Audiophile Style: David Byrne

Young David Byrne playing with Talking Heads
Image credit: angrylambie / CC BY 2.0

Lots of rock stars have made suits their signature look. The names of Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Bryan Ferry, and Charlie Watts immediately spring to mind. This rakish brand of rocker always cuts an interesting figure, in large part for being inherently incongruous. Behold: the free-spirited muso covered in his conservative costume. It’s no obvious mix, this conflation of the wares of Savile Row and the rhythms of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Suits have, of course, long connoted the establishment; while — for a moment in time, anyway — it was always some or other version of rock music that gave voice to the anti-establishment. It makes for a yin and yang quality that many musicians have used to great effect, and none so more than David Byrne. 

Byrne has a reputation for being a multi-hyphenate polymath with an apparently endless reserve of energy, creativity, and curiosity. Known primarily for being the frontman of the band Talking Heads, Byrne has since the band’s dissolution in 1991 carved out an impressive career for himself as a solo artist and prolific collaborator. But this is just the first line of a résumé that also includes the achievements of an artist, producer, writer, designer, actor, filmmaker, bike enthusiast, cheerfulness advocate, and…well, frankly, to list all of his achievements would have us here all day. Suffice it to say, David Byrne represents the kind of creative enthusiasm we would all do well to try to emulate, not least in his capacity as a clotheshorse. 

Byrne once claimed ‘people will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit’ which is a maxim he has been living by for the last four or five decades. Byrne is nearly always photographed wearing a suit. And while they do vary in appearance and style, a great many of them are three-buttoned, single-breasted, and monochromatic. They also tend to fit him to a tee. All but one, that is.

David Byrne’s best-known suit — indeed, one of the most famous suits in the history of popular music — didn’t come anywhere close to fitting him. I’m talking, of course, about the infamous oversized number he wore in the final act of the 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense

The film, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Talking Heads and company, is essentially a deconstruction of a live performance, in which you get to see how the audiovisual sausage is made. It kicks off with a view of an empty stage on which the wings and tape marks are deliberately visible and around which an audience feels conspicuously present. Enter: David Byrne carrying an acoustic guitar and boombox that he uses to play a stripped-down rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’. Then, with every passing number, you witness some new element conspicuously added to the growing mix — a new musician here, a black-clad roadie there — until we arrive at the infamous supersized suit, which Byrne dons to perform the song ‘Girlfriend is Better’. At first this gargantuan garment is merely glimpsed in shadow and silhouette until, finally, it is revealed in all its majesty, illuminated by a spotlight and brought to life by Byrne’s jerky dance moves. 

The big suit was in a sense the natural Byrnesian progression from the wardrobe the band had worn since its inception. Arriving on the scene in 1975, fresh out of art school and playing New York’s punk clubs, the Talking Heads decided to take a normcore approach that sharply contrasted with the clothing of their musical peers (this was, after all, the era of David Bowie, Queen, T. Rex, et al). As Byrne explains in his book, How Music Works, they wanted to ‘start from scratch, sartorially,’ to strip everything down to the basics so that all that was left was the sound. To this end, they tried wearing simple polo shirts, but found those ‘set us apart and branded us as preppies…we were accused of being dilettantes, and of not being “serious” (read: authentic or pure).’ 

So Byrne changed tack. Walking around the streets of Manhattan, he began to see the nondescript business suits all around him as possessing a kind of brutalist, anti-fashion quality. He duly bought a $50 grey polyester suit to perform in, styling himself as ‘Mr. Man On The Street’. He reckoned the suit was ‘a kind of uniform that intentionally eliminated (or at least intended to eliminate) the possibility of clothing as a statement’. 

Unfortunately, the suit proved entirely unfit for performing purposes. It caused him to sweat profusely on stage, only to shrink to the point of becoming unusable after he’d thrown it in the wash. So the band went right back to their ‘preppy’ polos and button-downs, which never really played within the punk rock circles they moved in. But what can you do? As Byrne writes, ‘when it comes to clothing it is next to impossible to find something completely neutral. Every outfit carries some cultural baggage of some kind.’

I’d argue that when Byrne returns to the suit again a little later in his career, particularly in the case of the giant incarnation he wears in Stop Making Sense, it is precisely this cultural baggage that he plays with so deftly. Byrne takes many of the essential elements of a suit — that it is a traditionally a conservative garment, that it looks elegant and flatters the body of its wearer, that it in some sense connotes uniformity — and amplifies them to the point of absurdity. It might be tempting here to mount a specious argument about that giant suit representing some sort of reductio ad absurdum of the Beau Brummell school of menswear when it’s probably safer to assume that Byrne was just having a bit of fun.

Indeed, his own account of the inspiration for the giant suit has suggested that Byrne has had a good time pondering the semantic implications of his signature costume over the years. Back in the 1970s, he was quoted as saying: ‘I like symmetry; geometric shapes. I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger. Because music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.’ Later, in a 2012 Entertainment Weekly interview, he gave this account:

‘…a friend made a kind of quip, while I was trying to think of what to do on this next tour, what to wear, and he said: “Well, you know what theater is – everything has to be bigger.” And he didn’t mean the clothes had to be bigger, he meant that the gestures were larger, the music had to be more exaggerated, on stage than they would in real life. But I took it very literally and thought, “Oh, the clothes are bigger.” I’d been in Japan recently and had seen a lot of traditional Japanese theater, and I realized that yes, that kind of front-facing outline, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top.’

The actual construction of the suit proved to be about as contrived as its conception. Gail Blacker, the designer who made the suit, described it back in 1984 as ‘more of an architectural project than a clothing project.’ It was reinforced with needlepoint canvas to help retain its shape, in addition to being mounted on a girdle and giant webbed shoulder pads which allowed it to hang loosely around Byrne’s body. It gave him a sort of playing card aesthetic in which he looked very wide from up front while remaining slim in profile. The grey colour was further chosen because it harmonised favourably with the stage lighting, with the rest of the band’s costumes following suit to allow everyone to be lit evenly. 

David Byrne wearing a seersucker suit
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the decades since Stop Making Sense first came out suits have remained Byrne’s go-to garment. For instance, in his most recent critically-acclaimed stage/film appearance, American Utopia, Burne once more dons a grey, three-button suit, albeit now in a much more practical and conventional cut. Still, he has a bit of fun with it by adding some superfluous pockets to his jacket, all conspicuously sewn one on top of another, and having everyone on stage go barefoot.

A version of this is true of nearly all the suits David Byrne wears, both on and off stage. They inevitably boast one or other quirk, typically an unconventional pattern or colour, or perhaps a detail or two that are somehow just shy of standard. His is always tailoring with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

To return to the notion of Byrne being a kind of creative role model, perhaps this is the takeaway as we’re tempted to dress with his influence in mind. Since precious few of us could carry off the Herman Munster profile of a giant suit or rock the loud patterns and palettes he dons with such ease, maybe the thing to remember is the following: Much as menswear cherishes rules and traditions, maybe every once in a while it makes sense to cut loose a little. To recapture the fun inherent in getting dressed. To channel a little rock ‘n’ roll. To think of David Byrne and stop making sense. ‘Nothing is better than this (is it?)’