In the latest season of the podcast You Must Remember This, which focuses on the careers of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., host Karina Longworth describes Dean, Sammy and their Rat Pack buddies as “selling a brand of mid-20th cool that feels distinctly un-cool in 2021.” And she’s right: casual racism and misogyny don’t play well these days. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Rat Pack as flawed progenitors of a look that has never gone out of style. These guys typified a look: the disheveled dandy, the literate louche. Once you know to look for it, you see it everywhere: in Marvin Gaye and Leonard Cohen in the later parts of their careers. Nick Cave going from goth poster child to Hell’s favorite lounge lizard. Just about any guy in the French New Wave. The problematic men from the best John Cassavetes movies. More recently, the person who has done this look longer and better than anybody is the musician Jarvis Cocker, who is best-known for his time in the British band Pulp, but is also lauded for his solo work, DJing, wearing big glasses and the way everything he wears looks great on him. Cocker basically teaches a masterclass in owning your look.
The three albums he’s put out over the last year mean that we’re in the middle of much-needed Jarvisissance. But it’s Cocker’s style that provides the link between the fine-dressing dandies of the past and the future of what we call formalwear. You’ll know that hardly anybody needs to wear a suit right now. But looking at pictures of Cocker throughout his career should give you plenty of reason to want to grab a blazer (new, vintage, doesn’t matter) and wear it around for fun. He is a central link in the long line of rakish legends that you can see influencing some of today’s biggest names, like Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles. “You can tell he thinks about what he’s wearing,” Cocker says about Styles. “I would like to think he’s involved and it’s not just like some stylist goes up and says ‘Harry, wear this.’ That’s important.”
Cocker, whom I reach by phone while he’s at home in London, understands that he’s part of a lineage. Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, and Mark E. Smith of the Fall all were influences—as was, especially, Serge Gainsbourg. Cocker’s appreciation for the dirty old man of French music goes beyond covering his music. “He wore a suit well,” Cocker says. “Sometimes he would have a military shirt with a proper suit jacket up top. He was quite good at mixing things up.”
Cocker’s own style philosophy comes from his school days in the late 1970s, when he was first starting up his band and picking up discarded clothing at church sales. “This was the aftermath of punk, which had become a caricature so quickly. All the ripped clothes and safety pins had become like a kind of really sad kind of uniform,” he says. Since everything he bought secondhand was cheap, he could play around with things, seeing what works. That’s how he learned about what worked and what didn’t for suits—in his case, and likely in yours, that it was all about the shoulders. And that became his thing: you almost always see him in a suit or tux to this day, including the vintage velvet tux and powder-blue shirt he wore on the red carpet at Cannes. Not quite the “rich man’s suit” you’d see a Rat Pack guy wearing, but still enough to make him stand out. His look hasn’t changed so much as it has evolved slightly, but the most important thing is that there’s always a looseness to it—he has fun with what he’s wearing. And who doesn’t want to have fun these days? “I’ve never really had a proper job in my life,” he points out. “So the idea of me wearing a suit is kind of a joke, really.”
The debate about whether or not the suit is dead will rage on. And, sure: we don’t need to wear suits and tuxes on the reg. But if we want to, now is a time for playing around. That’s how style develops, right? That’s how Cocker did it, and his is a look all his own. But he’s also, in a way, the figurehead of a funny new movement.
“We’re seeing a big shift in casual,” says Jake Mueser, who runs the suitmaker J. Mueser in New York. “People are saying they still want to be dressed up, but they don’t want to wear grey or navy suits—they want to wear something like a blazer and trousers.” While some tailors might not be ready for the brave new world of formalwear, this moment feels like it was made for a person like Mueser, who grew up in the punk scene in the ‘90s but eventually traded in his studs and spikes for suits and ties. And while he’s certainly not the first tailor to take his cues from rock and roll, he looked to guys like Cocker for inspiration when figuring out what kinds of suits he wanted to make. So while you can go to Mueser fora suit that you can wear with a shirt and tie, he’s also into nudging his customers towards turtleneck sweaters, or Western shirts, often using Cocker as a point of reference. It isn’t that they should try to steal his style, Mueser says—it’s more about Cocker’s ability to “wear things together that don’t feel as natural as they may seem.” We’ve been a shirt and tie culture for so long that we think there is a single way to do things. Instead, it’s all about having a personal philosophy. What do you want to get out of something you buy from a suit shop?
I’ve found myself asking exactly that question recently. Not long ago, I purchased a white tuxedo jacket from Todd Snyder. It felt a little risky, but I had two events coming up—and, anyway, it had been a long time since I’d been to anything that felt fancy, so I bit the bullet when it went on sale. I wore it once with a vintage Italian silk-linen blend t-shirt underneath. Best of all: It didn’t feel like a huge deal, more like a gap I had managed to fill in my wardrobe. Now I had a tuxedo jacket. Wearing it, I felt more like I was in Steve Martin’s 1991 classic L.A. Story than like a member of the Rat Pack or Serge Gainsbourg, but it still felt right. Not long after that, I picked up a vintage double breasted navy blazer from Polo, had it tailored to fit me a little better, and wore it with a favorite turtleneck while reading a novel and drinking coffee by myself outside. I didn’t need to wear it, but it felt really nice. It felt like I was doing something normal, but also something new. Like I was rebuilding my entire idea of how and why I should wear the things I buy. I’m not a banker or a lawyer; I’m a writer who likes to get dressed. And now I’m letting that philosophy inform the way I shop.