Bikers. Photo courtesy of Contemporary Waredrobe
‘I’ve dressed Blondie & Villanelle’
Responsible for dressing the most influential British icons of the stage, TV and screen – from Quadrophenia to David Bowie and the Rolling Stones – Burton has built a 20 thousand strong collection of vintage street fashion, wearing many metaphorical hats over his career as costume designer, stylist, author, shop owner, former Leicester mod, and founder of his own hire archive, The Contemporary Wardrobe, housed in the former Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury since 1993.
If you don’t understand the past, you can’t create the future. I’ve always abided by that in some way. It’s important to understand the past and I did it through collecting. That’s what I do.
A definitive resource for clothing and design in the UK, the collection charts the best in the history of street style, spanning the range of British youth subcultures from the war onwards. Anyone whose anyone has flocked to Burton, his pieces appearing on a myriad of cultural icons; most recently Villanelle in Killing Eve, Harry Styles and Margaret Atwood.
“When you look at the garments, they’re a real patchwork of coded messages to the outside world,” says Burton, who counts music as a defining thread woven throughout his work, the two intrinsically linked. Here, we asked Burton to share moments from his career defined by music, exclusively for MAG_BTM.
On humbling beginnings
Growing up in the 1950s British countryside, I worked on nearby farms and colossal factories to afford the lifestyle I dreamt of. Our local youth club was quite progressive. I remember early on, suddenly one night soul music was being played, rhythm and blues, and Motown, I thought oh my God, where’s this come from?
A few years later, I remember the night [soul] came to an end. We were all dancing away and the last record the DJ played was ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher. This whole peace and love thing really threw me. I really didn’t like the clothes and I definitely didn’t want to grow my hair. I became part of a group who shied away from the hippie thing, dressing like 1940s gangsters instead, watching the old black and white noir films. When the film version of Bonnie and Clyde came out, that was that it reaffirmed our whole style!
Selection of 1950s outfits. Courtesy Contemporary Waredrobe
The early days
I first began to find 30s and 40s clothes at second-hand stalls on Leicester market and at an old army surplus store, eventually ending up on the Kings Road in London. I used to sell to Vivienne [Westwood] and Malcolm [McLaren] in the early days. We would rock up on Saturdays and there’d be a queue of people, not only locals, but shopkeepers from all over the world queuing to buy our stock.
Around 1975, there were little gigs happening and people dressing in very strange garments. We couldn’t work out what it was – it was basically the beginnings of punk. We were a bit too old to be punks, but really got off on the scene and the energy of it. But with the advent of punk, the appeal of what we sold suddenly started to dry up, nobody wanted vintage anymore. I thought, what are we going to do? We have this warehouse full of stuff we didn’t know what to do with.
Selection of punk clothing. Photo courtesy of Contemporary Waredrobe
Andrew Czajkowski, who started the first punk club in in London, The Roxy, offered us the ground floor of his studios. We turned it into a shop. We took a leaf out of Westwood and McLaren’s book as you could never see into their shops. It was it a rite of passage to cross the threshold and be confronted by one of their staff. Quite intimidating really, like joining a club. The shop really took off, but it wasn’t the direction I wanted for long, so after a year I was on the road again, back to selling vintage, this time on Portobello Road.
PX shop, James Street, London in 1978. Photo by Phil Strongman
One rainy Saturday morning, my partner Rick Carter and I thought; it’s going to be one of those days. A guy walked by our store and said, “is this ‘60s mod clothing?” It turned out he had just started a movie about mods. By Monday morning we had a meeting at Wembley Studios and signed a deal to supply the film Quadrophenia with as much clothing as we could!
They wanted to buy everything, which was great for us because we wanted to get rid of it all. One of the first things they asked for was 150 parkas – there were going to be all these battles on the sea front of Brighton. They didn’t know what was going to get trashed or not as there were people fighting and bloody battles in that scene. I said, no problem.
But at the time, there was a shortage of army parkas because the British government decreed that anything used in combat or as a regimental uniform could not be sold as it was war attire. It had to be altered in some way. What we found was the body of the parkas, but invariably the hoods had been cut off and all the regalia gone. In the worst cases they’d actually been slashed just to make them inauthentic.
We managed to find a lot in Holland and Germany, then we got seamstresses to sew them back together again; if you look closely at the film, you’ll see that some of them don’t quite match! I think we managed to get about a hundred together out of the original 150 they first ordered.
We were constantly out, buying, buying. It was like feeding a steam engine with coal! After filming wrapped, the producers asked us what’s next? They offered to sell back our pieces from the film and said, “there’s going to be a lot of movies about youth culture coming out, why don’t you start a hire company?”
Still from Quadrophrenia. Courtesty of Contemporary Waredrobe
The real thing
I’ve had to sell stuff at times. I sold quite a lot of my pop star collection, several things that I put Bowie in, McCartney and George Harrison. A couple of years ago a rare Westwood/McLaren mohair sweater striped in a red and green sold at auction for eighteen thousand pounds. I have three of those. What do I do with them? It’s a bit of a dilemma, do I really want to be hiring them out? But there’s nothing like having the original as a piece.
We supplied clothes for the Danny Boyle six-part series about the Sex Pistols. It’s a responsibility and liability at the same time having all this stuff, but designers come to you for that reason; they want to see the real thing. The business has gone in cycles. When we first started, it was all music videos and stills, then film and commercials, now designers and stylists. To some extent I don’t know what’s what these days. I’ve lost the plot completely with music, but we rent clothes out to bands all the time.
Covid really made me reflect. We’ve shown the work of five thousand artists and had 200 exhibitions. It’s quite phenomenal when you think about it. We decided to get the archive all together, before I had never thought about what’s going to happen to [the collection] in the future. We applied for a grant from the National Archive and got it. Two very nice archivists visited, one was a punk, and one was an activist, advising us where to go next. They were knocked out by what we have built here!
Original Seditionaries mohair jumpers. Photo MAG_BTM
To find out more about Rogers’ collection go to
Roger Burton’s book
Rebel Threads features over 1300 examples of rare vintage clothing from the swing, counterculture and blank generation eras, detailed photographs and factual stories of the clothes origins, alongside many previously unseen fashion and film stills. The book traces how these distinct street punk styles were originally put together and worn by the predominant teenage sub-cultures that emerged between 1940–1980, and set them apart from the mainstream.