More on Fashion

Last Friday, I was invited to the annual Public Fashion Show at the High School of Fashion Industries. I’m not exactly the most fashion-minded person, but two longtime friends of mine are teachers there and it’s located virtually around the corner from the American Music Center, so how could I say no?

I’d only ever been to one fashion show before—eight years ago a former co-worker of mine left the music biz to do PR work for designer Carmen Marc Valvo and invited me to one of his shows. At the time, I experienced a serious perceptual disconnection about what I was supposed to be looking at. Since I don’t really pay detailed attention to what people wear, it was difficult to think aesthetically about the clothing separate and apart from who was wearing it. I remembered thinking at the time that fashion shows seemed to demand a reverse of my usual visual paradigm. In museums, paintings are the focus and their frames are secondary, arguably even tertiary, which is how I typically parse people and the clothing they wear. But in a fashion show, the models are actually the frames for the clothing.

This time around, with Valvo hindsight, my eyes were a little more clued in. But since music trumps any visual impetus for me no matter what, both the frames and the framed—whichever was which—remained secondary to what I was hearing. As anyone who has attended such shows knows, the soundtrack is almost invariably pre-recorded dance tracks. So it was with great surprise that I heard something quite different in this fashion show’s final sequence which featured the recreation of clothing styles spanning the 20th century. To match decade-by-decade displays of clothing from the 1920s to the 1970s, recordings were played of typical music from each decade: a Charleston, swing and more swing, rock-and-roll, rock, and finally disco.

In each case the music and the clothing seemed to completely match each other and each were immediately recognizable. But then it ended. Is it not possible to encapsulate the subsequent three decades either in fashion or in music? Since I have only the most superficial understanding of fashion I can’t really speak about clothing design, but I think I have a clear sense of what ’80s music sounds like. Yet I’m not so sure I have a similar sense of ’90s or ’00s music, even though I’ve been more immersed in music since the ’90s. Are the last 20 years still too close in our collective memory to be able to reduce them to something that anyone could easily identify? Or has the notion of a mainstream so disintegrated that we can no longer conjure up recent time with a specific soundtrack?

Of course, such a broadstroking of time is ultimately somewhat superficial. After all, as fans of Milton Babbitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Partch, the Louvin Brothers, and Sonny Rollins are already well aware, a lot more went on during the 1950s than rock-and-roll. Which, by the way, is no criticism of rock-and-roll. But perhaps our inability to crystallize the recent past is somehow an acknowledgement that much gets overlooked when we try to summarize eras.

5 thoughts on “More on Fashion

  1. jchang4

    Tangential
    Maybe it’s fear… Fear of propping up the wrong stuff. Maybe it’s a loss of self-importance… a disbelief in anyOne person’s opinion as sanctimonious. Generally speaking, critics are looked on with less reverence nowadays… In some cases peer reviews have taken over (there was an article where a father showed a son a bad review of a video game, but the son bought the game anyway because the son’s friends thought it was awesome… can’t remember the source). And, in our case, these peers, these composers, tend to refuse to be labeled, which makes talking about music nowadays really hard. Plus, musicologists are all flocking to other areas of music (see http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2008/02/my_longyear_musicology_lecture.html).

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    I must say that my compositional carrear has had many highlights but none that could compare to my joy of dressing a drag queen as “Jakie O’Latern” for a Holloween party some years back. You see I had to find just the right orange hounds tooth (orange and white)A line Dress to fit a man about 6.2-and did it fit!! You Bettcha!! You know he was the belle of the ball!!

    Most amusing was his trying to explain me to his friends. Well I have a hobby Dammit!

    Oh, I don’t do hair and make up!

    Phil Fried, your personal shopper-for a price!

    Reply
  3. William Osborne

    Thanks for this interesting comment, Frank. It’s not so difficult to characterize some of the general styles and developments of pop music by decade from the teens to the sixties of the last century with a reasonable amount of accuracy. The 70s faded into a much maligned disco style. As Frank notes, from the 80s on characterizations by decade seem to become difficult. Is that solely due to a lack of distanced perspective, or are other factors at work?

    During the 80s and 90s Madonna led a gradual and very important change in the way women are portrayed in pop, but what can you say about her music? (Well, I could say some things, but I will refrain.) Eighties punk represented a superficial sort of rebellion, but it did not seem to go very far. Here in Germany, extremist rightwing punk is interesting to observe, even if horrifying, but did punk open significant new musical or cultural ground? Hip Hop in the 90s might characterize a rise in black political consciousness, but one that too often dissolved into misogyny and self-destruction. Did this negate much for which hip hop could have stood and developed?

    Has there been a general loss in the quality and meaningfulness of pop music since the 70s? Does this have something to do with its increased dominance by corporate media, which moved control of content from artists to businessmen? Do totalizing social orders like communism, fascism, Stalinism, Moaism, and unmitigated forms of capitalism eventually become so isomorphic that they repress creativity? Will the collapse of the recording industry, and the egalitarianism of the web, liberate popular music and move it back to its roots in the people?

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  4. William Osborne

    And to what extent has indie rock provided a genuinely effective alternative? Is it so marginalized as to have little effect on the broader definitions of popular music from decade to decade? And is indie rock significantly different from its mainstream counterparts? People speak of a fragmentation of the industry due to niche markets, but has that really happened? Don’t the top 40 still overwhelmingly dominate the market?

    W.O.

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  5. philmusic

    I think that the subject of Fashion and music would take a lot of folks out of their comfort zones.

    To say a composer is fashionable, or the “composer of the moment”, to some is also a slight. Well the kind of slight one laughs at all the way to the bank.
    We instinctively know that the fashionable public can be manipulated by high powered PR firms, the gratuity of high position, even by things extra musical.

    In any event what makes a composer or their music fashionable is really more about the fashionable publics relationship to the music — not about the music itself.

    Phil Fried, chicken little scholar University of Lilliput

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