic career is inherently unstable. That the shelters got them into trouble (ie, Apple) is understandable because, as with everything else, they were the first ones to be faced with these problems. And I would rather be sitting here in 2014 with J/P/G/R all well-compensated for their incredibly valuable artistic contributions, rather than the usual story, which is them paying off the taxman by playing Vegas. Remember, that was their fear–and it was a very real one. If they were a little bit salty about taxes–as they paid them!–I can’t criticize them.

  2. Avatar Kim wrote:

    I love Paul’s style. Some outfits were a miss but mostly they were a hit, especially in the 60’s. He looked sexy and put together all the time. And his handsome dark looks only enhanced his style. Some of my favorite outfits: All the Beatle suits (he had the most wonderful legs and always had the tightest trousers of the four), the beige poloneck with black fitted pants and jacket in the Paperback Writer video, the floral shirts in ’67, the Sgt Pepper’s release party outfit with the scarf, the pink Mad Day Out suit, the indian tunics, that red velvet jacket… I also loved the way he wore his buttoned up shirts with sleeves rolled up. The man looked good! And I agree with the photo of the four above: Irresistible!

  3. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    I really agree with what you say here, Devin. However, I don’t mind the 70s mullet/satin stylings. I reserve my ire for Paul’s late 80s/90s look — particularly the awful Bill-Cosby-type sweaters.
    Like you, I love “Linda’s Pictures.” Her photos of the Stones, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick are truly wonderful. And her pictures of Paul or Paul and one or more children have (unsurprisingly) an intimacy that no other pictures of him do. Particularly in the 1970s pictures, he looks comfortable in his own skin, and with being part of a family. And that’s another thing I think critics have a hard time forgiving him for: a good bit of the time, he seems genuinely happy.

  4. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Excellent post on Beatle style. Paul had a flair, to be sure, and still does. (I agree with Nancy that his only misstep was the sweater phase – to this day I can’t fully appreciate “Waterfalls” because of his striped sweater vest, which shows how fundamentally shallow I am as a human being.)

    I loved the Hard Days Night suits, the high-button, narrow-collar black suits with beatle boots, and wish they were common attire nowadays for all men, even at ball games and office temp work. If they were, I might try to lose weight. I wasn’t crazy about the 1962-63 light grey collarless suits: they somehow looked odd and science fictiony to me, but they were still better than what followed in the 1970s.

    Someone on this board mentioned Paul’s current “eccentric grandpa look” … it’s something I aspire to if I ever reach my dotage (some say I’ve already reached it), but at best I’ll probably only achieve “poorly-groomed street oldster” But one can try.

  5. Avatar Devin McKinney wrote:

    Rob: Thanks, but … (Oh, here comes Mike — )
    Mike: Throw that flag!
    Kim: Same page, you and me.
    Nancy: And of course you’re right about the sweaters.
    Sam: Never stop aspiring.

  6. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    I’m convinced that Stella McCartney became a fashion designer as an act of rebellion against her parents. I agree that from 1963 to 1969, Paul was one of the most stylish individuals in the world. Something changed when Paul met Linda Eastman, because after that, Paul began wearing some of the most godawful clothing and hairstyles known to man. I blame Linda.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      J.R., Stella strongly disagrees with you in this interview (http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/lifestyles/fashion-style/shes-a-beatles-daughter-but-mom-linda-inspired-her/nTP5N/):

      “Her mother was true to herself, McCartney said. ‘I think my mum was really very ahead of her time. She wore very little makeup. She really explored the way that she wore clothes in a very honest way. She wore a lot of vintage stuff and mixed it with bespoke men’s tailoring and things like that.

      “That was a huge influence on me, seeing a woman in the spotlight carry herself in that kind of way. But mostly, for me, it was just that she was an incredibly honest and sort of natural person, and I think that really I explore that more in my clothes and my design than what you saw on the outside. It was more what I saw on the inside of her that affects the way I work.'”

      I appreciate Linda McCartney more and more as the years pass.

  7. Avatar Ingrid wrote:

    Go here and scroll down to the stripey t-shirt photo on the left:

    Paul has some great style moments, for sure, but for some reason this at-home look just kills me. He’s happy, a little plump, a little greasy. I’m also a fan of his wooly Scotland looks and the occasional Fair Isle sweater vest circa Magical Mystery Tour. But NOT of the Cosby sweaters that followed.

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