Guns N' Roses' Anti-Fashion Style Paved the Way for Grunge

Gun N' Roses
Gun N' Roses
Photo by Katarina Benzova
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The theory of alternate realities posits that right next to this reality are infinite universes, together comprising everything that exists. If that's true, somewhere out there is a reality where every rock star dresses like a superhero. This is a world where no lip comes near a microphone without lipstick on it, where no T-shirts or jeans are allowed onstage, where Insane Clown Posse is not an outlier laughingstock but the norm in a society in which every rocker is decked out in outlandish costumes, makeup, and wigs.

This would be the alternate reality where Guns N' Roses never existed.

Thirty years after Guns N' Roses released their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, it's clear the band's music was not its most significant contribution to popular culture. Yes, "Welcome to the Jungle" is playing on a radio station somewhere right now as you read this, and, yes, Marlins Park will be jam-packed with tens of thousands of GNR fans Tuesday night. But for a band as megapopular as Guns N' Roses, its music was surprisingly noninfluential. Any rock fan can name a dozen bands they believe ripped off Nirvana or Metallica or Pearl Jam, but it's much tougher to research the annals of time and find the bands inspired by Guns N' Roses. Maybe it's because Axl Rose's screams were impossible to replicate, or maybe it's because the alternative bands that took over '90s radio so openly mocked and rebelled against Guns N' Roses' rock-star excess.

For whatever reason, the members of GNR did not change the ebb of history with their music. They did it with their fashion.

The year 1987 was a strange time in music history. MTV had shuffled the priorities of the industry: The way a band looked was more significant to its success than how it sounded. Rock groups were doing all they could to stand out, but they were all trying to stand out in the same way. It wasn't like the psychedelic '60s, when each band stepped out in a different technicolor wardrobe, or the glam '70s, when everyone was trying to out-weird one another. Eighties rock was something different. It was androgynous machismo. It was tight, bright clothes and lots and lots of hair spray. Twisted Sister's Dee Snider stepped out in aqua eyeshadow and spandex jammers. The album cover art for Poison's debut, Look What the Cat Dragged In, showed all four members in ruby-red lipstick. The members of Mötley Crüe dressed in matching black leather chaps.

And then came Guns N' Roses. In the band's black-and-white video for "Sweet Child of Mine," Axl wears a bandanna on his head, and Slash wears a black top hat. That's the beginning and end of their pieces of flair. These were bandmates who showed up to work like it was casual Friday: denim and leather jackets and pants, and a T-shirt with or without sleeves — but only if they felt like wearing one. If not, the hair draped over their shoulders would do just fine.

"I wouldn't describe him as fashion-conscious at all," Mick Wall, author of Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N' Roses, says of Axl. "I would describe him as rock-conscious, larger-than-life-conscious. 'Fuck fashion' would be more how I would describe him."

A couple of years later, the grunge revolution was simultaneously criticized and celebrated for the perceived lack of style of its rock stars. These bands, critics announced, made it OK for artists to dress like bums when performing a gig. But the dressing-down truly began with GNR.

The Seattle set wasn't the only group to get the less-is-more memo. As soon as GNR made jeans acceptable performance-wear, the repercussions came hard and fast. All of a sudden, the band's brethren on the Sunset Strip realized they didn't have to put so much effort into their wardrobes. Just compare Poison's 1987 video for "I Want Action," in which the bandmates peacock in pink scarves with matching makeup, to their post-Appetite for Destruction oeuvre. The band tamped down the flamboyance, so that the wildest accessory in the video for "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" is a black cowboy hat.

Fashions come and go, but the Guns N' Roses effect was truly overpowering on hard rock. Even a band like Kiss, which for a full decade was marketed as a group of satanic superheroes, each with his own distinct personality, began dressing in matching black, an act that apparently depressed the members so severely that they agreed to record a power ballad co-written by Michael Bolton. In his 1989 video for "Poison," Alice Cooper went from dressing like a Rocky Horror Picture Show extra to a weekend member of a biker gang as imagined by your dad the accountant.

Still, that wasn't enough for Guns N' Roses. They could take rock fashion even lower. By the time GNR broke out of its self-imposed exile with the double album Use Your Illusion in 1991, Axl had gone fully low-key. He'd wear the occasional kilt or baseball catcher's outfit, but more often than not, he was caught onstage in skimpy white shorts that were too tight. (They're also part of the costuming in videos for "You Could Be Mine" and "Live and Let Die.") Those shorts completed the Guns N' Roses fashion revolution: Nothing says you don't give a fuck about how you look like showing up to work in biker shorts.

Look at the '90s and you'll see the effect. Rock stars could now look like ordinary guys. They could grow their hair long or cut it short, they could wear long pants or shorts, and they could purchase them at the Gap.

The Sex Pistols ethos was you didn't have to know how to play to start a band. Guns N' Roses proved you didn't need to know how to dress. You no longer had to have a sense of style, as acts ranging from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to David Bowie to Prince did in the decades before. In fact, thanks to Guns N' Roses, it was now preferred that you didn't.

Guns N' Roses: Not in This Lifetime Tour
7 p.m. Tuesday, August 8, at Marlins Park, 501 Marlins Way, Miami; 305-480-1300. Tickets cost $35 to $270 via ticketmaster.com.

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