Audiophile Style: Charlie Watts

Rolling Stones getting off a plane at Amsterdam airport in 1964
Image credit: Hugo van Gelderen / CC BY-SA 3.0

‘I always felt totally out of place with the Rolling Stones,’ Charlie Watts once said in an interview with GQ. ‘Not as a person — they never made me feel like that. I just mean the way I looked.’ 

Sure enough, while his bandmates have spent their decades-long performance history decked out in the likes of jumpsuits, djellabas, and pirate jewellery, Charlie Watts — like the great drummer he was — seemingly grounded the whole operation with his stylish but sober attire.

Back in the early 1960s, all of the Stones dressed roughly alike in the simple and timeless fashions of the day. They all had bowl cuts and mostly wore Chelsea boots. Back then Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both liked a nice Shetland sweater. Plus there were ample slim-fitting suits and preppy sport coats doing the rounds. But as the years progressed and the ’60s swung over into the ’70s, the getup got rather more outlandish. There were a lot of velvet suits and glittery boots kicking about, ditto flared trousers, high collars, silky scarves, and plunging necklines.

While all this was going on, the drummer of the world’s greatest rock band managed to keep more of a level head (when he succeeded in sidestepping photoshoot stylists, anyway). Instead, Watts eschewed the style of Carnaby Street and the rags of Portobello Road for something a touch more timeless in the form of the Savile Row suit. 

Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers photo shoot 1971
Charlie Watts had a habit of dressing more conservatively than his bandmates — even in a state of undress
Image credit: Rolling Stones Records / Public domain

Or several Savile Row suits, to be more accurate — several hundred, that is, which he accumulated over the years and dotted all across the world in the closets of his various homes. In many cases, he would have his suits specifically tailored to match the interiors of the vintage cars he also collected but never drove, since he didn’t have a license. By all accounts, though, his driver was always similarly well turned out. 

Like so many rockers of his generation, Watts’s first foray into Saville Row was via Tommy Nutter’s era-defining designs back in the ’60s. Later, though, he came to be a regular patron at the Nutter-adjacent Chittleborough & Morgan (Joseph Morgan who now runs the house formerly worked with Nutter and Edward Sexton) and Huntsman, which still has a fabric in their catalogue called the Springfield stripe that was designed by Watts. 

For shoes — of which he had at least as many pairs as he had suits — Watts turned to George Cleverley at the Royal Arcade in London. While he did claim to dislike the process of breaking in a new pair of shoes, he presumably preferred suffering in discomfort rather than trading them in for a pair of athletic kicks. He was on the record as hating all trainers, ‘even if they’re fashionable.’

Staying on-trend was never much of a concern for Watts, though, since he preferred a self-described ‘very old-fashioned and traditional mode of dress’. His own tastes were forged early on in his life when his father took a young Charlie along to his tailor. He quickly fell in love with the glamour and history of tailoring and came to admire the sartorial flair of his early heroes, people like Fred Astaire and pop singer Billy Eckstein. And then, of course, there were the jazz musicians.

At his core, Charlie Watts was always a jazzman playing in a rock & roll band and his clothes looked the part. He dressed like his lifelong heroes, men like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis. As Watts himself put it, ‘they were very handsome men […] but they were also very stylish’. He liked that ‘their clothes were worn. They weren’t just put on, to the office and back. They sat all night in the things. They played in those suits. How they played in those suits I don’t know.’

Charlie Watts playing drums in a Polo shirt
Charlie keeping it casual behind the trap set
Image credit: Poiseon Bild & Text / CC BY 2.0

Charlie himself never played in a suit in his later years, preferring instead a short-sleeved dress shirt, polo, or simple T-shirt. It may seem like a rare concession to comfort and the contemporary, but then Watts was never dogmatic about his wardrobe. Far from being some mothballed fuddy-duddy, he claimed to love fashion, saying ‘there’s a place for all of it’:

‘And, to be honest, it takes twice as much time to get ready if you’re going to dress well […] People don’t give it the time or thought anymore. It’s just something I love. To me, it’s a bit of a lost world. Having said that, you’ll see an old man walking down the street in an overcoat that is fantastic, or a young boy who just happens to look great. The trick when you get to my age is realising that what works on a young boy won’t quite work on me.’

Instead, Watts would observe passing trends and then borrow and adapt discerningly to suit his style and preferences. Which is some sage style advice if ever there was some. It’s a recipe for staying current while retaining a sense of constancy and Charlie Watts was a veritable model of the latter. He played in the same band for 58 years. He was married and devoted to the same woman for 57 years. In addition to his classic suits and vintage cars, he collected jazz memorabilia and first editions of twentieth-century literature. He and his wife bred horses. He wore a version of the same clothes for many decades until his death in August of 2021 at 80 years of age.

And while the best-dressed, most sober-minded member of the Rolling Stone is sadly no longer with us, the memory of his wardrobe — not to mention his music — will continue to serve as an immortal source of inspiration. Charlie Watts, just like the jazzmen who came before him, will keep being the guy in the suit everyone wants to look like for many years to come.