Seven Lessons on Style From David Byrne, An Understated Menswear Icon

Pick out a look from his days in the Talking Heads to "American Utopia" and it's almost always perfect

October 26, 2020 10:42 am
David Byrne
The many iconic looks of David Byrne.
Brad Barket/Lynn Goldsmith/Ron Galella

David Byrne has a very distinct identity. When he first emerged in 1975 as frontman of Talking Heads, it looked like he was on his way to a lecture on 18th-century literature at NYU. Dressed in a white oxford shirt, skinny high-waisted trousers and battered pumps, the only signifier of his emerging profession was the guitar pick that likely sat in his top pocket. It wasn’t a conventional try-hard musician appearance, but it was certainly a faithful one for the sound he would communicate. 

Talking Heads initially landed on New York’s punk scene alongside the likes of Blondie, Television and the Ramones. Their music, however, totally transgressed this sphere. David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had met at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early seventies, and an interest in art drove their musical minds in an abstract direction, one which would lead them to delve into new wave, art pop, avant funk and worldbeat genres. There was just one consistency from their first to final album: David Byrne’s twitchy, hyper-intellectual lyrics. And he certainly looked the part for this delivery. 

A surrealist approach to style is most commonly attributed to Byrne, and the main source for it is that abnormally big suit he wore in the band’s seminal concert film, Stop Making Sense. Of course, it was iconic, but outside of this moment, Byrne’s wardrobe was sharply cultivated and consistently preppy. He once claimed that “people will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit” and he clearly lives by that motto. Nearly 50 years on from the start of his career, his uniform has barely changed. 

Following the recent release of American Utopia, Spike Lee’s concert film that documents Byrne’s hit Broadway show, Byrne is also publishing a book under the same name in collaboration with bestselling artist Maira Kalman. So in celebration of its upcoming release, we’ve delved into his wardrobe and charted seven times he proved himself to be a master of menswear. 

David Byrne
David Byrne, Rome, Italy, 1983.
Luciano Viti/Getty Images

1. He understands the importance of a simple color palette 

One thing to know about Byrne’s tailoring collection: more often than not, it was monochromatic. He’s always loved grey tones especially (that much is clear after watching Stop Making Sense), but off-stage, he never really sizes up on his style. It’s always slim, simple and single breasted — shown perfectly through this outfit which he wore during a trip to Rome in 1983. Yes, it was formal, but it also looked super nonchalant due to the little styling details he considered. Firstly, a seersucker blazer which, traditionally, is a lot more casual, but still looks good in winter. Secondly, dark socks under his leather loafers, so they didn’t stand out too much. And thirdly, no tie. Why wear one when the rest of your outfit looks this sharp?

Talking Heads Perform At The Agora Ballroom
David Byrne of Talking Heads performs at Agora Ballroom in Atlanta Georgia. November 18, 1980
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

2. He was into striped shirts way before you were

Though Talking Heads tapped into a bunch of different genres with their music — worldbeat was by far their best — their appearances never wavered. On tour, Byrne’s go-to item on top was a striped shirt, worn here in 1980 just after the release of their seminal record Remain In Light. It’s a killer design: cut in satin, falling with baggy sleeves, fastened with tight cuffs and fronted with stark black stripes. Top points for his way of wearing it, too, the top button undone to create the appearance of a cuban collar which, in turn, transitioned the look from pure preppy to relaxed nonchalance. Big stylish business.  

Party to Celebrate Greg Morris Joining the Cast of the Broadway Show "Les Miserables"
David Byrne in 1988.
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

3. Layers

Time to take a look at Byrne’s off-duty wardrobe. Disclaimer: it’s more than suits. But it’s equally brilliant, as it revolves around layers. Tons and tons of layers. Pictured here in 1988, he rocked up to a New York party in a triple threat style move. For the base note, a grey roll neck. For the middle note, a violet cashmere cardigan. And for the top note, a deconstructed bomber jacket. Leaving that final layer unzipped really worked wonders as it showed off his excellent wardrobe levels underneath. If you’re stuck on what to wear as the temperatures drop, we suggest recreating this, as it’s practical, cozy and undeniably stylish.

The United Jewish Appeal's "Man of the Year" Gala Salute to Steve Ross
David Byrne in 1990.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

4. A hint of noir

Ah, the trench coat. A favorite for film stars since the 1940s — think Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Alain Delon in Le Samouraï — this classic piece of outerwear was embraced by musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, David Byrne included. But in a sea of beige designs, he opted for black: pulling up its collar and sealing its double breasted structure to make a very good case for the coat’s military context. Quite the opposite to his skinny suit and shirt combination, this outing in 1990 broadened his approach to menswear, but he still looked cool. Invest in a similar trench from its earliest purveyors — Aquascutum or Burberry — for an easy winter style win. 

David Byrne 1987
David Byrne in 1987.
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

5. And you may find yourself wearing head-to-toe black

Sure, black is the first point of call for classic style, but there’s an art to mastering it, and it all revolves around the silhouette. Case in point for how to pull it off: David Byrne, circa 1987. While most of his peers at the time were dressing in a spectrum of fluorescent shades, Byrne prioritized shape, opting for a baggy button-up shirt tucked into wide legged trousers which tightly cinched the waist. To complete the look: heeled leather boots, which brought a subtle dose of flamboyance to his pretty (but party-appropriate) two-piece set. You’ll find similar items of clothing in pretty much any vintage shop, but for the footwear, we suggest buying a pair from French label Husbands (who probably had the likes of Byrne in mind when designing their excellent bottines).

"The Laserman" New York City Premiere
David Byrne attends “The Laserman” New York City Premiere on February 13, 1990.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

6. Denim

Double denim is a bit of a risky style move, but a denim jacket on its own is one of the most failsafe items you can own. That verdict is thanks to men like David Byrne who demonstrated how to wear it with ease. The key, as it seems, is to smarten it up through formal layers underneath. Byrne’s best example comes from attending a premiere 1990, for which he based his slightly oversized jacket with a simple black turtleneck and front pleated trousers. This is smart casual 101: all that’s needed to top it off is a red tartan scarf (tied in an overhand knot for maximum effect).

Talking Heads In Concert
David Byrne in the early 1980s.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

7. He has shown an understanding of the accessories game

The phrase “less is more” applies to David Byrne’s style in every sense: clothing, footwear and accessories. He frames his silhouette with practical staples, then uses simple (but, rest assured, effective) accessories to seal his ensembles with a touch of elegance. In this instance shown above, the finishing retrofit was a skinny belt: black, leather and fastened with a square gold buckle. This smartly separated his red polo shirt from his navy workwear pants, and the result was golden. As for his watch of choice? Not a Rolex, not a Cartier, but a little digital Casio, which makes complete sense given his brilliant robotic dancing style. It’s a popular timepiece choice today, but if you wear it the Byrne way, you’ll stand out in a crowd. 

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