Amidst the glam rock and disco hysteria of the 1970s, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis was a stark utilitarian. The image of a sweated shirt and haunting, static stare, caught in a moment of frenetic onstage convulsion, is representative of the singer’s passionate yet troubled existence, which spanned only 23 years.
While his mind was manic and intense, Curtis adopted an austerity in his clothing: dress shirts with pockets on both breasts, simple suit trousers and polished brogues. A grey overcoat with an upturned collar, accessorised by a cigarette. He shunned colour, wearing primarily monotone shades. In Walk of Shame (1978) he speaks of “wearing the shame of all their crimes”.
Hyped on The Sex Pistols and Bowie, Curtis was obsessed by music and escapism. He also demonstrated an intense fascination with the Nazi regime and the concept of suffering. The name Joy Division, formerly Warsaw, derived from the prostitute wing in the Auschwitz concentration camps. Future artwork for Joy Division would reflect Hitler Youth and he insisted that the German national anthem played at his wedding.
"Curtis adopted an austerity in his clothing: dress shirts with pockets on both breasts, simple suit trousers and polished brogues"
Even during an epileptic fit, Ian remained stiff; militaristically poised in the midst of a writhing contortion. There was routine within his clothing. He adopted a regimental stance, which was imitated by his idolising fans who swarmed in over-coated droves and matching angular haircuts. Curtis’s own loyal army.
His chilling lyrics pulled from the darkest corners of literature. His lyrical confessions portrayed anguish and resignation: "They keep calling me" (Dead Souls, 1979) and the iconic Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980). He frequently tore apart his clothing: his wife Deborah recalls an early performance where he smashed a beer bottle onstage and consequently cut his leather trousers to shreds.
Prior to adopting his utilitarian image, he dabbled in punk; he bought a khaki jacket and wrote the word "HATE" across the back in orange paint. Deborah’s parents were initially wary: “it had been the earrings, the sunglasses worn in the dark and the Marlboro smoke that bothered them.”
While the world revered him, Curtis himself remained alienated and disparate. Torn between first love and illicit love, haunted by depression and tormented by his epilepsy, he sunk into his own isolated world of madness. Curtis lost his inner battle and took his own life in 1980, on the night of what should have been Joy Division's first US tour date. He was found hanging from a washing line rope in his living room in Macclesfield, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on play.
Suggested Reading: Watch AnOther's exclusive interview with Ben Kelly, designer of legendary Manchester club The Haçienda here and Deborah Cutis's book Touching from a Distance, published by Faber & Faber.
Text by Mhairi Graham