Excessively Elegant: Charlie Watts & the Modern Dandy

Rock’n roll is, without a question, one of the best inventions of the 20th century.  Rock’n roll made rebellion a tangible experience.  We feel the beat and sense the eroticism of freedom.   Whatever else it can be, rock’n roll is an electrifying mélange of authenticity and striking a pose.

Hardly any other band has shaped the iconography of rock’n roll more than the Rolling Stones.  Our idea of what rock stars are supposed to look like is largely based on the looks of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  With their body hugging jeans and shirts that were unbuttoned down to the navel they personified our liberation from bourgeois uptightness. 

The basic elements of their look – trainers, jeans and t-shirt – have long moved into the mainstream and have become everyday items.

In contrast, Charlie Watts, the Stones’ drummer who passed away this week aged 80, defied his band mates and their particular brand of freedom.  Instead of a pirate-bandana and eye liner like Keith Richards he wore bespoke suits and sometimes even neck ties.   His appearance was intensely elegant and there was never any doubt that every detail was carefully chosen.  And yet his appearance never felt like a masquerade.  The precision of his clothing style matched his jazz-inspired drumming style, which provided the backbone of the titanic success of the Rolling Stones.  Trained as a graphic designer, beauty and aesthetics were his way of life.

His elegance made Charlie Watts the rebel within a band that personified the sound of rebellion.  Rock’n roll is always about excess not just in regards to the music, but also in regards to attitude and styling.  As a result, the concept of the vulgar often comes into the mix in the sense that taboos and the rules of what Bourgeoise society consideres as “good taste” are frequently broken.  For example, by referencing S&M iconography in order to shock the easily shocked.

In contrast, Charlie Watts was excessively elegant.  The free interplay between the vulgar and the rebellious was alien to him.  His rebellion was in his perfection and in his defiance of the ritualized loss of all inhibition – a ritual for which he provided the perfect beat nevertheless.  

This made Watts an outsider in the iconography of white stadium rock of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  But even nowadays, when the regalia of rock’n roll can purchased on every high street, Charlie Watts continues to be a figure of hope and glory.

As a musical genre white guitar rock has long lost its revolutionary power and all cultural relevance apart from nostalgia.  However, as a fashion style rock n’roll is omnipresent.  Fashion chains such as Zadig & Voltaire or The Kooples but also design houses such as Saint Laurent recite the vocabulary of rock’n roll with numbing repetitiveness. They are selling an attitude, a pose which in its absolute vacuousness has become utterly trivial, yes indeed ridiculous.  When everybody is wearing motorbike jackets, band T-shirts and trainers it has nothing to do with rebellion or freedom.  On the contrary.

In the all-engulfing ocean of people wearing trainers and in the fashion wasteland of comfort wear, the elegance of someone like Charlie Watts is the last resort of the radical.  His elegance defies what JG Ballard called “the suburbanization of the soul.”  Because he refused to drown in mediocrity or make himself invisible by fear of being ridiculed.  Because while the symbolism of a leather jacket or a pair of trainers is easily understood, the coding of a bespoke suit is far more subtle and thus open to misinterpretation. 

Suits like Charlie Watts wore them have nothing to do with the bourgeoise uniforms worn in certain professional fields.  The typical male suit as it’s known today began to develop during the enlightenment period in the 18th century.  It’s based on the simple uniforms soldiers wore in battle.  While until the 18th century men’s fashion was just as ornamental as women’s fashion and displayed a man’s vanity and desires, the emergence of the male suit meant that all embellishment was not only declared frivolous but also typically female.  Vanity was re-defined a female trait.  Male fashion, in contrast, was supposed to convey rationality.  With the advance of the industrial revolution armies of men in black suits, white shirts and bowler hats flocked into the new urban centres.  The middle class was born and the male suit became a symbol of a new efficiency, which was supposedly guided not by vanity but reason. 

It this kind of bourgeois uniform that rock’n roll wanted to get rid of.  But while Charlie Watts referenced a similar design vocabulary as the middle-class suit, his style had nothing to do with supposed rationality.  Instead, we can see Charlie Watts as the spiritual heir of Beau Brummell (1778-1840). Brummell is considered the inventor of dandyism as well as an agent of good taste.  His focus was on details such as the neck tie and minute differences in patterns, fabrics and shape.  A dandy turns himself into a sculpture.  His elegance is based that nothing about this sculpture is obvious or crass.  Brummell declared:  “If people turn to look at you on the street, you’re not well dressed but your clothes are either too tight, too stiff or too fashionable.”

Such dandyism requires not only taste but also a certain amount of effort and time spent on one’s appearance. Thus a degree of vanity cannot be disguised.  That’s why a dandy does not comply with the Western ideal of rational masculinity.  A dandy’s appreciation of everything beautiful and the sensuality of fabrics and materials make him somewhat androgynous.  He refuses rationality and efficiency and combines what we stereotypically consider masculine with the stereotypically feminine.

Gender is always performative.  Gender is something we display.  As we do so we are always moving on a masculine-feminine spectrum.  A man who dresses and acts purely masculine is as monstrous as a woman who appears purely feminine.  However, there are always gender barriers – they change and move with the zeitgeist. To cross these barriers is equal to breaking a taboo and thus equally exciting and eroticizing.  Rock’n roll, which to a large extent is about the erotic and desire, has always been crossing gender boundaries.  Mick Jagger tapped into this phenomenon when in 1969 he wore his famous white frilly dress. But so did Charlie Watts in all his beauty and glorious elegance.

Watts showed us a version of masculinity which takes pleasure in the performance of the self. Pleasure in surface, in style and in materials and patterns as a form of communication.  Pleasure in striking a pose as an expression of personal preferences.  Pleasure in one’s own body as a sculpture.

In the world of music as much as in the everyday men, who are aware of the radicality of a suit and who know how to use its vocabulary, are extremely rare.  Bryan Ferry is among the few, who understand that a suit has nothing to do with bourgeois narrow-mindedness, but can indeed evoke desirability.  However, with the passing of Charlie Watts the crown of the best dressed men of rock n’roll goes to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.  Their bespoke suits are the opposite of a uniform. Indeed, they are an intrinsic part of who they are as performers and as artists. Cave and Ellis seem to know that striking a pose does not imply a lack of having something to say.  They represent a version of masculinity that wants nothing to do with the kind of rebellion that comes with a barcode.  A masculinity that’s about the search for beauty as a way of life.  Unfortunately, Charlie Watts is dead.  Long live the dandy. 

Published in Süddeutsche Zeitung August 28, 2021