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The Fashion of Heavy Metal

Well, where to start? Heavy metal fashion is not a panacea. Within the myriad subgenres such as power metal, doom, black metal, folk or Pagan metal and death metal there are all manner of different styles that are unique to each subgenre and subculture. Over the years, heavy metal fashion has undergone subtle changes as bands have come and gone and what is considered mainstream within metal has shifted.

The roots of heavy metal’s early fashion rules stem largely from the late 1960s biker gangs,

 from left, Ross Lomas, Colin Abrahall, Colin Blyth and Scott Preece of GBH. Photograph: Erica Echenberg/Redferns
from left, Ross Lomas, Colin Abrahall, Colin Blyth and Scott Preece of GBH. Photograph: Erica Echenberg/Redferns

hippie culture and military wear, although from these early roots have grown a fashion ecosystem that is as diverse as any. From the military bullet belts have been adopted by fans of thrash and black metal alike, while camouflage jackets and para boots have long been worn by metal fans from multiple subgenres. Motörhead, Destruction and Sodom, in particular, used a lot of military symbols and clothing memorabilia, helping to cement its place in metal fashion.

From the biker gangs in the UK and the popularity of the likes of the Hell’s Angels in the US heavy metal adopted the wearing of heavy-duty leather jackets, although the particular style of leather jacket most worn in the metal community is undoubtedly the Brando jacket, made popular in the 1953 noir movie The Wild One. The jean jacket was probably a legacy of the hippie scene and in heavy metal often forms a blank canvas onto which band patches are sewn and logos are drawn – this is known as a ‘battle jacket.’

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw Rob Halford of Judas Priest wearing a lot of leather, studs and spikes and other paraphernalia (later revealed as being influenced by S&M culture) that was adopted as fashion to varying degrees across metal’s subgenres. The spikes and studs (often on gauntlets and wrist bands) were most commonly co-opted by fans of thrash and later second wave black metal bands in the early part of the 1990s. This was a key era in the evolution of heavy metal fashion as the death metal and black metal crowds diverged considerably. Those with more of a tendency towards death metal were often seen in training shoes and light blue denim shorts, baseball caps and more colourful t-shirts, copying their idols in Obituary, Cannibal Corpse and Death, while black metal aficionados saw this as somewhat cheesy and gravitated towards black jeans and black boots, black t-shirts and invariably a Brando jacket.

What is ubiquitous across the subgenres of heavy metal is the band t-shirt. How it is worn is often subject to subgenre-specific and gender-specific quirks – for instance, women will often modify their band shirts to give them a more feminine cut. T-shirts in metal are usually all about the band logo – which in metal is incredibly important.

Tattoos and piercings, as well as long hair, have often proved essential components of metal fashion, the latter being mandatory for head-banging. Hair that is long and untied can be used to ‘windmill’ a spiralling movement producing a whirlwind of hair (and often a neck ache to match). Gestures have always been important in music subcultures and in heavy metal there is no gesture as pervasive as ‘throwing the horns’, which involves raising the pinkie and index fingers on the hand and with the outside of the hand facing away from the body, raising the hand (or hands) in the air in defiance.

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