Book Reviews: Fashion and Jazz


While it is no surprise to Worn Through readers that dress can play an important, carefully considered role in very serious endeavors such as conflict and revolution, it may be unexpected for non-fashion-interested persons to learn that fashion was (and arguably remains) a complex, meaning-charged tool in the fight for civil rights and social justice. Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation argues that dress can be very serious indeed, and was employed in different ways by African American jazz musicians during the ongoing struggles for equality in America in the 20th century.  McClendon takes this previously overlooked angle and explores the roots and changes in dress and image for black performers (as well as discussion of some white performers) during the years between 1900 and 1950.  Not only does he highlight the seriousness of what may be at stake in dressing well, but also the playfulness, creativity, and enjoyment present in the art of crafting an authentic or fashionable image through clothing, accessories, gesture, language, and movement.

McClendon’s study is a “broad examination and measurement of jazz aesthetics” (p. xii), one which focuses on icons—well-known personages such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, or Billie Holiday—those jazz luminaries copiously photographed, filmed, interviewed, or documented through autobiographies, biographies or memoirs.  He largely takes two methodological approaches as the basis of his study, one being the “decoding [of] public images” and text (such as lyrics, descriptions of dress, or literary passages) through semiological analysis, ascertaining the codes and meanings (signifier) communicated through the clothing (signified) that is worn or described.  These images and texts are an amalgam of signs that connote a wider, society-at-large meaning as well as “inter-cultural communication” among members of jazz communities.  The second approach is one of psychological analysis, regularly referencing two texts from the period, J. C. Flügel’s The Psychology of Clothes (1950) and Elizabeth Hurlock’s The Psychology of Dress (1929), to support the arguments presented.

The frequent problem with these two approaches is that meaning can be hard to pin down, and McClendon often vacillates throughout different chapters on what a particular accessory or item could mean (for example, Gillespie’s style is presented as born of practicality in one chapter [according to recollections by Gillespie himself, I should add], and deliberate eccentricity and difference in a later chapter, pp. 36; 70-71).  An item of clothing can also mean different things in different contexts–for example, does a striped suit always, or usually mean, “reliability and conformity” (quoting McClendon quoting Colin McDowell’s The Man of Fashion; p. 110)? Yet this vacillation also speaks to the complexity and layered meanings of the suits, headgear, dresses, and accessories worn by jazz practitioners. These conflicting or differing analyses evidences the myriad ways that clothing was used creatively and strategically by jazz performers–for either “uplift”, confronting class or gender inequality, rebellion against the status quo jazz establishment, to disguise drug use, show defiance and opposition to mainstream society, or simply revel in the joys of looking and dressing well.

In addition to psychological analyses and text and image readings inspired by semiology, McClendon also employs an historical approach with frequent citation of primary sources created by and made for black audiences, such as Jet, Ebony, and The Philadelphia Tribune, which discuss jazz venues, performances, individual performers, and fashion advice and coverage of trends, as well as quoting mainstream newspapers and magazines such as Vogue, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. McClendon cites these sources (also frequently referencing Caroline Milbank’s New York Fashion) to demonstrate the up-to-date fashionability of black jazz musicians from the 1920s through the 1950s. This wearing of new, up-to-the-moment or even subversive fashions was an expression of modernity for urban black men and women, and jazz was also an embodiment of this new, modern way of living and personal and collective expression.

While those with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz will have an easier time following discussions of images or musical pieces, McClendon wisely assumes that his audience is not solely jazz aficionados. He begins with a brief history of jazz and its roots (and its intersections with the system of fashion and 20th century fashion theory), and instructs the reader that jazz is not a monolithic type of music or approach. Proponents of ragtime, blues, swing, bebop and rebop had very different ways of dressing, performing, and creating music.

McClendon traces a history of the image in jazz performance from the “conformity” of matching ensembles in ragtime-playing brass bands from 1900-1910 to the monogamous formality of tuxedos and tails for male blues musicians and extravagant beads, fringe, and feathers for women in the 1920s, to the dandyism and exaggerated lines of the zoot suits and wide-lapel suits with cuffed pants of the 1930s swing era, to the cool, sharp suiting of 1940s bebop, to a relaxing of formality or exhibitionism in the following decades of free jazz with a rejection of the suit for more casual, relaxed clothing.  He also addresses facets of the all-out glamour of the female chanteuse as well, discussing Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, and Sarah Vaughn, with a sharper focus on the evolving, multifaceted public style of Billie Holiday, in a chapter titled “Beyond the Gardenia.”

Two alternative styles of Billie Holiday, from Alphonso McClendon's Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Two alternative styles of Billie Holiday, from Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Jazz, born of African rhythms and lyrical forms such as call-and-response that were kept alive by slaves in America (recounted in particular by Sidney Bechet’s recollections of his grandfather’s musical talent and dazzling presence, p. 10-11; 15), was an electrifying and ever-evolving art form in the first decades of the 20th century, showcasing the supreme talents of African Americans. Black music was fast becoming the nation’s music, with black composers and musicians taking center stage.  Ragtime, blues, and jazz challenged and ultimately supplanted distorted representations of black culture and life by white minstrel performers.  Jazz, both in improvisation and style–and stylish dress that increasingly freed the body for easier movement and gesture–was liberating spiritually and physically.

The popularity of jazz was not appreciated by all of white society or mainstream media, nor in some corners of upper class, “dicty” (meaning highbrow or “highfalutin”–a new word I learned here) black upper middle class and high society, who held the view of jazz as immoral, corrupted, and base.  African Americans who disapproved of jazz felt that its perceived “immoral” nature and the associated late-night lifestyle involving drugs and alcohol did not provide a good image of black communities or work to advance equality. Fashion helped musicians to counter this view with regal fashionability and accepted, conventional notions of formality, or sometimes with rebellion and subversive innovation.

Chapter five in particular looks at the gross stereotypical representations of African Americans in sheet music cover illustrations from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, and shows what black musicians were up against in countering these widespread views.  Through illustration or description of sheet music covers, McClendon discusses the stereotypes of black men and women presented in this medium, from the “highbrow woman”, “Mammy” and “temptress” to the “servant”, “buffoon” and “sport” for men. A particularly stark contrast is between a respectful rendering of patrons in a black dance hall (illustrated by two English-born artists) with another depiction of African-American dancers with grotesquely exaggerated features, reminiscent of minstrel makeup and performances (see images below).  The demonization of jazz as something dangerous was represented in films marketed to both black and white audiences, such as The Blood of Jesus (1941), and Rain (1932), which warned of the wayward, failed life of the jazz musician or devotee.

Sheet music cover, 1918, from Alphonso McClendon's Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Sheet music cover, 1918, from Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Sheet music cover, 1917, from Alphonso McClendon's Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Sheet music cover, 1917, from Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Looking sharp and dressing well in the latest fashions boldly countered these perceptions of immorality or inferiority, and were bolstered by a confident demeanor that came with musical virtuosity and showmanship.  As Miles Davis recalled of his days in the mid-1940s, “I was wearing my three-piece Brooks Brothers suits that I thought were super hip… couldn’t nobody tell me nothing” (p. 149).  In the Chapter “Elitism and Branding in Jazz”, McClendon gives examples of how jazz’s cool and high style was co-opted by major brands such as Coca-Cola and Smirnoff Vodka, as well as how elite trappings of wealth and fame, such as furs and sharp suiting, confronted inequality.  McClendon points to other strategies, such as the addition of royal titles to luminaries in the field, such as “Duke”, “Count” and “Lady”–not only used as affectionate terms of endearment, but also to indicate respect for extraordinary musicians who were deemed second-class citizens off the stage.  Billie Holliday recounts how difficult it was to travel with white bands, and the harsh and humiliating treatment surrounding getting something to eat day or night.  Further connection to the exploding scene of the literature and arts of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond further helped in legitimizing jazz as a true art form.

Count Basie and author Richard Wright, from Alphonso McClendon's Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Count Basie and author Richard Wright, 1940, from Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

In Chapter seven, McClendon looks at the darker side of fashion in jazz and how many performers often used fashionable clothing and accessories to mask the traces of addiction and deflect public scorn and judgement.  Quotes from Anita O’ Day recount her struggles with hiding addiction through dress; others describe how Billie Holliday wore long, elegant gloves to cover the track marks on her arms.  But clothing was never enough to disguise addiction–the body, in voice and carriage, always gave itself away.  The “fashionable addiction” of which McClendon speaks (“Truly, fashion can be severe, repulsive, and melancholic in its demonstration of a romanticized coolness”, p. 112 ) has been a double-edged blade in recent years–on the one hand, fashion is fascinated with addicts and images of celebrities wasted, or models feigning altered states, posing in mock squalor.  On the other hand, models can be publicly shamed or punished with revoked contracts, as was the case with Kate Moss after photos of her partying with friends and cocaine surfaced in the 2000s. In recounting Forest Whittaker’s performance of a wasted Charlie Parker in a recording session in Clint Eastwood’s film, Bird (1988) McClendon notes that fellow band members “witness[ed] addiction that is fashionable” (p. 112).  Upon reading this chapter, I felt I recently experienced this while watching the documentary Amy, where it seemed impossible to separate Amy Winehouse’s creative output (both in dress and music) from her struggles with addiction, to which her talent and energy finally succumbed.  She is often compared to Billie Holiday in her delivery, vocal style, and unique interpretations of established lyrical melodies.

One thing that is refreshing in any study of fashion is an emphasis on male dress, and this is certainly the case here, as jazz is overwhelmingly a man’s world. Chapter nine looks at notions of the “Traditional” and “Modern” dandy.  Sophisticates and clotheshorses Duke Ellington and Count Basie are contrasted with young upstarts Dizzie Gillespie and white, West coast “cool jazz” saxophone player, Gerry Mulligan.  The “eccentric manner” and deliberate lack of crowd-pleasing, traditional showmanship of the modern dandy disrupted the suaveness and slickness of the traditional dandy, with its slightly off-kilter elegance and shades of rebellion against mainstream society.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the images chosen, delving more into the situation, framing, and narratives of certain photographs.  For example, the clowning of bandleader Lionel Hampton with his trumpeter, who is marking up Hampton’s zoot suit with tailor’s chalk to shorten its controversial length, goes largely unremarked. Was this photo contrived or posed by the photographer for publicity, a bit of impromptu mischief by the band that further thumbed its nose at societal disapproval, or a parody of the conflation of exaggerated dress styles with jazz (perhaps impossible to ascertain)? Who were the photographers behind these images, such as Charles Peterson, whose photographs are reproduced throughout the book? Where were these photos first seen or published?

Lionel Hampton with band members, from Alphonso McClendon's Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Lionel Hampton with band members, from Alphonso D. McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz, Bloomsbury, 2015

Two appendices appear at the conclusion to Fashion and Jazz–one for recommended listening, and one for recommended viewing–which not only aids in providing further context but also in encouraging exploration and future scholarship.  Fashion and Jazz opens the door to further inquiry, such as, perhaps, is there a queer history of dress in jazz (a reference to “Emerson Sylvester, the world’s greatest female impersonator” in a Philadelphia Tribune club listing is certainly intriguing, p. 145), or how did all-female bands of the 1940s negotiate dress, authority, and notions of femininity (as did Anita O’Day, who adopted the male band jacket in her performances, p. 6; 33), or the fashionable practices of the jazz audience member (such as a well-dressed woman at a late-night jam session in a smart topper and fur, glimpsed in the first photo of the book, p. 2 )? McClendon has charted new territory on the importance of dress and image in jazz and provides the crucial foundation study to future ones, which we all can hope will follow, as this is a rich history well worth further examination.

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