Someone once said that all beginning is artifice (and some might argue that so is fashion, but that is a discussion for another time). The temptation is to tell the story chronologically. And that version proceeds innocently enough.
Born 15, July of 1956 in Manchester, England, Ian Kevin Curtis was a precocious lad who showed a talent for poetry from a young age. His teenage years were devoted to music and he counted David Bowie (see Nancy Black’s profile of Bowie), The Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop as musical heroes. From here, we could delve into his marriage at age nineteen, his job in the civil service, or the failed attempts at starting a band. We might even examine the crucial role that Bowie’s glam-doll personas played in shaping Ian’s early fashion sense. However, I’d like to skip ahead.
Perhaps we could jump off at the end: May 18th, 1980. Curtis, on the verge of his first American tour with Joy Division, swinging from a rope wrapped around his neck after a night spent listening to Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” (listen to it, and fall in love with Iggy’s raw power – I dare you) and watching Herzog’s masterpiece “Stroszek.” From here we might examine his failed marriage, epilepsy, depression. But this is too far a leap for now.
So let’s begin in the thick of things. In medias res: 1976. Crisp winter skies mirroring snow turned icy and grey from exhaust gathered in piles at the sidewalk’s edge. Manchester is a far cry from its sooty rise to fame as a cotton and yarn distributing lynchpin in the early textile industry. In these days, abandoned factories, dilapidated warehouses, and staggering unemployment frame the lives of young city dwellers whose shoulders sag with the psychic weight of it all.
And at this precise moment in time, as legend has it, future icons gather to watch the Sex Pistols sneer the night away in intentionally ripped t-shirts, torn jeans, glue-spiked hair, leather jackets, studs, and safety pins. Inspired by the music, (and perhaps by the look as well – early photographs of Joy Division depict Curtis in the odd pair of leather pants. Wince.), Bernard Sumner (check out old photos if you want to see a really stylish bastard whose skinny ties and shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows obviously inform many of today’s indie rock performers), Peter Hook, and Ian Curtis form the band that would become Joy Division.
But this is not a discussion of the maturation of Ian’s art. It’s his fashion sense we’re interested in. His style, once he found it, was very much about his stance, which is reminiscent of James Dean. The signs are all there: Curtis with the stare, which is equal parts vulnerability and hostility, lipping a cigarette in the cold, an angular face with dark eyes framed by choppy black hair. He wore dress shirts with pockets on both breasts, simple suit pants, and polished brogues. And, the coup de gras was the ever-present trench coat with the collar turned up and out like two dog- eared pages of an old book – his only shelter from the cold. No doubt inspired by Ian’s look, Joy Division fans, known as The Cult with No Name, were characterized as intense young men in gray overcoats.
This past January 25th, 2010 marked the 32nd anniversary of the night that Joy Division played its first gig at Pips Disco. Looking around New York today, one could argue that our current economic climate has aroused similar feelings of isolation and uncertainty that informed the lives of Curtis and his band-mates. The point is, once Curtis dropped the Bowie impersonation, he went back to basics. His style was nothing if not utilitarian. And perhaps we young men can take a page out of his style book. Just because our wallets are hurting doesn’t mean our style has to suffer. The fact is, subtle and sophisticated will stand the test of time.