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.