Book Review: Fashion and Music

 

Fashion and Music

by Janice Miller

Berg Publishers (July, 2011)

 

Though I typically concentrate on the Everyman’s experience with clothes and fashion, it is oftentimes easier (or simply more fun) to see trends in fashion and aesthetic movements in celebrities. The melding of the physical and the lyrical is critical to music performers. Janice Miller, Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion, addresses the relationship between fashion and music in simply named Fashion and Music. In the 161 pages, each of the seven chapters is further broken down into sub-sections, with frequent references to itself — “in this chapter I will discuss / have discussed…” — indicative of the textbook style of the work which can feel a bit clunky when read straight through.

The book opens with a look at Fans, Music, Clothes and Consumption, solidly linking consumerist culture to eager audience’s desire to emulate the “authenticity” of favorite musicians. Fans might collect clothes worn by celebrities, which has fan cache and emotional significance as physical items suggestive of the presence of stars, though the fan might not ever wear those precious souvenirs of music culture. Fan websites may inadvertently and unofficially promote brands in discussions of celebrity clothes, even as they create a social sphere of celebrity fan alliance. Though Miller seemed suggest that fans can be “productive” or creative in their obsessive interest in celebrity style and collectibles within these forums and by collecting ephemera, I remained skeptical of this point.

In Branding, Fashion and Music, Miller addresses the music industry’s entwined relationship with the fashion industry, which concentrates on corporate elements of both music and fashion, and how they feed each other’s profits on a large scale. Ironically capitalizing on many music genre’s underground/alternative credentials, Miller asserts that musical success is dependent upon the ability to communicate an “authentic” story — no matter how manufactured some music may be. Fashion, therefore, enters music producers’ domain in creating successful, marketable musicians, and music or musicians are often used by designers or brands to lend a visual story to their labels.

Musicians might offer alternatives to mainstream fashion and ideas of femininity in what Miller calls the “witchy look,” which I never quite embraced in Witchy Women: Fashioning the Womanly Body of the Female Singer-Songwriter. This witchy woman is a of nonthreatening, alternative pagan-esque woman who is nonetheless traditionally attractive; Miller used Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia cover as an example:

Female performers are billboards for ideas of femininity, and embody expectations of how women’s bodies should look and perform; usually based on typical heterosexual tropes. Female singer-songwriters, generally autobiographical, must connect to the Female experience and therefore are more prone to embrace an anti-fashion that does not go so far as to hamper success in the (male dominated) music industry. Pop music lyrics often reinforce perceived women’s outlooks — romance, subordinate love, nurturing, abused — to be mirrored in clothes. Miller suggests that Janis Joplin was so successful because her lifestyle included typical masculine activities such as drinking heavily and being sexually promiscuous (which, one could easily argue, was how all young people acted in the ’70s); Janis tempered this hard side of her by wearing boas, ruffles and necklaces. Miller suggests that most critics of Janis Joplin don’t actually critique her powerful music as they might a man, but criticize her in a female framework: her frizzy hair and weight.

Miller addresses the pervasive presence of one of my favorite articles of clothing — the suit — in White Suited Men: Style, Masculinity and the Boyband. She offers the suit as an archetypal garment whose conservatism and mutability enable musicians to express many different versions of masculinity. In addition to providing bands with visual coherence, suits express power and constrained masculine sexuality. The Beatles wore up-to-the-minute fashionable, mod suits in the ’60s, riding the fine line between acceptance and rejection of societal norms. Many male solo artists and band frontmen have adopted the suit, tweaking it to their own styles and messages: Mick Jagger, Prince, David Bowie (I would add David Byrne) all wore altered suits altered in such ways that sexual connotations were actually enhanced, rather than diluted. Suits create a uniformity among pop band members, and specifically the white suits favored by 1990s boy bands present a respectable, sanitized version of masculinity for boys who typically sing about puppy love to female audiences. Matching suits also make it easier for managers and producers to swap out one generic member for another without disturbing the visual unity for the audience, or even of starting a new boy band with a tried-and-true visual formula for (financial) success. Though rock music and rock derivations are often considered transgressive, these genres have relied upon variations of the standard suit for decades.

 

Backstreet Boys, Millenium cover, 1999

 

 

Gender disparities are addressed again in Dressing Your Age: Fashion, the Body and the Ageing [sic] Music Star, as there are different aging pressures for men and women. And perhaps celebrities endure more scrutiny than the average Joe, as objects of desire in international spotlights. Since the beginning of the rock music scene (Miller does not address anything pre-TV, which I would’ve been interested in), there has been a connection between youth and music, the youthful body ideal (also relatively new in the history of fashion culture), sex and rebellion. The older generations typically fear or lament younger generations who use fashion and music to differentiate their values from the (older) establishment; the mods, Teddy Boys, and punks are just a few examples. Fashion and body maintenance have been used by stars to negotiate the public aging process, which may have consequences on their careers if ignored.  Miller notes that the media was obsessed with Madonna’s turning 50, implying her overtly sexual self presentation was no longer appropriate, touching on the social aspects of the aging process, as opposed to the purely physical (because really, her bod is still pretty damn smokin’). The general public looks to celebrities to find images to emulate themselves, but these celebrities are also subject to judgement and societal restrictions — particularly women, who are deemed worthless once stripped of their sexual allure (usually associated with aging).

Madonna on Dazed & Confused cover at age 50, 2008

 

 

Miller focuses on hip hop and rap as representations of Clothes and Cultural Identities: Music, Ethnicity and Nation, suggesting these music forms of the “Black Atlantic” offer resistance to the marginalization of black masculinity. Returning briefly to the suit, the ostentatious, baggy zoot suit (see Heather’s previous post) became a powerful emblem of black / Hispanic identity, starting in the ’30s jazz scene. Little Richard’s zoot suit complemented his shocking singing style while Fats Domino catered to black performer traditions in his dinner suit uniform. As opposed to many types of (mostly white) rock previously discussed, which often attempt to reject middle class standards by adopting alternative fashions, African American hip hop and rap generally embrace the American Dream — which many blacks have struggled in vain to achieve — and so black musicians often sport bling to advertise they’ve “made it.” (Miller generally omits in this discussion black groups that address these social and fiscal disparities in lyrics, such as The Fugees, De La South, and The Roots.) In gangsta rap, black men have asserted their anger and strength through music and style as an alternative to ineffective or slow political routes. Recently there has been a movement of black preppy style, such as OutKast’s Andre 3000, who now has his own fashion line. Andre’s Benjamin Bixby label, which replicates a 1930s era, upper-middle class, collegiate / jock style favored by some alternative, fashion-forward African Americans, is essentially appropriating the symbols of white wealth and putting them on black bodies.

Lil Jon bling

Andre 3000

Miller discusses how music and fashion has been used as a means to inject queer performers into the mainstream, in Spectacle and Sexuality: Music, Clothes and Queer Bodies. Queer performers may dress unconventionally, or display “unconventional bodies,” marking their queer culture (Miller misses an opportunity here, I think, to point out that many non-pop musicians do the same). David Bowie used clothes to counter the counter-culture — specifically the distinctly anti-glamorous hippies (which Miller dubiously suggests was a purely premeditated marketing ploy). Bowie embraced the artifice of appearance that so many celebrities try to present as their casual, “authentic” selves, but in spite of his costumed superficiality, fans still conflated the person with his performing alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, so that when Bowie performed as Ziggy  for the last time in 1979, people thought it was the death of Bowie himself. Bowie’s admitted bisexuality, of course, complimented his radical image, calling attention to the performance inherent in gender — the difference between biological sex and gender. Miller discusses camp, exemplified by Freddie Mercury of Queen and the New York Dolls, as signals of gayness within that culture where many try to “pass.” So successful has camp been as part of a branded image that it has since been adopted by straight, mainstream performers like Kylie Minogue. Miller suggests that female lesbians, on the other hand, generally turn to conflations of overt masculinity and femininity, preferring mundane male clothes to flashy, campy ensembles. In looking at large queer performers like Beth Ditto, Miller suggests that fatness might be part of an overall lesbian / feminist movement to reject the negative body attitudes of heterosexual societies. In addition to her successful band Gossip, Beth Ditto has become an unlikely fashion icon, appearing on Gaultier’s catwalk in 2010, and launching  her own fashion range at the plus-size Evans in 2009.

Beth Ditto and Gaultier, 2010

Beth Ditto

 

 

Though I certainly believe this is a worthy subject, in many places, this book reads like a clunky thesis, peppered with “I will demonstrate” and “later in this chapter….” Substantial points were inevitably quoted by outside sources, which is a good introduction to outside texts, but the quotations were so plentiful (often 10 per page) that I frankly found it distracting, not to mention the inevitably choppiness of reading many people’s voices rather than one dominant one. Aside from a discussion of fan culture, there was little mention of the concert and lifestyle cultures that accompany music scenes and influence group fashions, which I would have been interested in. There was a distinct concentration on contemporary music and musicians, which perhaps was an attempt to make the text relevant to young audiences, but which sacrificed the long-standing narrative flow of music and fashion, even within the confines of the latter 20th and 21st centuries. Lastly, photos seemed like an afterthought; those chosen were not necessarily the most representative examples I myself could think of, and there were not many. All in all, I would recommend this to people as a resource to get your (or your students’) toes wet in the topic of the fashion and music industries. The index is thorough and the bibliography will lead you to more meaty texts.

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