Jul 192011

Et tu, Eddie?

Has any rocker ever made music of merit wearing a sleeveless shirt? Not while making music bare-chested or wearing a tank top, not bare-chested under a vest, but specifically making music while wearing a sleeveless shirt.

If you’ve clicked these opening links you’ll see that U2 drummer Larry Mullen has been known to wear the sleeveless shirt. I’ll grant that an argument can be made that U2 made some music of merit while Mullen donned such a gun-bearing fashion atrocity, but he’s a drummer. In past style pieces on Rock Town Hall, drummers have gotten a pass for all sorts of questionable fashion choices, including performing in barefeet and wearing shorts. We make some allowances for rock’s driving forces based on matters of comfort. For the purposes of this survey, we’ll give sleeveless drummers a pass. Beside, I want no part of George Hurley.

Granted, as a guy who’s never expressed his vanity through his forearms (as if I could), the whole sleeveless shirt thing mystifies me. It’s to be expected that the poster boy of Rock Town Hall’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas series, Alan Vega, would go sleeveless, but the style would spread to some of the coolest of the cool. How much comfort does a man need to be a rock legend? How much do we really need to know about him? Sure, sometimes even the President of the United States has to stand naked, but did Bob Dylan really need to play sleeveless?

Sleeveless shirt, leather pants, two pairs of shorts...Jerry wins this battle of Best Stage Look!

I don’t know when the sleeveless shirt craze took over, but do a search on a number of rock artists with the date “1985” following their name and I’d bet you can come up with as many shots of them sleeveless as I just did with Dylan. (BTW, I didn’t realize he was into the Bare-Chested Vest Look as early as the mid-’70s, for that Renaldo and Clare movie.) You don’t believe me? Try these:

Strummer, for all his late-period Clash fashion faux pas shouldn’t surprise me, but seeing him in sleeveless shirts still hurts. Make it stop already!

Even a search on Rock Town Hall’s patron saint of mediocrity, “Bob Seger 1985,” turns up this. I pray that’s a bare-chested hippie vest shot and not what it seems.

An argument for the sleeveless

To answer my own question, D. Boon did musical works of merit sans sleeves. Probably early enough into The Police‘s career, when I had a better chance of liking their records, Sting did some good work despite a lack of sleeves. Only bassist Mike Watt saved The Minutemen from being rock’s first sleeveless trio, matching the similarly pro-sleeve work done, I believe, by The Police‘s Andy Summers. U2, however, has produced some good music while launching an 8-gun salute.

I’m not a fan of Van Halen, but for what they did, they did it better than any other band of their era. They made plenty of “really good, if you like that shit” music wearing all sorts of bad clothing, so it’s possible that they wore sleeveless shirts while dancing the night away. (BTW, in the linked photo of the band, Eddie Van Halen is wearing what ladymissroyale taught us dudes a few months ago is called a cap-sleeve shirt, which is cut to venture into that no-man’s land between  deltoid and upper biceps muscles. The cap-sleeve shirt will be covered in a future piece in our Rock’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas series.) Hey, check it out: they did!

Too often, though, the sleeveless shirt marked a descent into a misguided musical direction or, as best represented by early 1980s Pete Townshend, a cry for help. Perhaps what started as a means of responding to overactive sweat glands, an issue that finally came to a head in the climactic scene of The Kids Are Alright, turned into a fashion obsession for Townshend and led to an eventual period of self-examination.

Individual sleeveless rockers aside and their musical merits aside, what’s worse: the self-cut sleeveless shirt or the tailored sleeveless shirt? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? As you chew on an answer, see if you can help me with another challenge.

Happily, for me, the sleeveless shirt faded from fashion. Maybe this was a positive offshoot of the sports world’s targeting of athletes using performance enhancing drugs. Maybe that was part of my problem with rockers baring their guns in those silly, incomplete shirts: rock ‘n roll was a safe haven for kids not obsessed with muscles. If you had them and felt like flaunting them, fine, but shoot, man, I don’t want to read about muscles as part of any rocker’s profile.

As with any of rock’s unfulfilled fashion ideas, however, this style must have had some promise, beside staying cool. I’d like to think that all fashions other than drawstring Zubaz pants had their roots in an intially even semi-cool visual idea. Is there a once-promising Jimi Hendrix Headband of Sleeveless Shirts that I’m missing?


  55 Responses to “Rock’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas: The Sleeveless Shirt”

  1. tonyola

    As I’ve said before, a sleeveless shirt is no problem to me if one has the body for it. I just don’t get the fuss here. Chrissie Hynde gets an automatic pass – female singers have been bare-armed or bare-shouldered as long as there have been gowns. Bruce is buff enough to wear one, though he’s got that straining-constipated look in the picture which I guess is his code for intensity. The REM guys are a little too scrawny, undefined, and geeky looking. D. Boon? No pudgy guy should go sleeveless. Also, anyone over the age of 35 should proceed with caution.

  2. mockcarr

    So when Bob plays an outdoor event now, does he wear a down vest with a rainbow on it?

  3. He can wear a short-sleeve shirt and deal with some pit stains. No one needs to see his saggy, milky white armpits.

  4. alexmagic

    Mod, if you’re looking for the Ur Sleeveless Shirtsman, the musician who made the dream of the sleeveless shirt a tempting reality for all who followed because of how effortlessly he rocked it and how cool he made it look, I think I have your answer. This guy was clearly an inspiration for both The Boss and the mysteriously departed Eddie Wilson:


  5. Individual sleeveless rockers aside and their musical merits aside, what’s worse: the self-cut sleeveless shirt or the tailored sleeveless shirt? That’s a tough question, isn’t it?

    Same question goes for Jeans Shorts (and the same answer: neither please!)

    Of the many, MANY good suggestions my wife has made to me since we met in 1995, no cut offs, no jean shorts, no sleeveless, and always wear an undershirt

  6. Does this discussion include the wife-beater?

  7. BigSteve

    I don’t mind sleeveless T’s. I wore them well into my 40s, but hey I’ve got the guns for it. Maybe it’s a southern thing. I think sleeveless T’s are preferable to tanktops, especially tanktops that are so skinny they’re no different from being shirtless.

    What I always thought was stupid was the plaid flannel-type shirt with the sleeves ripped off, threads dangling. Dylan is sporting one in one of the linked photos. It’s a Look that says “Hey, I was wearing this flannel shirt and it was cramping my style, so I spontaneously ripped the sleeves off, and now I’m much more comfortable.”

  8. Definitely inspirational, but I think a close examination of Early Bowser sleeves shows that he rolled up his sleeves, which is for some reason cool. Here’s a closer look:


    See, that took some thinking and tinkering, not just tailoring. Didn’t the original greaser roll up a pack of smokes in their sleeve to arrive at that Look? That’s cool, or at least it used to be, before we acknowledged that smoking is really bad for your health. (Rock Town Hall says: Don’t smoke, kidz!) A greaser with a sleeveless t-shirt would have had no place to keep his smokes. Further proof that, at its root, the sleeveless shirt is NOT COOL!

  9. saturnismine

    Back in the day, when Links Linkerson was a staple Witness at local philly rock shows, he frequently rocked the sleeveless shirt.

  10. This is one of the underacknowledged benefits of the institution of marriage, no?

  11. No, that’s a tank top. I refuse to use that term, but I won’t stop anyone else. That shirt doesn’t apply here; I don’t think it’s anywhere near as “unfulfilled” or uncool, on the right body, at least.

  12. Yes, that may be THE WORST of all shirts, even worse than the ’80s shirt that buttons or zips diagonally. Nothing says, FUCK IT like the ripped-off sleeveless flannel shirt.

  13. If ever Links should check out the blog, this is the day.

  14. I love the man — but Steve Earle had his sleveless shirt period circa Copperhead Road.


    I think its been chronicled here before, but ol’ Steve has had a lot of Looks — only some of them good. Allison Moorer must very cool to put up with his latest Look with the Malcolm X shades ZZ Top/Rasputin beard, and strange combover.


    I’ve seen the sleveless Steve, Nudie suit bluegrass Steve, fatboy in a t-shirt Steve, and skinny junkie t-shirt Steve, but this is the scariest Steve yet.

  15. alexmagic

    Where does Danzig’s sleeveless mesh shirt period fit into things? Is there enough material involved in a mesh sleeveless to count as a full shirt, or does that fall into into some kind of chainmail subdivision?

  16. hrrundivbakshi

    Gotta say, Eddie Van Halen’s contributions to the world of rock started out strong, when he was rockin’ the sleeveless T, as seen here:


    … and rapidly went downhill in the early- to mid-80s, when he downgraded to the extremely stupid-lookin’ striped-overalls-with-no-shirt Look.


  17. how about various members of Def Leppard during the Pyromania era. i’m thinking specifically of Joe Elliott wearing a sleeveless Union Jack shirt. I enjoyed the look so much I bought the tour shirt….

  18. Ouch! Those overalls are so bad that they make his sleeveless t-shirt and Buttafuco pants look like a step in the right direction.

  19. ladymisskirroyale

    This, IMO, is even worse than the sleeves-ripped-off-flannel-shirt-with-threads-showing. Armpits and nips showing – say no go!

  20. I always forget that guy’s name and, as I did yesterday, try searching things like “punk rock muscleman” and “punk rock new jersey comics” (a friend in North Jersey told me years ago that he ran a comic book store) in hopes of remembering his name. I even remember that it begins with a D. His sleeveless mesh shirt qualifies. His Look is so over the top that it’s almost justified.

  21. Hmmmm, I already warned readers paying attention that EVH’s shirt in that photo, which I linked, is a “cap-sleeve t-shirt,” which will be covered in a future post. The cap-sleeve shirt in rock is truly unexplored territory. We may have to reserve a few days to analyze that style.

  22. ladymisskirroyale

    I don’t know whether this link worked, but this image says it all for me:

  23. saturnismine

    sheesh…for a second there, i thought i was still in germany.

  24. kpdexter! Now that Union Jack sleeveless t was special. I thought it was especially bad, but it was distinctive. Good one!

  25. I got no problem with Jeff Beck (or Nigel Tufnel for that matter) going sleeveless. I just don’t know what to make of the Wonder Woman bracelet

  26. Now we’re getting somewhere on the once-promising role of the sleeveless shirt in rock!

  27. hrrundivbakshi

    Fuck Def Leppard! Here are the fucking Sex Pistols!


    Sid was also known to sport a sleeveless T on occasion.

  28. tonyola

    When he played with King Crimson in the 1970s, Bill Bruford would wear overalls without a shirt onstage – always white with a circular “B” logo. Hey, if you can rock out in 13/8 and 17/8 time, you can wear anything you want.

  29. tonyola

    Didn’t we discuss Roger Daltrey’s cap sleeve shirt in The Kids Are Alright? some time back?

  30. tonyola

    Mesh shirts don’t work if one has a hairy chest. The hair sticks out through the mesh and disgusts people. Might as well just leave the shirt off.

  31. Westerberg – the self-cut AND tailored sleeveless shirt (one of them is even flannel, I think:



    I admit that I made this mistake, too…both of them, actually. Regretfully, I have no digitized photos of this crime to share with you fine townspeople. Hey, at least I owned up to it. I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of The Clash for the tailored version (yes, I was dressing up like the music I liked…..because I’m an idiot).

  32. NOTE: That’s drummer Steve Cook in the sleeveless t. If a drummer’s going to be relieved of blame he’s also got to be excused from credit. Joe Elliot continues to hold the title of Best Attempt at Making a Sleeveless T-Shirt Cool.

  33. Yes, but we have yet to fully explore the phenomenon. I’ve been doing research the last few months. The cap sleeve briefly had more impact on rock fashion than I remembered.

  34. mockcarr

    Undershirts? Is she in league with the Southron Cotton Magnates? That’s just another thing to wash too.

  35. mockcarr

    No one is more capable of doing things we hate than ourselves.

  36. All told, the sleeveless shirt is getting a lot more support than any of the other Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas. In your face, Headbands!

  37. I hated those capped sleeves — even on women.

    Circa 1987 — I got a little bitter when a date wore one to a wedding.

  38. I think what really sold the look was that it was often coupled with a bandana worn around the neck, like he was a rock bandit who just “unmasked”

  39. 2000 Man

    Wow, when I think about Cousin Dupree from the Steely Dan song, that’s the guy I think about. Yuck. He better be careful if he drives around in a panel van.

  40. 2000 Man

    She looks like she’s looking for god to make it go away.

  41. 2000 Man

    I like how essentially, anything Loverboy wore is a failed Rock fashion statement. Is this a sleeveless bowling shirt? Like maybe you’d get too hot wearing rented shoes and drinking beer?


  42. True, Loverboy and Alan Vega must qualify for the most.

  43. What do you call a guy with a sleeveless shirt and a whole armful (or “full sleeve”) of tats like Mike Ness?

  44. ladymisskirroyale

    Shame! Black socks with that ensemble!

  45. tonyola

    I’m starting to see young guys here in Miami wearing black athletic socks with sneakers and black knee-shorts. Is it a trend?

  46. bostonhistorian

    Yeah, but Westerberg probably sold his sleeves for beer. You gotta do what you gotta do….

  47. Yeah, “The Grandpa” makes sense as a hipster fashion trend. Idiots! The kids nowadays, they’re grasping at straws from the bottom of the barrel when it comes to this stuff. The “ironic” statements have been piled so high on top of each other, that it’s finally just become honestly, purely lame.

  48. It’s gone from “Let’s dress retro, like our grandparents did when they were our age” to “Lets dress the way our grandparents do RIGHT NOW…like 80 year old retirees”. I’ve heard tales of this trend with hipster youth from friends in NYC, so I really do think it’s a real thing, “The Grandpa” look.

  49. ladymisskirroyale

    Please do not underestimate the amount of joy that Get Lucky album cover gave to a legion of 1980’s gals.

  50. ladymisskirroyale

    The key is whether they are wearing black dress socks or athletic socks.

  51. That’s a MAJOR trend! Even worse is kidz wearing black socks and what they call “slides” (ie, fancy flip-flops made by adidas, Nike, and the like). We work so hard at reminding our teenage son how geeky that Look actually is. I don’t know that we’ve ever gone to further lengths to keep him away from a particular Look. He loves his slides, but he wears them barefoot…as they were meant to be worn.

  52. I ran into him at a show over the 4th of July weekend. I can’t recall if he wore one or not, though it’s entirely possible. I’ll make sure to keep an eye out.

  53. Can confirm that trend here in Northern VA too — 15 yr. old neighbor kid plays basketball with his Converse court shoes with black socks and then slips into his black socks and “slides” for chillin’.

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