With such a polarizing genre, aesthetic is the primary way one can find others in their metal tribe. A simple black band tee acts as an unspoken declaration of loyalty to the band and the metal scene at large.
The extremity of heavy metal, both visually and as a lifestyle, both peaks curiosity and intimidates outsiders. From bullet belts and military garb to the studded leather, vivid imagery and undecipherable logos – each subgenre comes with its own coded set of visual cues that act as a litmus test to bewildered outsiders. Visual presentation ties into all musical genres, but no music scene values graphic design as much as metal bands do. Has there ever been a genre of music so attuned to font and logos?
Like punk, metal grew out of a rejection of the mainstream and used fashion to create a sense of identify among the subculture. While bands like Black Sabbath started out in the blues-rock fashions of bellbottoms and leather jackets, the real origins of heavy metal fashion came from biker and leather subcultures in the late 60s and 70s. In the Post-Vietnam era and after Easy Rider brought biker culture to the big screen, bands like Thin Lizzy, Steppenwolf and Motörhead adopted the biker uniform, borrowing heavily from military uniforms, including bullet belts, cut-off or “kutte vests” adorned with patches, leather pants and motorcycle boots. This would come in handy later with the development of mosh pits, where a pair of study of boots would double as protective gear.
But if you were to pinpoint the exact moment when the metal aesthetic came into being, it would be when Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford confidently rode onto stage on Top of the Pops on a Harley in head-to-toe leather gear in 1978, bringing the subculture to mainstream and changing heavy metal forever.
Soon every heavy metal outfit in the UK and across the pond would be sporting studs and military caps with bullwhips in hand. While bands and fans appropriated many elements from the bondage world including leather, chains, studs and skulls – no one associated it with the homosexual connotations it was intricately tied to. Halford would later be one of the first openly gay artists in the scene, but at the time it was seen as just an extension of the macho-biker image that represented the toughness of the music. As costume designer Laurie Greenan put it, “S&M was heavy metal long before heavy metal was”. Greenan was responsible for creating most of the legendary KISS costumes and was a long-time designer for Priest, earning her the nickname “Gloria Vanderbilt of heavy metal haute couture”. Greenan would later design costumes for Manowar and Billy Idol.
At a time when metal was still considered a fledgling genre, there was a lot of cross-pollinating both musically and stylistically from punk, as the scene drew heavily from punk’s studded and military uniforms. Motörhead was especially influential when it came to incorporating punk styles like spikes, studs bullet belts and battle jackets in the late 70s. Just as punks and bikers swore the allegiances to different bands or outlaw gangs through patches, metalheads would take it one step further and turn these “knits” into an art form. With just one patch, fans could communicate their entire social scene. Patches not only served to bring fans together but they also operated as free advertising in the pre-Internet era.
As metal began to gain prominence in the 80s, it also began to splinter into innumerable subgenres, each with its own strict sense of visual presentation. Depending on what you wore, you could be assigned to the various scenes from thrash metal, death metal, black metal, glam metal groove metal and later nu metal.
The biker look would continue to evolve; with NWHMB Iron Maiden frontman Paul Di’Anno adding studded belts and spiked bracelets or “gauntlets” to his look in the early 80s. Like bikers, metal bands also shared a similar fascination with Germanic and Pagan symbols like the Iron Cross and adopting Viking-like grooming habits with thick beards and long hair in the late 80s. The occult and old horror films would also influence metal fashion, from Ozzy Osbourne’s black robes to the corpse paint of KISS, Alice Cooper and later, nearly every black metal band. Like warriors preparing for battle, makeup would play a key role in the birth of glam/hair metal stage bravado.
Inspired by the androgynous glam rock of the 70s, bands like Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Poison and countless others would dominate the Sunset Strip and MTV with flammable hairdos, drag-inspired makeup and codpieces for days. Just as shows like Top of the Pops teleported Halford’s biker-clad image into the homes of Brits everywhere, hair metal’s entire existence was thanks to the likes of MTV, where the sex-drugs and rock and roll image went airborne.
While bands like Saxon had been sporting spandex for years, the in-your-face sexualized image of glam metal was born and died on the Strip. Some metal styles came about as a reaction to the excess of hair metal. With its punk roots, thrash metal adopted its own style codes as a way to distance its from the dominant hair metal of the day. Acid washed jeans, battle jackets, white high-tops and black band tees were mandatory for the likes of Iron Maiden and any number of American thrash metal bands. Once Megadeth's Dave Mustaine turned up in Nike high-tops, the rest of the thrash world took note.
While concert and band tees had been around since the advent of screen printing and Woodstock, the metal community subverted the promotional power of the tee shirt and turned it into a defiant statement. After all, Metallica’s iconic Damage Inc Tour shirt with an impaled skull (designed by their long-time collaborator Pushead) is no Guess question mark tee.
T-shirts and album covers were just the canvases for the graphic grandeur of metal logos and artwork. Before album covers were reduced to thumbnails on streaming platforms, they were an arresting way to convey your musical vision.
Just as the music got faster, louder and harder, so did the typography. Compare the bubbly front of Sabbath to the aggressively pointed lettering of Def Leppard. Metal logos draw from a wide range of sources, from medieval blackletter typography to Gothic and Old English fonts like Motörhead. In addition to logos, Motörhead also set the standard for band mascots in 1977 with the infamous Snaggletooth aka War Pig, who would appear on all of the band’s albums except two.
Album artwork would spawn its own community of stars, who are legends in their own right. Like Joe Petagno, who’s responsible for Snaggletooth as well as Led Zeppelin’s famous Icarus logo. These mascots were akin to members of the band, appearing on album artwork, t-shirts and countless merch designs.
From Derek Rigg’s ax-wielding psycho killer "Eddie the Head” on Iron Maiden albums to Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead created by Ed Repka – these characters became cult figures in the metal scene. As metal’s sound became more extreme in the late 80s, so did the album covers. The Smiths may have thought they were courting controversy with their 1985 Meat is Murder cover, but it pales in comparison to another vegan-inspired cover for Reek of Putrefaction by British extreme metal band Carcass.
Grotesque metal covers both delighted young fans and horrified parents in equal measure. Slayer’s Reign in Blood still turns heads today and Judas Priest’s British Steel by Roslav Szaybo made the macabre look stylish. No matter how you feel about the imagery, no one can accuse the artists of being sloppy. When drawing from Satanic texts, you need to be dedicated to detail. Every generation has their favourite, whether it’s Sabbath’s Diary of a Madman or Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, the art of metal is akin to the US Supreme Court’s characterization of pornography: you’ll know it when you see it.
What used to be considered the attire of misfits and outcast has now been appropriated by the fashion world, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. Both of who recruited famous metal artists to created edgier apparel for their tours and accidently created a rare bonding opportunity for old metalheads and their pop music loving children.