I saw Bob Dylan up close only once. It was on a frigid December night in 1995, the last few days of his Paradise Lost tour, at Philadelphia’s great Electric Factory. He was not yet a Nobel Prize winner for literature and I was only at the beginning of a rocky adolescence powered by surging hormones but defined by Dylan’s songs. But man, what a shirt. The haze of time and the clouds of marijuana smoke—not mine—have dulled all but the most gross impressions, like, “Man, these do not sound at all like the album versions!” But what shines through unscathed was the purple silk Western shirt studded with rhinestones Dylan wore over his diminutive frame. It was, I believe, my first exposure to a shimmering shirt worn by a man and out of that experience grew a lifelong love affair with all things Bedazzled.
Of course, I am not alone in finding in Bob Dylan a fashion icon. He was an icon for about everything for just about everyone. But unlike Hendrix and Bowie, and with the exception of his Rolling Thunder Revue years, Dylan’s style was never quite so extravagant as to dominate the cultural conversation around him. Instead, his style was a sort of ouroboros of cool. As is so often the case as one approaches the extremes of cachet, it is impossible to discern whether Dylan’s 1966 look—back when he was skinny as a rail, hopped up outta his mind, with a Jewfro and shades—was a priori cool or only made so by Dylan himself.
Like he himself and the musical styles he occupies, Dylan’s style is mutable, quicksilver, and hard to get a hold of. (The latest example is that he’s dodging the Nobel Prize committee’s phone calls.) But one can trace his vestments from his earliest days as a Woody Guthrie epigone to his late in life turn to gnomic country grey hair.
When his cheeks were full and as yet unshaven and the chrysalis of Robert Zimmerman not yet fully shorn, Dylan probably looked like every other folk singer in the Village, cadging the vernacular of American workwear. He was among the hundreds of chambray shirted troubadours like Dave von Ronk and Fred Neil crowding Cafe Wha?. He wore this outfit of America in various fetching iterations, often with horizontal stripes and a Greek fisherman’s hat, until his second metamorphosis and arguably one of the most thunderous events in American cultural history: when he plugged in.
Suddenly, off came the hat and the tan colored suede and the folksy demeanor and the softness of back country roads. It was replaced by a mean and hard edged look capped by ever present shades and slim-fitting black garments. His nails had grown long; his teeth had yellowed. Dylan was angry and he looked it, too. The extent to which he was congenitally ahead of the very time he had made—musically, temperamentally, fashionably—is captured in that hard-to-watch scene of a young Donovan in Don’t Look Back. Sunny, doe-eyed, cardigan-clad Donovan, the lamb; slicing, growling Dylan, the wolf.
That was a half-century ago, one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind. Since then Dylan has changed guises countless times. There were the soft years of Nashville Skyline, the outré face painting of the ’70s, the musical and stylistic wilderness that was the ’80s. For a long while now, he’s assumed the mien of a country circus vaudevillian: suits straight out of the Grand Ole Opry, top hats straight outta Dickens. But throughout these seasons, his fashion has never ceased to be genuine, or as genuine as Dylan ever gets. It’s impossible to say, that is, exactly what Dylan is or was or will be, and it’s wrong-headed to try to pin like a beetle his signature style—Modus Dylanicus—and claim it as an unchanging specimen. Indisputable though is that whatever it was and is—be it imaginary hobo, sneering nihilist, or country gentleman—it still shines, glittering like a rhinestone in the spotlight.