The Stylish Allure of Eric Clapton and Middle-Aged Rock Stars of Yesteryear

Dig back into photos of rock gods in the 1980s and '90s for inspiration

October 7, 2019 6:01 am
Eric Clapton's look was pretty hard to mess with. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
Eric Clapton's look was pretty hard to mess with. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

Between the late-1980s and early-1990s, it was pretty difficult to avoid Eric Clapton. Whether it was hearing “Layla” or a Cream song on classic rock radio to his 1992 Unplugged album that cleaned up at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards, you’d push the button that cycled through the radio stations and chances were good you were probably going to stumble onto a Clapton song.

He was one of the artists who made the move from ’60s psychedelic guitar master who some people referred to as “God,” to ’70s rock icon who played in supergroups like Blind Faith, and filled stadiums playing songs like “Cocaine” and “Wonderful Tonight.” Long hair and bearded, he dressed the part of the era’s rockstar. You can go through and find photos of him in aviator shades, denim jumpsuits, scarves, overcoats and always just the right amount of accessories, never too much, in the age of excess.

I grew up on Clapton’s music. I can’t say I was ever necessarily a fan, but my mom played that Unplugged album all the damn time and I can easily recall having a friend’s dad drive us around in his grey BMW with the sounds of Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” playing. As I got older, my opinion on Clapton soured, especially after learning about his infamous racist tirade he went on at a concert in Birmingham, England in 1976. For the most part, I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life avoiding any and all Eric Clapton music.

The guy’s style, on the other hand, I’ve always had a deep, silent appreciation for. And what I’ve noticed as I scroll through the stories of some of the Instagram stories of some of the people that drive contemporary men’s style, is that I’m not the only one.

I started following the account @clapton_is_slowhand after I noticed Jeremy Kirkland, host of Blamo!, the premier men’s style podcast, reposted a photo from it. Looking through the account, I was struck by the memories I’d repressed of looking at some of those same photos of Clapton when I was a kid and thinking, “This dude knows how to dress.” I’m not the only one to notice this: earlier this year, Rachel Tashjian penned an ode specifically to Clapton’s ’90s style, pointing out that, “Clapton’s encyclopedic obsessiveness continues to this day. By all photographic evidence, he’s mixing pieces from his deep Visvim archive with cool dad basics. “

The @Clapton_is_Slowhand account is more focused on that era of Clapton I grew up with. So, shots of Clapton in the type of colorful long-sleeve shirt I could see in a Topman; pleated trousers with a tucked-in black t-shirt; plenty of Armani and Versace; and glasses — the guy was sort of ahead of his time as a bespectacled rock god.

And that’s sort of where I think his influence starts from: the glasses. Of course the Armani suits were sick, but there was something a little aheads of its time seeing a true, bonafide rockstar in glasses in 1992. In his Unplugged performance, for instance, he looks more the part of the cool schoolteacher, in his shirt buttoned all the way to the top and navy suit, hair falling just below his eyes and those glasses.

This is sort of a game I play: name any musician who started out in the ’60s and ’70s; it could be Billy Joel or Lindsay Buckingham, doesn’t matter. Go look for photos of them in the ’80s and ’90s, when they moved on from the flash and excess of previous decades, and moved into middle-age. Their hair gets cut, and the Canadian tuxedos and psychedelic guru looks go out the door for something usually more sensible. By the early-1980s, David Bowie — who always looked good no matter what era — looked more like a new wave crooner in his tailored white suits than anything resembling his Ziggy Stardust days; while Leonard Cohen, whose father owned a clothing store in Montreal, had always been a suit guy. But I’d say that as he approached his 50s in the early-1990s, his look only got better.

The aging rockstar is usually portrayed as sort of a sad figure. There’s some Dorian Gray-like quality to them. Their looks and talent have maybe been all used up after years of partying. Yet Clapton and a few of his contemporaries —not all of them — have provided a good roadmap to people looking into dressing better with age. While there’s no knocking his ’60s and ’70s styles, it was when Clapton was well into his 40s and 50s that the guy’s wardrobe really took off. Something sophisticated and cool, but also laid back and smart; dressing better as you get older.

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