PHOTO ESSAY

For Those About to Frock

A salute to music’s craziest costumes

By Matthew McKinnon
June 19, 2006
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(Courtesy Warner Music Canada)

The DJ and producer Danger Mouse (b. Brian Burton) is best known for mashing the Beatles with Jay-Z to make 2004’s celebrated Grey Album. Singing rapper Cee-Lo Green (b. Thomas Calloway) is the prodigal son of Goodie Mob, founding fathers of hip hop’s Dirty South sound. Together they are Gnarls Barkley, a soul-pop duo who (a) have become the darlings of young Britain, and (b) enjoy wearing ridiculous costumes.

In photo shoots and live performances, Burton and Calloway have dressed as characters from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Napoleon Dynamite, Wayne’s World and umpteen other films. When asked why, Burton has said he feels more comfortable in something silly instead of his street clothes. Calloway believes the get-ups remind the audience (and performers alike) to take nothing too seriously.

The attitude is light-hearted; the behaviour is brave. As gimmicks go, costuming is one of the riskiest moves musicians can make. Consider Slipknot, the rap-metal band who shroud themselves behind Halloween masks and industrial jumpsuits. By the light of day, they look like hapless figments of Vince McMahon’s imagination. On a darkened concert stage, however, shadows and pyrotechnics recast them as agents of the Apocalypse. Image becomes power.

And Gnarls? Flexing plastic at a rental shop is a poor substitute for creating a look of their own. What Calloway and Burton do is costume karaoke, and it’s no way to earn a place on the following web pages, among a selection of the most audacious dressers in popular music. This is not about fashion plates such as  Madonna, whose concerts are akin to mega runway shows for Jean Paul Gaultier. Rather, these are artists and groups who have staked their careers on looking very different from the norm. Some are lesser-known acts that have not grasped big-ticket fame, and most likely never will. They are novelties, dressed to impress, even if their music underwhelms. Others are stars whose look has become difficult to dissociate from their sound — the two go hand in glove.

Before treading further, some honourable mentions: Bjork, Devo, the Aquabats, the RZA (as Bobby Digital), Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Flaming Lips and the Village People.

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