Rocketman: The Style of Elton John
Rocketman: The Style of Elton John
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date May 31, 2019
To say that Elton John is one of the most successful and influential musicians of all-time is a given. He was a gifted singer, an exceptional pianist and, above all else, a peerless showman who helped pioneer the “glam rock” subgenre. Somewhat overlooked in the grand scheme of things, though, are the clothes that he wore. Not only did they help make him famous—they helped make him. His may not be the first name that comes to mind when fashionable musicians come up and, granted, today’s musicians may have a greater influence on how people are actually dressing. But without his eclectic clothing choices, the name Elton John probably wouldn’t come to mind at all. Instead, he’d be known by his birth name, Reginald Dwight.
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Born in 1947, in Middlesex, England, Reginald Dwight grew up in a musical family. His father was a military man—but he was also a trumpet player and his family home was chock full of records. He took to music at an early age, enrolling in piano lessons at the age of seven, displaying an uncanny ability to memorize music by ear. Still, his was a rather typical childhood for someone who grew up primarily in the ’50s—his parents attempted to steer him towards a conventional life and he was not encouraged to break the mould, per se.
It was his parents’ divorce that would push Dwight to pursue a career in music. With support from his mother and his step-father, Reginald Dwight started his musical career as a pub pianist, before eventually forming a band with his friends, named Bluesology—all while still in his teens. Neither transformed Dwight into a star. At the former, he contented himself with playing the hits that pub patrons wanted to hear and Bluesology were often a secondary act for touring bands. Still, it was in these initial stages that Dwight began to understand the importance of appearance in the world of show business. Despite never needing glasses, he began to wear thick, horn-rimmed glasses, in the style of the American singer Buddy Holly. It was a tribute of sorts, but also a gimmick that translated to on-stage recognition… after all, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him without glasses.
It was in his 20s—starting in 1968—that Dwight fully embraced the notion of creating an alter-ego for the sake of selling records and selling out shows. After partnering with Bernie Taupin, Dwight began releasing music under the name Elton John. It was, for the most part, a change in name only—he continued to dress relatively conventionally. He wore belted suede jackets and shirts with tall collars, in the manner that was popular at the time. The glasses he had adopted as a teenager remained a mainstay, and his hair was unkept, giving him a disheveled brand of cool—but one that didn’t necessarily stand out. There were, however, hints of what was to come, like the leopard-print shirt worn for a photo shoot with his songwriting partner Taupin—it positioned Elton John as the showman and the face of the partnership and Taupin as the more reserved, silent partner.
As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, Elton John became more than a persona—it became Reginald Dwight’s identity. It was a transformative decade for the rock star. It was this decade that saw him put out a dozen albums—including his first in the United States—sell out stadia around the world,and release what is arguably his most iconic song (and title of a 2019 biopic), “Rocketman”.
While he would legally change his name in 1972, the decade began with Elton John’s first performance in America, in August, 1970, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. “There is a certain sense of the absurd about [Elton] John as a performer,” wrote Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times after the show. He took the stage wearing overalls, a star-covered top and silver heeled boots, also covered with stars. It was one of the first instances of the Elton John we know today—one whose entire identity was predicated on performative fashion and garments meant to make the most of specific moments and environments.
Over the coming years, that would come to be a defining tenet of Elton John’s success. He started wearing outfits that were increasingly eye-catching, ranging from bedazzled jackets to suits with cowboy hats. When performing “Tiny Dancer” live at the BBC in 1971, John wore a sequinned, technicolor suit. On the cover of “Rocket Man”, which released in 1972, he wore a white suit with rose embroideries and a matching cowboy hat.
Slowly but surely, his on-stage outfits became increasingly daring, while he developed a slightly more grounded, but still recognizable off-stage style. In the mid-’70s, he favored costumes designed by Bob Mackie, which often featured elaborate headpieces and feathers. It was Mackie who designed one of John’s most recognizable looks—a custom, bejewelled Los Angeles Dodgers uniform worn for his sold-out performance at Dodger Stadium in 1975](https://www.eltonjohn.com/stories/dodger-stadium-1975-game-on). It would cement a partnership that came to be almost as important as the one that John enjoyed with Bernie Taupin, as Mackie continued to design many of his on-stage costumes.
It wouldn’t be accurate to talk about Elton John’s style and break it down into when he was performing and when he wasn’t—he was always performing. While in the early ’70s, he opted for luxurious and eye-catching suits when he wasn’t on-stage, he gradually began to adopt similarly ostentatious looks off-stage. There were pinstriped, bell-bottomed Tommy Nutter suits; pink satin double-breasted suits with lapels of almost comical proportions; exotic leather briefcases, with elaborate hats and more shiny suit jackets paired with bell-bottoms; of course, there were the glasses, for which he had come to be more famous than Buddy Holly all on his own.
It may be easy to see Elton John’s style as a byproduct of the era in which he performed. After all, other stars—from David Bowie to George Michael to Cher—are remembered for their eccentric outfits worn on stage, in music videos and in promotional shoots. Thierry Mugler may be the designer best remembered from this movement, having created elaborate, thematic garments for singers, models, movie stars and magazines. But most of Mugler’s grandest work came in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, by which point Elton John had long made it something of his calling card.
To attribute the preponderance of these over-the-top outfits solely to Elton John may be hyperbole, but he definitely established a sort of status quo for show business superstars with his Bob Mackie-designed outfits from the ‘70s. He was, simply put, a forebear of camp. His outfits were chosen specifically for each occasion—how else does one explain the gold suit covered with stars he wore to the unveiling of his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?—intentionally ironic and grandiose and a little kitsch. But people ate it up.
It wasn’t all for show, however. “For me, the magic really happens when I feel a genuine affiliation with a designer,” John told V Magazine in 2018. More than being just a means to shaping his identity and putting on a show, fashion has been something that Elton John has cared about deeply, as illustrated by his close rapport with Mackie, the costumer designer, but also with the likes of Gianni and Donatella Versace. As Elton John has grown older, his personal style has been toned down somewhat and he’s traded the elaborate bespoke stage costumes for designer suits that, while eye-catching, have been less spectacular and fantastical.
From the ’90s onwards, it became increasingly common for the musician to step out in a unique blazer, with a simple T-shirt underneath—quite the change given his earlier sartorial choices. There are elements of his style that have remained unchanged, like the bedazzled and bejewelled top coats, the glasses and an affinity for patterns and bright colors. If anything, eschewing designs that were clearly dreamt up to create buzz has shone a light on Elton John’s truer sense of style.
What’s interesting is that, while fashion played such a critical role in the evolution of his career, it is only recently that it’s come to be of particular interest to onlookers. While David Bowie and George Michael had fruitful relationships with Thierry Mugler, Elton John did not have the same kind of partnership with a designer who was also selling to consumers—Mackie was a costumer, not a commercial designer. It was only for his farewell tour that he partnered with a brand, tapping Gucci's Alessandro Michele to create on-stage looks that are retrospective in nature—riffing on some of John’s iconic styles—while being contemporaneously Gucci. A perfect match given Michele’s association with the rebirth of camp.
Perhaps it’s taking a wider view of Elton John’s career that has allowed us to appreciate his otherworldly style and the role it played in making him a global superstar—to understand that it cannot be dissociated from him as an artist. While it never really figured among the topics interviewers would talk to him about, it is set to be a key component of the upcoming biopic Rocketman, which will shed light on his evolution both musically and stylistically as he transformed from Reginald Dwight to Elton John. The trailer for the film features one particularly poignant scene, where John is asked whether he’ll ever abandon his “ridiculous paraphernalia,” to which he responds he that “people don’t see to see Reginald Dwight—they pay to see Elton John,” which gesturing towards his get-up.
There is no better example of just how important fashion was in creating not only Elton John’s success—but his very identity. The man and the performer became one thanks not to his music, but to his clothes. His music brought together hundreds of millions of people, but the clothes he wore brought his person and his persona together.