It is May 14, 1967 and the first flashes of Syd Barrett on BBC’s Look of the Week are all but mystical━as he raises his arms, either hypnotizing a suburban audience through their television screens or crucifying himself on some ghostly cross, his kimono sleeves hang down past his mirrored guitar like the robes of some anachronistic saint performing miracles. On the wall behind him trembles his colossal, hulking shadow, catapulting him from the status of mere man to untouchable phenomenon almost instantaneously. “Lime and limpid green, the sound surrounds / the icy waters underground,” he intones through flashing lights and wailing guitars.
I credit much of the energy conjured up during the Look of the Week performance to Syd’s resplendent tunic, which created a silhouette that would firmly cement Pink Floyd into the brains of the masses━the rest, as they say, is history. The shirt is typical of the era, with a high collar, a deep V neckline with decorative trim, and a pattern of swirling, botanical-inspired shapes. It holds all the splendor of the Swinging London boutique shops alongside the magick and mystique of the late ‘60s underground scene.
It seems a bit ignorant to write about the clothing of a man who withdrew from the public eye due to a misalignment of perception and reality as it pertains to his character, but Syd made his fascination with style clear from very early on in his career. Pink Floyd’s debut single, Arnold Layne, is about a man who steals women’s clothing from washing lines, admiring his new garments in the mirror before he gets caught and arrested, doomed to work on a chain gang until the end of time.
Syd is described by those who knew him as wild, but very sensitive, often lost in a world of his own making. His style was as offbeat as his disposition, with biographer Rob Chapman noting that he “took on the look and bohemian aspect of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet,” growing his hair out long and “[draping] himself in scarves and shawls, silk and velvet, and wildly clashing colors.” His look was “androgynous but never camp” and completely unique, which was no small feat during a time in which the outlandish was commonplace.
According to longtime friend Hester Page, they would buy bagfuls of old theatre costumes to use for his stage looks that included velvet cloaks and old-fashioned frilly shirts. “Syd was into decking himself up because the girls did,” she explains. “So [he’d] put on a bit of eye-liner at the same time we all were, [and] we used to draw eyelashes on him, and draw roses on our cheeks [....] it was a decorative time.” Some favorite haunts included Portobello Road and King’s Road in Chelsea, home to infamous boutiques such as Granny Takes A Trip and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. Rockstars, supermodels, and raving artists all curated their wardrobes from such shops, and their specialized clothing became a symbol of the era.
A synthesis of unchecked mental health problems and habitual drug use caused Syd’s mind to deteriorate rather quickly, and by the summer of 1967 those close to him began to pull away, not understanding his erratic behavior. Every song he wrote in this later period was deemed too dark for commercial use, and each single he proposed got shot down, one by one.
Vegetable Man is the B-side to Scream Thy Last Scream, which is remembered as Pink Floyd’s most grim, wretched song. Vegetable Man begins with Syd mocking his own outfit: “There's a kind of stink about blue velvet trousers / In my paisley shirt, I look a jerk / And my turquoise waistcoat is quite out of sight / But oh, oh! My haircut looks so bad.” He then imagines himself changing in order to fit in, wearing the “latest cut” of pants and buying his socks in fancy boxes. At the end of the verse, he spits, “It’s what you see / it must be me,” in a ruthlessly sarcastic callout to those who only took him at face value. The song is a damning examination of the thoughtless followers of fashion, preoccupied more with how they look than how they come across to the world.
Perhaps the end of the song is the most telling, with Syd confessing, “I’ve been looking all over the place for a place for me / But it ain’t anywhere, it just ain’t anywhere.” The preoccupation with feeling othered, as shown in Vegetable Man, is one that would follow Syd until his end. Clothing used to be a way to connect with his friends and his audience, but it quickly became another tool to alienate him from the human experience. As unimaginative as the lives of the sheeple must be, it is even lonelier being the High Priest of Psychedelia.
As Syd’s life diminished, so did his style. After being unceremoniously cut from and replaced in Pink Floyd, he released two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Gone were the days of velvet-lined vests and ruffled shirts. Ushered in instead was the era of heavy liner, an unshaven face, and all black, all the time. The genius had fully withdrawn into himself, and his simplified wardrobe signified the end times.
Syd Barrett then shed his stage name in favor of his birth name, Roger, and went into a life of reclusivity and attempted, but failed, anonymity. Not much is known about Roger or his life after stardom, and he died an old man in 2006.
Syd was a trailblazer. He came of age in an exciting, transitory time for music and culture, commandeering the English youth’s attention until he no longer wanted to bear the burden. His style has influenced generations, and continues to grab hold of generations anew; in fact, his reach extended to some of the most influential musicians of the coming years, guiding the personal styles of icons such as Robert Smith and David Bowie, who in turn guided teens and young adults for years to come.
To his howling question, “Won’t you miss me? / Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” I must respond: you live on through us now, dear Syd. For every double-breasted jacket and pair of sequined trousers worn, for every silk scarf wrapped around our necks and kohl smeared around our eyes, you are felt, and remembered, and believed in. In spite of your continuing spirit, you are missed.