Roger K. Burton is a costume designer, stylist; a former mod and lifelong collector of vintage clothing. Establishing the Contemporary Wardrobe Collection in the late seventies, to provide street fashion for TV and Film, Roger went on to dress hundreds of influential bands, from David Bowie to the Rolling Stones. Here he tells the fascinating story from Mod to Punk and out the other side…
By the early 1960s I was discovering the joys of R&B and soul music at the local youth club, and hanging out with likeminded Modernist kids. I had absolutely hated school and authority, and escaped as soon as I turned 15 in 1964. Throughout my teens I hoarded copies of The Sunday Times Magazine, and I’m sure they ended up supplementing my lack of education. I got a job on a farm and spent all my pitiful wages on clothes, and the weekends in dark dingy clubs, experiencing a heady rush from pep pills while dancing to soul music all night long.
The Mod movement affected me so strongly that the philosophy of style I learnt then remains with me today. By 1966 the Hippie ‘thing’ was taking a hold, so to counter it a few of us friends started wearing original 1930s and 1940s gangster style clothes like those worn by The Untouchables, a then popular American TV series set in Chicago during prohibition; bands The Purple Gang and local Leicester group Family, who we followed, were really into the look. I bought a chalk stripe demob suit and plundered my grandpa’s wardrobe for period correct ties. To a purist Mod, the gangster look was a much more appealing alternative to dressing in Hippie robes, and was actually the beginning of an exciting revivalist journey.
I took a job in a factory driving a crane for a couple of years but soon decided to go freelance, window cleaning, gardening and restoring antique furniture, in fact any odd job that came along. In the early 1970s there was a 1950s revival and again my friends and I got seriously into the clothes and music. In December 1972, Esquire magazine further endorsed the 1950s Americana look we all sought, with an article that featured everything from vintage zoot suits to stadium jackets and two-tone saddle shoes as the latest nostalgia fashion.
Street markets were usually the best source of original clothing, and I had a stall myself for some time, selling antiques and small collectables. I then took a lease on a shop in Leicester, calling it Pioneer Antiques, later Hollywood Fashions, and here I bought and sold old advertising signs, pub mirrors, stripped pine furniture, objects, tin toys, and vintage clothes. Quite soon clothes became my main source of income as London dealers found the shop, and I had to spend most of my time sourcing stock from flea markets and antique fairs.
I found a likeminded partner in Birmingham and together we travelled up and down the country looking for vintage and dead stock period clothing, selling to a growing number of vintage shops in London and other cities around the world. By 1974 we were buying huge amounts of period clothes just to satisfy demand.
All eyes had been on Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood since they opened Let it Rock in 1971 at 430 Kings Road, selling 1950s vintage Teddy Boy clothes, and after a couple of other shop transformations they began cooking up an entirely new set of radical clothes designs, influenced by elements of clothing they had sold before. These designs had an attitude that fit perfectly with the new wave of angry Punk bands, and captured the imagination of the nation’s youth. In 1975 Punk took the music and fashion worlds by storm, and gave the so-called blank generation a voice. Whether it was through wearing a black trash bin liner, and a safety pin through the lip; a DIY ripped-up school blazer; or an expensive tartan bondage suit from Seditionaries, it didn’t matter. They were all singing the same anthem, ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
Punk seriously damaged our vintage clothes business, but its spirit also inspired a positive reaction in people like myself, and instilled a new appreciation of eclectic styling that finally broke the period purist mould. As a reaction, we began buying military clothes from army surplus stores across Holland, Germany and France, then dying and modifying them. In 1978 we teamed up with two friends to open a clothes shop in Covent Garden called PX in which to sell the military clothes. I designed and built the shop in the style of an underground bunker, with industrial fittings I’d salvaged from the old MI5 building. But after a few months my old partner and I left, keen to start selling again, and set up a stall on Portobello Road, where fortuitously we were approached by an art director to supply as much authentic Mod clothing as we could find for The Who’s new movie Quadrophenia. We had sold clothes to the production and on completion of the shoot, its producer suggested we buy them back and start a hire company specialising in vintage street fashion for the film, TV and fashion industries. It made sense, as we still had a warehouse full of unsold vintage clothes, and had unknowingly kept the very best clothing examples for just such a purpose.
My design of the PX store had not gone unnoticed, and ironically in 1980 I was asked by McLaren and Westwood to redesign Seditionaries, the very shop that had been the catalyst of the Punk movement. Its replacement, Worlds End, became a cocktail of ideas drawn from the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Alice in Wonderland, into an Olde Curiosity Shoppe for modern day pirates that would become a landmark in fashion history.
The following year I was again asked by McLaren and Westwood to design and build a second shop, called Nostalgia of Mud, in St Christopher’s Place, London. Eclecticism ruled again, drawing from African mud huts, Regency architecture, sci-fi films and Second World War art. As McLaren later put it: ‘These shops were beautiful stage sets, and never really designed to sell anything.’ The shop was later heralded as the most innovative of the decade by Peter York, an influential style commentator of the time.
Meanwhile the new hire business, Contemporary Wardrobe, was just not happening until an article in The Sunday Times Magazine kick-started interest, and gradually the phone began to ring. Word spread about the collection through the Face, Blitz and i-D magazines, and before I knew it I was involved in the latest innovation from the music world, the pop video. ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials was one of my first jobs, and I was soon being asked to dress new, upcoming and famous bands on a weekly basis. By the end of the 1980s I’d worked on several great movies, a series of cutting edge TV commercials, and styled well over 100 music videos.
In 1993 I moved the collection to an old Victorian Horse Hospital and launched the space with a retrospective exhibition of McLaren & Westwood’s early Punk clothing. Since that time the space has gone on to host masses of diverse exhibitions and screened literally hundreds of underground films, and the clothes collection, which began with a mere handful of my grandpa’s ties, has grown to some 20,000 items
Many of the clothes illustrated in the book were featured in music videos and films over the past 40 years, here is selection with some important pop star provenance.
In 1981 I styled the grey worsted Zoot suit shown below on Rankin Roger of the Beat for a music video entitled ‘Save It For Later’ directed by Julien Temple, it was also featured on the cover of The Face magazine in June the same year, photographed by Sheila Rock.
Also that year I styled the indigo blue chalk stripe suit shown below on Terry Hall for the Specials first music video called ‘Ghost Town’ directed by Dave Robinson. In 1983 I styled the same suit on Ray Davis of the Kinks for their music video ‘Come Dancing’ directed by Julien Temple.
In 1989 I styled the pistachio suit shown below on Beatle George Harrison for a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers music video called ‘I Won’t Back Down’ directed by David Leland, I had previously worked with George, Tom, and David the director on a Traveling Wilburys video.
The black leather work jacket pictured above was hired by a stylist for a part of the Rolling Stone Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994-1995 to be worn by Keith Richards. He ended up keeping hold of the jacket for a very long time and asked if he could buy it, however we have a policy of not selling items from the collection, so I placed a very high replacement value on it, and needless to say it was eventually returned.
The sand mohair stage suit below was donated to the collection by 60s soul singer Chris Farlowe back in the 1990s. I had always been a big fan of his back in the day, but got to know him properly in the 80s when he had shop selling military collectables in Islington.
The white nylon 1950s fleck shirt shown below was donated by my old friend Andrew Czezowski. In 1976 Andrew started the first Punk club in London’s Covent Garden called the Roxy, and one night when he was wearing the shirt he tried to separate a fight between the Sex Pistols Sid Vicious and the Slits Ari Up and was inadvertently stabbed in the chest by Sid who was wielding a pair of scissors, the shirt still bears the scars.
The Contemporary Wardrobe archive now exceeds 20 thousand items and serves as a valuable resource for leading fashion and film stylists, designers and museums around the world. Find out more here.