“Fashion exists, whatever you think about it. It’s everywhere, even in the gruesome relics of an extermination camp. You can’t have depths without surfaces. It’s impossible. And sometimes surfaces are all we have to go by. […] There are no known societies who do not adorn the human body, whether with clothing, jewelry, or tattoos. […] Society will allow you to starve to death and not lift a finger, you can die for want of medical attention, but you will not be allowed to go about naked. You will even be dressed for the grave.”
“Fashion cannot fuse its own preoccupation with surfaces with what lies beneath.”
—Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser (Scribner, 2009)
As long-time readers of these pages probably already realize, I am not particularly fashion conscious, at least not in the mainstream sense. Yet the more I ponder my own relationship with clothing, the more I realize that I have a much more worked out vocabulary about this stuff than I would have initially thought possible. Anyone who has met me or even seen a picture of me knows that I pretty much follow a regimen—I have extremely long hair and except on the hottest days of summer I always wear a jacket and a tie, but almost never a white shirt, even at home and on weekends. My “uniform” is simultaneously too formal for informal folks and not formal enough for folks who are concerned with formality. And that’s just the way I want to present myself to the world.
You may be asking yourself, how is the above paragraph—or the two seemingly irreconcilable quotes above it, from an amazing book about why clothing matters that I just finished reading—relevant to our ongoing discussions about new music herein. In a way, the world of fashion and its raison d’être couldn’t be further removed from what many of us aspire for music to be and the less popular the music happens to be the less related to fashion it will be. Whereas clothing is, as even as articulate an advocate as Linda Grant claims, about “surfaces,” music is never on the surface—it is beyond verbal comprehension and is ultimately not containable. Music may very well be that depth without surface that Grant claims can’t exist.
And yet, music exists in a world which is all about surfaces and fashions which are ever changing. Perhaps style in music is akin to fashion. Might certain things like a continuo or a ubiquitous disco beat be the sonic equivalents of corsets and bell bottoms respectively? Might certain less popular musical styles be less popular because they have no parallel in the appearance-obsessed world, specifically in the garments we see every day on the people we share the planet with, as well as what we wear ourselves? While there are clearly outfits that connote punk rock, heavy-metal, hop-hop, or country-western, there is no adequate analog for so-called post-classical music or even contemporary jazz. What items of clothing would you associate with integral serialism, total free improvisation, microtonality, indeterminacy? Minimalism caught on in popular culture more than most score-based music of the past half century. Might that be because minimalism can translate into a clothing style—monochrome or hypnotically patterned?
The way I dress actually conforms to my own compositional aesthetic, or at least I think it does, which is ultimately all that matters. According to Grant, we develop our identity through clothes, at least the identity that is projected to whomever we come in contact with, before anything else emerges. And if someone probes deeper, they’ll find the music.