Glitter and curls: Marc Bolan and the birth of glam rock style

The rock-star dandy died almost 43 years ago, aged 29. From Biba to Celine, his androgynous style has been an enduring influence on fashion

From Gucci to Saint Laurent, fashion has long drawn inspiration from the style of T-Rex’s Marc Bolan. The glam rock’n’roller – whose music is the focus of a forthcoming tribute album, AngelHeaded Hipster, which is scheduled to be released in early September – knew how to subvert gender norms into fantastical new shapes.

“Marc Bolan exploded on to the pop scene, strewing it with sequins and sparkling flash”, recalled the former groupie extraordinaire Pamela des Barres in her book, Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon. “How did this androgynous Tolkien elf with the rosebud mouth become the Lurex-clad, glitter-god pioneer of glam rock?”

Of course Bolan knew how to write a tune and was an inveterate lyricist. But his massive success in Britain in the early 1970s owed much to his magical, otherworldly appearance.

Bolan in 1973
Jukebox dandy: Bolan in 1973. Photograph: Roger Bamber/Rex/Shutterstock

Although David Bowie is perhaps glam rock’s best-known star today, it was his friend, Marc Bolan – they met in their late teens in Soho – who sparked the movement. They were both born in 1947 and, like Bowie, Bolan was a mod. Towards the end of the 60s, when he had finished imitating Bob Dylan under the stage name Toby Tyler and had left the group John’s Children, he could be seen sporting the beginnings of his signature corkscrew curls, as well as a more bohemian wardrobe. Visually, the turning point came in 1971, a year or so after he began to stray from the psychedelic folk of Tyrannosaurus Rex (later T. Rex) towards an electric, more mainstream, sound

In March, Bolan performed Hot Love on Top of the Pops wearing a silver satin sailor suit, his face half-shrouded in curls. That same month, Bolan sang the song a second time on TOTP, again dressed in a satin sailor suit, but also — and most importantly — with the glittery gold teardrops beneath his eyes. This performance is often acknowledged as the birth of glam, or glitter rock as it was known initially.

Bolan filming Born to Boogie in 1973
Electric warrior: Bolan captured during the filming of Born to Boogie in 1973. Photograph: Estate of Keith Morris/Redferns

Much has been made of exactly how the glitter ended up on Bolan’s cheeks. In a 1974 BBC interview, Bolan said: “There was some of my wife’s glitter and I just spit on me fingers and stuck it under me eyes. I thought it looked cute …”

In one Bolan biography, his then wife, June Child, claimed the idea was hers. Numerous sources, however, cite Chelita Secunda, the wife of Bolan’s manager at the time, as the woman behind the glitter. “Chelita was a muse to Marc Bolan,” remarked artist Duggie Fields in Michael Bracewell’s book Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era. “Indeed, being the instigator of Marc’s addiction to glitter and women’s clothes, she can be held responsible for much of the look now referred to as glam rock.” In Paul Trynka’s biography, David Bowie: Starman, the DJ Jeff Dexter is quoted as saying that Chelita gave Bolan some glitter at her house, in the presence of Bowie and Elton John. “She wore glitter herself, and one day she put glitter on Marc. David was there and said, ‘I want some’, and [Elton] had some too. So the birth of glam rock was definitely at Chelita’s.”

In any case, rock and popular culture would never be the same. Far from being a mere twopenny prince in Persian gloves, as he described himself in Hot Love, Bolan had become the progenitor – and king – of glam. “Oh man, I need TV when I’ve got T. Rex!” Bowie would later exclaim in his song All the Young Dudes.

For the next couple years or so, “T. Rextasy” was all the rage in Britain. In his sparkly lamé and plush, leopard-print blazers, feather boas, top hats and mary-jane shoes – not to mention generous helpings of mascara, eyeshadow and powder – Bolan belted out hit after catchy hit, looking exquisite.

Bolan in London in the mid 70s
Satin and tat: Bolan in London in the mid 70s. Photograph: MARKA/Alamy

“Satin suits and boas and the Anello and Davide mary janes were his look”, says designer Anna Sui, who described Bolan as a “perennial” style inspiration. Biba’s founder, Barbara Hulanicki, remembers a sequinned rainbow blazer of hers that Bolan wore in a number of photographs: “He was small. I have a feeling it came off the girls’ floor. Oh, he looked so amazing in that jacket.”

He also looked conspicuously androgynous for the era, a quality that the writer Simon Reynolds says was one of the things that defined Bolan. Before Bowie’s sexually ambiguous incarnation as Ziggy Stardust or Brian Eno’s colourful gender-bending in Roxy Music, Bolan had popularised an image and attitude untypical of British male rockers. “I think [my use of glitter] caused a change … especially with cosmetics,” Bolan said in the BBC interview “Guys could go out on stage … being not effeminate, but not necessarily having to have Brut aftershave on – you know, super-masculine. You could use makeup and you could use [other such] things to brighten the act.”

T. Rextasy was all too brief, as was Bolan’s life, which ended in 1977, when girlfriend Gloria Jones crashed into a tree exactly two weeks before his 30th birthday. Like his music, the style he pioneered continues to influence. Alongside Gucci and Saint Laurent, labels such as Hedi Slimane’s Celine and Halpern have at times drawn inspiration from Bolan’s preference for chunky platforms, feather boas and snakeskin prints. See also The Temples frontman James Bagshaw (a dead ringer for Bolan) and Annie Clark (AKA St Vincent), in whom echoes of Bolan can sometimes be seen, as well as even the “super-masculine” Slash – who for decades has mirrored Bolan’s leather top hat-and-curly mop look on the cover of his 1972 album The Slider.

As Bolan said of his glittery Top of the Pops performance: “Look what happened to the world after that!”

AngelHeaded Hipster, a tribute album featuring Mark Almond, Elton John, Nick Cave and others, is due out on BMG on 4 September

Joobin Bekhrad

The GuardianTramp

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