Black and white photograph of Sam Cooke seated and looking at the camera.

Cooke’s style was simple and clean-cut but spoke volumes on his confidence as a Black artist and businessman. Sam Cooke, 1960s, Billboard, public domain.


Sam Cooke was, arguably, the first soul singer and an enormously influential figure in the genre, not the least for his innovative musical contributions. He pioneered the leap from gospel to mainstream pop music, signed with a major record label on a million-dollar contract, and created his own label in which he owned the rights to his music. His songs hit the pop charts during the late 1950s and early 1960s when few Black artists had accomplished this feat. Those who had, such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole, mostly performed to adult fan bases. Sam Cooke was one of the first Black artists at both the forefront of the emerging youth driven music market and selling crossover pop hits. To facilitate this move, Cooke consciously styled his appearance and his music to appeal to white America while maintaining his Black fan base. He astutely cultivated a clean-cut, all-American image, laced with a subtle sexual appeal that transcended racial barriers. Cooke’s styling choices showed an acute awareness of image creation and marketing, but also an evolving identity: he began as a young gospel singer, evolved into a pop idol to teenagers, and then finally, emerged as a mature businessman and activist performer.

At a Glance

Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His father, a preacher, moved the family to Chicago around 1932. From an early age, Cooke performed with his siblings in a gospel group called the Singing Children, and in 1947 he joined a neighbourhood gospel quartet called the Highway QCs. The group grew to considerable fame and toured the Midwest and South. While performing, they wore their “Sunday best” uniforms, which mimicked the sophistication of famous adult gospel groups. Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick described the Highway QCs as “polite, clean-cut, fresh-faced, dressed in matching gray suits and carefully knotted ties, with patterned handkerchiefs peeking out from their breast pockets.” [1] In 1950, Cooke’s talent and charisma led to an invitation to join one of the most popular gospel groups in the country, the Soul Stirrers. He was by far the youngest member of the group at nineteen years old, and he readily adopted the group’s uniform: conservative, generously cut drape-style suits that appealed to gospel music’s mainly Black middle-aged audience. Through the mid-1950s, Cooke, in broad suits and waved and processed hair, would continue to style his personal wardrobe in the same way, but these styles were fading out of fashion. The strong-shouldered jackets, wide lapels, and roomy trousers typically overwhelmed Cooke’s slight and youthful frame.  

Breaking away to an independent pop career, Cooke signed with Keen Records in June, 1957, and began experimenting with a new image that broke with the gospel aesthetic. For an early solo appearance in Atlanta, biographer Daniel Wolff noted that he “traded in the clean-cut Christian good looks for a conked pompadour, a thin moustache and the narrow-lapelled suit of a hip cat.” [2] This style reflected the fashions of R&B singers of the era but was disjointed from Cooke’s pop sound. He soon developed his own look, distinct from gospel or R&B style, inspired by Black musicians like Nat King Cole, yet youthful with a universal, nonthreatening appeal. 

Cooke’s success in the pop genre was truly revolutionary. His single “You Send Me” hit number one on the pop charts in 1957 and stayed there for over six months. On November 3, 1957, in another affirmation of mainstream success, he was booked to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. According to Guralnick, dressed in “a nicely fitting tailored suit with the top two buttons of the jacket buttoned…he looked…every inch the picture of the All American boy that he wanted to project.” [3] Acknowledging Cooke’s enormous visibility and importance in representing Black Americans, Smokey Robinson explained, “as a black person it was very special” for Cooke to appear on the show because “in those days when you saw someone black on television it was an event.” [4]  However, due to the long acts before him, Cooke’s appearance was cut off just as he began to sing. An outcry immediately arose from Cooke’s fans who charged Sullivan with discrimination. Sullivan quickly rebooked Cooke for a second appearance. Cooke appeared again in December 1957 dressed in a tuxedo: an “immaculate jacket and bow tie” and sporting a “close cropped near Afro.” [5]

Cooke had consciously developed this style change. Inspired by his manager Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, who in turn was most likely inspired by jazz singer Miles Davis, Cooke, “began to cultivate a collegiate look [during the late 1950s]: V-neck sweaters and pleated beltless pants for casual situations…[and] modestly elegant business suits for more formal ones. He was wearing his hair more and more close-cropped with less and less straightener, in direct contrast to the elaborately processed fashions of the day.” [6] African American hair has frequently served as a sartorial flashpoint, and for Cooke it became a symbol of his African American identity, even if that was not his intention.However, his natural hair sent a different message to singer Jerry Butler, who had never seen a famous Black man “take this kind of pride in his blackness” before. [7]

Cooke’s appearance posed a serious threat to racist social constructs of the period. He lived in a society still engulfed in the fear of Black male sexuality that had obsessed over it a century earlier. Wolff, explains, “At that particular time the young Black girls didn’t have anybody. Johnny Mathis was out but Johnny Mathis was [multi-ethnic and did not read as overtly African American as Cooke.]” The popularity of the devastatingly attractive Cooke introduced “the scary and unlikely notion” that he could become a pop star that “would appeal to black and white girls.” Although older Americans generally considered rock and pop singers to be overly sexualized, “Negro performers especially had to be careful to mute their sexual appeal and one like Sam who had white girls falling out couldn’t be too careful.” Cooke’s clothing discerningly worked to counter racist fears with its flawless mainstream respectability. The Philadelphia Tribune printed in December 1957 that Cooke “with his Ivy League clothes, good looks and gospel manners” was “the dream of tomorrow’s entertainer.” [8]

Throughout the early 1960s Cooke demonstrated his firm understanding of his sartorial persona. While on tour in England in 1962, he told The Evening Standard that “He designed all his own clothes…because he always wanted to differentiate himself from the current fad.” [9] At this time, Cooke also started to mix in a less conservative style. For a January 1963 show at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, he performed with his shirt open, revealing his chest in a more relaxed style, and playing up his sexuality. His sartorial image had shifted away from his early Ivy League look. Photographs from the early 1960s show Cooke embracing the decreasing formality of the decade by wearing sports jackets, open collars, and casual slacks. He exudes the look of a seasoned professional: mature, yet relaxed. 

Cooke’s sartorial transformation is significant because it traces his breakthrough into mainstream celebrity and draws attention to the importance of men’s fashion in the social and racial climate of mid-century America. He dressed to relate to his fans — first as a gospel singer, then as a nonthreatening pop idol. As he matured, Cooke embraced a look that communicated his position as a multifaceted Black man: a record executive, an LA celebrity, and a sexualized and political performer. In the broader social context, Sam Cooke’s style, musically and sartorially, was a significant force in the Civil Rights movement. Wolff describes his breakthrough to singing mainstream pop ballads as an “equal access” stand, on par with the Montgomery bus strikes. [10] Cooke’s insightful music, especially songs like “Chain Gang” (1960), inspired by Black prison gangs in the Jim Crow south, and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” released after his violent death in 1964, honoured Black American experiences. His fashionable style also presented a nationally visible image of a successful, sophisticated, and handsome Black man. In the 1950s and 1960s, this in and of itself was a revolutionary act and worked to change racial perceptions.


Image of the Temptations posed together against a white backdrop

Later Soul Styles

Sam Cooke’s conservative style helped him appeal to mainstream, white audiences. He paved the way for later soul singers’ mainstream success, including the Temptations and James Brown, who were freer to experiment with more flamboyant looks.

The Temptations, 1968, Billboard, public domain.

Black and white photograph of musician Leon Bridges performing.

Lasting Influence

Cooke’s clean-cut style which evolved to include more casual pieces, is now considered classic menswear, and it influenced generations of male dress. Musician Leon Bridges’s style, for example, shows strong connections to Cooke’s late 1950s and 1960s looks. 

Leon Bridges Playing at the Chatroom Pub, 2005, Photograph by Odek1974, public domain via Wikimedia.


[1] Peter Guralnick, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005).

[2] Daniel Wolff, You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995).

[3] Guralnick.

[4] John Antonelli, director. “American Masters: Sam Cooke: Crossing Over (#24:1)” (2010) Pictograph Productions.

[5] Wolff.

[6] Guralnick.

[7] Wolff.

[8] Wolff.

[9] Guralnick.

[10] Wolff.


Antonelli, John. Director. “American Masters: Sam Cooke: Crossing Over (#24:1)” (2010) Pictograph Productions.

Guralnick, Peter. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005).

Wolff, Daniel. You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995).