Very few characteristics link those on our growing list of style icons. Some have a ‘signature’ look that endures whilst fashions change. Some look deliberately well put-together whilst others exhibit a carefully conjured artlessness. But it’s fair to say that all of them care about what they wear but – crucially – don’t care what anyone else thinks. They’ve got a sense of who they are and, even as who they are changes from day to day, year to year, decade to decade, they’re dress accordingly.
‘I got my looks from my mother,’ Miles Davis told an interviewer, ‘and also my style and love of clothes.’
In the early days, when jazz musicians and black jazz musicians in particular were struggling to be seen and respected as artists as opposed to mere entertainers, sartorial style was almost as important as the music. ‘I created a kind of hip, quasi-black English look: Brooks Brothers suits, butcher boy shoes, high-top pants, shirts with high tab collars that we so stiff with starch I could hardly move my neck.’
Later, as Davis established himself and his innovative, laid-back playing style became famous, so too did his increasingly laid-back but consistently innovative wardrobe. His fashion sense was informed by the cultural shifts of the time; as one of his saxophonists had it, ‘He always dressed well, always in tune with fine things, and he didn’t see why fine things should be denied to anyone.’
Sometimes the finer things would get him into trouble, such as when he was pulled over by the police. They said it was because he was missing a registration sticker – but Davis suspected that it had something to do with the fact that ‘I was sitting in my red Ferrari, dressed in a turban, cobra-skinned pants and a sheepskin coat, with a real fine woman.’
Other times, they’d save his life. In 1969, again seated in his Ferrari but this time wearing a loose-fitting leather suit, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting. ‘If it hadn’t been for that leather jacket and the fact they shot through the door of a well-built Ferrari, I would have been dead.
Few men are able to pull off such sartorial diversity. Perhaps Davis’ ability owed something to innate creativity or simple good fortune. Perhaps sheer confidence played a part. Perhaps – more likely – it’s rooted in some combination of these allied to something altogether more mysterious, something akin to reticence amidst the undeniable flamboyance.
‘Music,’ he said, ‘is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.’