Double the Denim
Author MARLON JAMES re members the first time he saw denim on denim DONE RIGHT—and how he’s COPIED IT eversince
Denim on denim is swagger in excelsis. A don’t-try-this-at-home mistake that I always make at home, where everything looks cooler in a bedroom mirror. The first time I tried it, on a Saturday in Kingston in 1985, I looked like the one jackass in Jamaica who wasn’t aware that Halloween was an American holiday. Of course I was doomed to fail. At 14, I was cool but had no groove, and denim on denim was over before it even began.
The problem was that denim on denim always walked that line between cocky and tacky. Especially ’70s denim on ’70s rock stars: open shirt, hairy chest aroar, that trouser-snake hip shake. The look needed a serious counterbalance of cool to pull off. Enter Marvin Gaye. I didn’t even notice him until my beat-making friends started sampling Trouble
Man. But the record that caused trouble in my wardrobe was Let’s Get It
On. Just like that, there he was, dressed
in denim on denim, a bold-as-fuck fashion move on his boldest-ever album. It made perfect sense—if you were going to tell America that she sure loves to ball, you had better come with serious stylistic attitude. He looked like he wasn’t even trying, which was the hardest part to pull off.
Usually the rule with denim on denim is don’t, and if you do, at least mismatch. But that was a rule for mere mortals, and there’s no mere in Gaye. Not only did his shirt and pants match exactly, but he punctuated the look with a red ski cap on top, like a period. Shirt open, the color of his tank top wasn’t far from the color of his skin, and it occurred to me that the secret to denim on denim was the nondenim details. That every bold statement needs a comma and a period—a pause (muted tank) and an end point (attentiongrabbing head gear).
Fast-track to 2005, and I’m heading to a Brooklyn gallery. I’m walking down Clinton Avenue, combat boots hitting the pavement, denim boot-cut jeans and denim cowboy shirt, both the same shade of blue. The comma: a gray T-shirt. The period: a redgreen-and-gold Rasta cap to pack in bushy dreadlocks. Coming through the headphones: Marvin Gaye.
Shirt by Levi’s Vintage Clothing.