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Dressing the Stones: Designers talk about ‘Exhibitionism’ fashions

Some of the fashions worn by the Rolling Stones on display at "Exhibitionism" at Navy Pier. | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

Alexander McQueen. Prada. Saint Laurent. Jean Paul Gaultier. Ossie Clark. Tommy Nutter.

You have just stepped into the closets of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.

And if you visit “Exhibitionism,” the 18,000-square-foot Rolling Stones extravaganza on display through July 30 at Navy Pier, you can get an up-close look at the fashions created by the aforementioned designers (and a few more) for the iconic rockers and their legendary world tours.

But a glance at the clothes reveal them not merely as stage costumes, but in large measure as one-of-a-kind works of art — reflective of pop culture and the fashion sense of the men who wore them, most notably Jagger, who became deeply entrenched in every facet of every tour, from the set design to the lighting to every stitch of clothing in which he pranced and paraded.

“I think what really stood out to their audiences was the fact that the guys weren’t wearing costumes. Those were their real clothes,” said acclaimed American fashion designer Anna Sui, who consulted on the fashion gallery for “Exhibitionism,” and whose first couture line of men’s fashions ended up on Jagger’s frame.

The Ossie Clark black and red ensemble foreground with Omega T-shirt and cape worn by Mick Jagger at Altamont and Madison Square Garden 1969. Charlie Watts crystal-embellished shirt (background) worn during the band’s 1972 U.S. tour. | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

“And they were wearing clothes that they borrowed from their girlfriends. They were the first [major rockers] to wear jewelry, ruffles, velvet. They were real dandies. And it kind of changed the way men were dressing. Men became the peacocks of the moment. Suddenly, these guys were wearing longer hair, boots with heels, tight velvet pants, skin-tight shirts and these brocade-type jackets. It just broke the style mode for men. It was part of their whole liberation as musicians and as men.”

The Stones may have begun their music journey wearing identical suits and haircuts (much like their British Invasion counterparts), but they quickly eschewed the look, and Sui said it forever changed how tours were designed.

The Stones’ clothing also reflected their music, whether it was a song title, or lyric or tone, completely derailing rock bands’ homogeneous sensibilities.

“I think some of the designers really did look at the general aura of an album and a tour,” Sui said, “what the band was trying to personify at the moment. They went through their bluesy period, their psychedelic period, so their style was also being influenced by this. Mick more than the rest was always going to major designers for his tour clothes. And that’s why everybody remembers what he wore. If you look at Altamont, for example, the Ossie Clark black and red [ensemble] when Mick is singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ he certainly had a devilish look about him! Mick was being very provocative with everything he wore and I really think that was intentional. When he wore the Ossie Clark panne velvet jumpsuits (there are several featured at the Navy Pier exhibit) they’re really more of a woman’s costume. But it was all about being provocative.

“Keith Richards became the standard for the rock star look,” Sui added. “How many [rockers] did you soon see walking around with aviator shades and using those big prayer scarves such as his and the flair pants with the conchos down the side?”

Famed British designer Ossie Clark created the long-sleeved golden yellow jumpsuit for Mick Jagger in 1972, and the sleeveless blue velvet jumpsuit for the band’s 1972 U.S. tour. | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

Sui would ultimately see her designs on national television thanks to Jagger. “The first time I did a men’s clothing line on the runway, Mick became my first customer,” she said. “He was [appearing on] ‘Saturday Night Live’ [in 1993] and I got this call from his [assistant] that he wanted everything I had just debuted for men. And he wore [some of it] on the show. Either he saw it at the [runway] show or his stylist saw it. But he wanted it all.”

Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long (who was recently nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on “Grease: Live!” on Fox, and presented with the Art Institute’s “Legend of Fashion” award” in 2003) was enlisted to design Jagger’s stagewear for the 1989 Steel Wheels tour. Six of his pieces are featured in “Exhibitionism,” including a blue leather Eisenhower jacket with the Stones’ iconic lips logo on the back, and a green leather Regency jacket, reminiscent of the 18th century. The clothing was couture, pure and simple.

For the Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour in 1989, William Ivey Long created this blue Eisenhower jacket with a handpainted Rolling Stones logo for Mick Jagger, accompanied by black pants with Steel Wheels Tour logo trapuntoed down the side seams. | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

“For the blue leather jacket, I handpainted the lips [logo] on the back and then sandpapered it to make it look [distressed],” Long said. “For those tight black pants I basically took the Steel Wheels logo and made it out of silver fabric and trapuntoed it down the sides of each leg, greatly accenting the vertical.”

Long said he knew the ante had been upped for Steel Wheels because of the massive scale and effects tied to the stage design. He met with Jagger and they looked at sketches and bolts of fabrics, from velvets to leathers to brocades, and mockups of some of the shirts and jackets. He eventually made 56 different items for Jagger, and often met the band on various tour stops to add pieces or, in once instance, replace a handpainted Andy-Warhol-influenced shirt that was stolen by an intrepid fan. “It cost $1,800 back in 1989,” Long said, “so think of its value today. It was a one-of-a-kind, when you think about it.”

Long added that the lighting and stage design called for massive use of jewel tones in Jagger’s wear in order to make him stand out to the very last row of a 30,000-seat arena. “We spent hours picking out these gorgeous greens and even goldenrod yellows to stand out against Mark Fisher’s sets,” Long said. “I didn’t make anything black for Mick, except pants, because everything he wore had to really sing.”

And as for that eternal question, “Do the clothes make the man, or does the man make the clothes?” Long didn’t skip a beat.

“In the case of Mick Jagger, the man most definitely makes the clothes. He could wear a paper bag and make it look fabulous because it’s really about the charisma of the wearer.”

William Ivey Long’s sketch for Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels Tour.  The green leather jacket is inspired by the Great Britain’s Regency period (during the reign of King George III). The jacket features sleeves that tied onto the shoulder, with open underarms. The pants were tightly fitted in a stretch wool with a stirrup, and had the Steel Wheels logo on the trapuntoed stripe down the side. | COURTESY WILLIAM IVEY LONG STUDIO

William Ivey Long’s original sketch for Mick Jagger’s blue leather jacket featuring the handpainted Stones logo on the back, which was then “distressed” with sandpaper. | COURTESY WILLIAM IVEY LONG STUDIO

NOTE: For a limited time, you can purchase a special ticket combo package, featuring a fast-pass ticket to Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel along with a flexi ticket to “Exhibitionism” for $39, beginning July 5. Visit navypier.com or the Centennial Wheel ticket booth at the pier.