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Rhythm & blues backbeat

Pioneers of R& B style made their mark with dark suits and skinny ties, or bling and baggy jeans.

October 19, 2008|Emili Vesilind

Sharp-dressed men

Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and Ray Charles helped pave the way for modern rhythm and blues in the 1950s and always dressed the part of the gentleman. Dark suits and tuxedos were de rigueur for performers -- teamed with starched white shirts, pocket squares and skinny ties. With rock 'n' roll on the horizon, the button-down look wouldn't last long.

Polyester and flash

In the early '60s, Motown groups such as the Temptations and the Miracles kept their images squeaky-clean in matching suits and shiny lace-ups. But by the mid-'60s, James Brown burst onto the scene in flashy metallic suits with wide lapels, polyester jumpsuits and tighter-than-tight trousers. His Medusa-like coif (did he set it with pink foam rollers?), "Shaft" ankle boots and permanent state of sweatiness rendered the Godfather of Soul one of the most recognizable figures in music history.

Sweaters to sweat shirts

Marvin Gaye evolved from a clean-cut, cardigan-wearing crooner in the '50s and '60s to a bearded, war-protesting soul singer in the early 1970s. Tall, lean and handsome, he was made to wear clothes and looked as dashing in a sweat shirt and striped, Afro-inspired knit cap as he did in a suit (or that iconic trench coat). That same decade, cross-dressing disco singer Sylvester pushed the genre's style -- and gender politics -- into new, eye-shadowed realms.

Purple reign vs. King of Pop

Prince took cross-dressing into the mainstream in the 1980s, with his long, curly locks, stiletto boots and ruffle-bibbed shirts (yet he was big on body and facial hair), and made purple the hue of the decade. Meanwhile, Michael Jackson took style back to the '50s in penny loafers, "Grease" biker jackets and high-water pants. And don't forget that lone glittery glove -- co-opted by every tween in the free world.

Bad and baggy

As gangster rap took over the charts in the 1990s, R&B guys toughened up their image with Timberland boots, baggy jeans and diamond-encrusted gold chains. When bad-boy balladeer R. Kelly wasn't strutting around shirtless, he was clad in a skullcap, white tank top and jeans slung low (to flash his boxers). New Edition spinoff Bell Biv DeVoe kept it lighter, mixing gangster-style threads with fedoras, top hats and other quirky accessories.

Smooth operators

The new look of R&B is polished and elegant, and never overtly bling-y (think Patek Philippe watches, not gangster nugget rings). Like Ne-Yo, R&B singer John Legend also boasts a GQ-worthy look, based on classic pieces such as trench coats, collared, button-front shirts, cashmere sweaters and tailored sports jackets. Welcome back, kind gents.

-- Emili Vesilind

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