In the latest season of the podcast You Must Remember This, which focuses on the careers of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., host Karina Longworth describes Dean, Sammy and their Rat Pack buddies as “selling a brand of mid-20th cool that feels distinctly un-cool in 2021.” And she’s right: casual racism and misogyny don’t play well these days. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Rat Pack as flawed progenitors of a look that has never gone out of style. These guys typified a look: the disheveled dandy, the literate louche. Once you know to look for it, you see it everywhere: in Marvin Gaye and Leonard Cohen in the later parts of their careers. Nick Cave going from goth poster child to Hell’s favorite lounge lizard. Just about any guy in the French New Wave. The problematic men from the best John Cassavetes movies. More recently, the person who has done this look longer and better than anybody is the musician Jarvis Cocker, who is best-known for his time in the British band Pulp, but is also lauded for his solo work, DJing, wearing big glasses and the way everything he wears looks great on him. Cocker basically teaches a masterclass in owning your look.
The three albums he’s put out over the last year mean that we’re in the middle of much-needed Jarvisissance. But it’s Cocker’s style that provides the link between the fine-dressing dandies of the past and the future of what we call formalwear. You’ll know that hardly anybody needs to wear a suit right now. But looking at pictures of Cocker throughout his career should give you plenty of reason to want to grab a blazer (new, vintage, doesn’t matter) and wear it around for fun. He is a central link in the long line of rakish legends that you can see influencing some of today’s biggest names, like Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles. “You can tell he thinks about what he’s wearing,” Cocker says about Styles. “I would like to think he’s involved and it’s not just like some stylist goes up and says ‘Harry, wear this.’ That’s important.”
Cocker, whom I reach by phone while he’s at home in London, understands that he’s part of a lineage. Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, and Mark E. Smith of the Fall all were influences—as was, especially, Serge Gainsbourg. Cocker’s appreciation for the dirty old man of French music goes beyond covering his music. “He wore a suit well,” Cocker says. “Sometimes he would have a military shirt with a proper suit jacket up top. He was quite good at mixing things up.”
Cocker’s own style philosophy comes from his school days in the late 1970s, when he was first starting up his band and picking up discarded clothing at church sales. “This was the aftermath of punk, which had become a caricature so quickly. All the ripped clothes and safety pins had become like a kind of really sad kind of uniform,” he says. Since everything he bought secondhand was cheap, he could play around with things, seeing what works. That’s how he learned about what worked and what didn’t for suits—in his case, and likely in yours, that it was all about the shoulders. And that became his thing: you almost always see him in a suit or tux to this day, including the vintage velvet tux and powder-blue shirt he wore on the red carpet at Cannes. Not quite the “rich man’s suit” you’d see a Rat Pack guy wearing, but still enough to make him stand out. His look hasn’t changed so much as it has evolved slightly, but the most important thing is that there’s always a looseness to it—he has fun with what he’s wearing. And who doesn’t want to have fun these days? “I’ve never really had a proper job in my life,” he points out. “So the idea of me wearing a suit is kind of a joke, really.”