What’s more macho than luxurious, well-tooled leather, skin tight and sculpted to fit that amazing man of your dreams? Would you believe, buff bodies in pastel beachwear, tans shimmering golden beneath layers of white, pink, and powder blue? If you said no, then you don’t understand a thing about ‘80s fashion or the two men at the forefront of the cloth-and-animal-skin revolution—Wham!, a band whose impact on fashion was just as significant as its impact on music. From 1981 to 1986, the ultimate boy band gave hormonally overdriven girls a great big box of ear candy to sample and savor. They also set the template for an entire planet of wannabe studs, dictating trends much the same way as the Beatles had in their heyday.
Drawing from dance floors and the growing club scene of ‘70s London, as well as a wealth of past references from R&B, rock, soul, and pop, the duo of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael became intermational heroes with their second album, the prophetic Make It Big. But aside from their obvious influence on their fellow superstars—would there have been a Style Council without them?—the boys are perhaps best known from taking the cowhide back from the bikers and punks. And when that grew tired and was no longer trendy, they put on the sunblock and headed for the strand.
As teens, Michael and Ridgeley recognized the need to play it tough yet tender. For their first album, Fantastic, the duo decked themselves out in full Fonzie regalia, heavenly hair slicked and coiffed to dynamic D.A. perfection. Completing the full-on ‘50s J.D. (juvenile delinquent) look was the wifebeater, the blue jeans, and the mandatory sulky attitude. In videos for hits like “Bad Boys”, “Young Guns (Go For It)”, and the classic “Wham! Rap”, the pair put on the clinging leather and headed out to set the UK’s streets straight. Sure, there are times when the skinny razor tie and shoulder padded jacket make an appearance, but as long as Michael was around to set “suckers” right, our heroes were always terrifically turned out. They even found time to have fun with the “boys down the line.”
Yet by the time Make It Big was released, Wham! had once again realigned the style council and discovered a new way to make men look even more masculine: feathered hair. And as such celebrity icons as George Hamilton and David Hasselhoff consistently prove, nothing says “virility” better than the healthy glow from a session in the sun. A swarthy tan—that bronze-Adonis complement to any fully realized physique—became the group’s new calling card. Along with the subtle change in skin tone came another clever clothing transformation as well. Digging deep into the well of available Americana, Michael and Ridgeley decided to emulate the cool California beauty of early ‘60s acts like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
Along with message-slogan T-shirts that asked audiences and aficionados alike to “Choose Life”, the duo donned incredibly short shorts, form-fitting sweatshirts, and fingerless gloves—always a stunning combination. All the while, their pasty English complexions from the early days gave way to flesh fully baked and practically radiant with invigorating Vitamin D. No concerns about skin cancer here. Michael and Ridgeley were just too badass to be laid low by some silly terminal disease.
Oddly enough, the group’s final record, Music From the Edge of Heaven, arrived without accompanying haute-couture fanfare in 1986, the year when Wham! called it quits. Clearly they realized that, after leather and the beach look, it was almost impossible to continue cultivating new modes of machismo that fans could have full faith and credit in. Honestly, what was left? Performing buck naked? Sure, Michael starting wearing a healthy complement of facial stubble, and the band unquestionably kept their eye on the frothy female prize. But after two tours of duty as undeniable male trendsetters, their time as gentlemen sharps was coming to an end.
It’s imperative in this era of post-millennial metrosexuality and confused gender politics to recognize where the authentic statement of unbridled boy bravado came from. You can have your footballers and your famous film faces. When it came to sex, nothing screamed implied potency better than George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. They were the very embodiment of men’s men.