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Rockabilly Vibe - Style & History of This Iconic Alternative Fashion

Posted on January 12 2016

A lot of people often associate rockabilly with tattoo-culture. It’s no surprise since rockabilly has a history in rebellion and alternative fashion choices. Just as tattoos of today represent a different lifestyle choice and story, rockabilly was a huge statement to make during the 1950’s.

Rockabilly style comes from the southern music genre of the same name. It is characterized by an energetic rebelliousness, a wild good natured howl, and a full-throttle rip through the Saturday night crowd. It has its deep set roots in true rebellion and carefree lifestyle much like the Punk Rock movement of the 1970's. But Rockabilly fashion continues to captivate us throughout the decades, still holding its own while Punk fashions fade.

Define Rockabilly Style

The music of Rockabilly is a fusion between rock and rock and country music, hence the “billy” of the name, a light play on hillbilly. And like the music, the aesthetics of Rockabilly combine a bit of edge with a bit of twang. Central to Rockabilly style is a feeling of exuberance and a self confident strut. It is a style that makes the wearer feels strong and free, ready to relax and have a good time. Its influence can be seen in such culturally iconic movies as Grease and Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby, and even in videos games such as the look of the King’s Gang in Fallout: New Vegas. When you look at Elvis Presley shaking his hips with a grin on his face, you have the essence of the style.

The Rockabilly style of the 1950's first defines itself by looseness, by an intentional retreat away from the straight laced conservative style of the era. You will not find wool overcoats or three piece suits with French cuffs. You will find nothing of a Wall Street atmosphere.

Rockabilly fashion is a rebellious and relaxed atmosphere of Saturday night sinning. But rockabilly as it is now is so ingrained in the culture that the contributions of its style which seem to us as normal are actually steeped in a countercultural rebellion.

The History of Rockabilly

To get an idea of what life was like in the rowdy days of Rockabilly fashions heyday, let's take a look at the humble white t-shirt. In the 50's it was unthinkable for anyone to wear an undershirt in public. What we would call a regular t-shirt was to the culture then an undergarment, a step away from nakedness.

Only a person without manners would walk outside without a tucked in button up shirt complete with suit jacket or blazer. The young began to sport this style as a direct way to irritate their elders and to set themselves apart.

We do not have this same type of rebellious clothing today nor is our definition of rebellion the same as it was in previous generations. We have daring clothing but we do not have rebellious clothing - the closest movement to the Rockabilly scene to get the true get-outta-my-business look was the punk rockers. But the start of these movements was not economic or aesthetic in the business sense.

These movements were an actual reaction to a constraining environment. It's interesting to think about how such a unique style and cool-aesthetic was born only out of a need to rebel.

Rockabilly Clothing Today

The scene of rockabilly has definitely changed and the fashion of the 50's has a different meaning. Today you have major fashion labels and manufactures hosting rockabilly parties. This did not exist in the 50's. What you had then were teenagers in the southern and western states refusing to dress the same as their parents, choosing instead a more vigorous eclectic style.

In its beginning it was a major risk to dress in its elements and it still carries the energy from this daring. 

Essential in rockabilly is the reaction from the conservative and the bespoke. The look hasn't changed much since the 50's with a lot of the iconic men's and women's clothing styles maintaining the same key style and designs.

Nailing the Look

Men's Rockabilly Style

For men the traditional look of Rockabilly mixes with that of the Greaser look. Essentials for men's rockabilly clothing are white t-shirt crew cuts with rolled up sleeves past the biceps, plaid shirts, dark denim pants with rolled up ends and the ubiquitous pompadour.

In fact when dealing with men’s rockabilly fashion the pompadour is the most dynamic element. The pompadour is still one of the most dynamic and interesting statements in men’s hairstyles, aside from the mohawk of course.

A great wedge caked in gel, rising from the skull in an obelisk vibe, a statement of strength and sheen. It will always be magnificent.

Men’s rockabilly is a loose and tough style. It has a muscular atmosphere to it but manages to avoid an outright display of aggression or violence. This may be one of the most seductive qualities of this style for men, but it is truly clean and orderly but in such a relaxed and uncaring way, threading the needle between several intensities. You feel a man wearing rockabilly can fix your car or knock your teeth out, either/or.

Women's Rockabilly Style

Women’s rockabilly style is equally wonderful. A prerequisite and equally the most striking element is the red western style bandana. It is the bandana which ties in the versatile selections in women’s rockabilly and distinguishes the rockabilly style.

The vintage  swing dress is an icon element of the rockabilly style and many dresses are worn with a crinoline slip to add structure to the poof. Other elements include high waisted shorts, leopard print cardigans and dark washed skinny jeans.

Seventy years later and Rockabilly is still cool, still has vibrancy, still has a niche carved out in American society. It still feels very young and has, in fashion terms, aged remarkably. The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in Rockabilly as the style pairs extremely well with tattoo culture. As such there has been a growth in the iconic elements, the swing dress, the bandanas, the greaser look, within the tattoo world.

If we look at the style of Kat Von D, of Corey Miller, and of both LA and San Francisco, each at the great ends of the California style spectrum, we see a common core of rockabilly elements.

Rockabilly works well with the West Coast lifestyle of orchestrated chill. It dresses down but looks sharp. It has an openness and a slickness to it, a mutability to it by which one can be both known in it and yet distinguished as an individual. It is an American can do style of fashion, still iconic, still rebellious, still fun, a costume that works as everyday wear, a way of life open to all takers. For one of the best aspects of rockabilly is it is not exclusive, requires no great training in a Parisian fashion house, and mocks none who participates. 


Want more Rockabilly love? Read related article: Rockabilly vs. Psychobilly


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