The (not-so-tentative) Relationship between Music and Fashion

Earlier this year, when ‘relevant’ fashion model Agyness Deyn decided to extend her line of influence to The Stagnant Indie Music Scene and provide some lilting vocals for Some Shitty Indie Band, critics were up in arms – lamenting over the erstwhile ‘proper’ celebrity; a Proper model, a Proper singer, without any of this pretentious crossover nonsense. It seems that Santayana’s saying, ‘Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,’ has become even more applicable in today’s disposable society – music and fashion have always been inextricably linked. Music is a social phenomenon – something deeply entrenched in culture and the trends of the time. Similarly, fashion is a cultural phenomenon – we associate a particular silhouette with, say, the 80s, and the cultural connotations to this mode of fashion are often directly linked with music – in the case of the 80s, we would associate clichés such as shoulder pads, puffballs and batwings with New Wave music – a stereotypical and less-than-valid association, but a common one nonetheless.

We can trace the relationship between music and fashion back hundreds of years – Mary E. Davis argued that since the time of Louis XIV, music and fashion have been intertwined among upper classes in her book, ‘Classic Chic: Music, Fashion and Modernism’. Similarly, she contended, the close relationship between the two mediums of art were integral in the rise of modernism – through Coco Chanel’s minimalist designs and the modernist compositions of the ‘Les Six’ musicians (an anarchic, avant-garde group of composers that created music that counteracted the melodramatic, Romantic music on the 19th century), which both created and popularised a new, less oppressive culture – the culture of modernism.

It is only in recent times, however, that the fashion industry has begun to capitalise on musical movements. A fairly obvious and tired example of this is Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique – to avoid this becoming a badly-paraphrased Wikipedia article, let us assume we know all about the ‘punk’ connections this little Chelsea boutique garnered in the mid-70s. A recent Guardian article deemed 1977 the zenith of punk, declaring that at this time “punk's nihilistic swagger was the most thrilling thing in England”. Miss Westwood and her fetishist, sadomasochistic goods surely played a vital role in the rise of punk – the Sex Pistols famously auditioned in the boutique, the shop was frequented by, ahem, ‘musical greats’ like Adam Ant and, most importantly, the boutique popularised what we now know as ‘punk’ fashion – DIY t-shirts, allusions to bondage, tartan, drainpipes – ‘punk staples’ (possibly the most contradictory words ever written). The movement became accessible - you could dress like its perpetrators and frequent the scene’s most important hang-out spot.

Similarly, Don Letts’ punk/reggae boutique-slash-club ‘Acme Attractions’ sold “electric-blue zoot suits and jukeboxes, pumping dub reggae all day long” – it was the first to meld two cultural phenomenon, both in terms of fashion and music. The punk kids in ’75 were introduced to reggae (this influence is apparent in The Clash’s music with their thrilling sub-dub-meets-The Ramones sound) and the reggae crowd started to integrate punk rock aesthetics into their own ideals – Bob Marley’s song ‘Punky Reggae Party’ (inspired by the crowd at Acme Attractions) is concrete proof of the sheer power of Letts’ clothes shop in integrating two seemingly contradictory art forms, and proof of the power of music and fashion – both together and apart.
Since then, music and fashion have collided too many times to remember or mention – sometimes good (Bowie! Madonna! M.I.A.!), often abysmal (‘heroin chic’, Marc Jacobs grunge revivals, et cetera). The fashion industry seems to lose all dignity when a quirkily-dressed band/singer/zoothornist saunters by – designers use them as muses, dotcom fashion giants produce identical copies of their outfits in days and before you know it, someone’s started a t-shirt company devoted to capitalising on the popularity of tired, old, stifling rock bands – Amplified, I’m looking at you.

Then there are the crossover artists – Agyness Deyn-alikes who dabble in singing and Lily Allen-alikes who are employed by high street brands to replicate their ‘image’. The annual charitable event, Fashion Rocks, is truly the epitome of the music-fashion liaison; designers designing, singers singing, it’s a dramatic sweep of glamour that leaves you feeling decidedly cold – the relationship between fashion and music started out as a counter-culture, a revolution, with design and music acting as one entity naturally, without being coerced into affiliation. If we remove the smiling, warm liberal ‘charity’ aspect, we are left with a mere showcase of mismatching music and fashion – when did Natasha Bedingfield become a muse? Or a person of with a notable fashion sense? Or, for that matter, a notable musician?

However, it would be inaccurate to say that Nowadays The Relationship Between Music And Fashion Is Strained, because it is precisely the opposite – the relationship is flourishing. Musicians now sell lifestyles – Pete Doherty, the ‘heroin chic’, ripped-everything, piss-stained kind, M.I.A, the kaleidoscopic, worldly, post-new-rave kind, with her fleeting clothing line ‘Okley Run’. There is a unity among the artistes of today – the luminous Jeremy Scott is both influenced by and an influence to many musicians. Similarly, Hedi Slimane was influenced by the gaunt, razor-cheeked indie-boys of yesteryear and continues to inspire future gaunt, razor-cheeked indie-boys. Just as punk as a ‘movement’ was both inspired and sustained by both music and fashion, there have been movements in recent times spurred by designers and musicians – the most obvious is ‘New Rave’, either coined by a drunk NME journalist after losing his thesaurus, or possibly started by a designer on a bad trip somewhere in a bar in Shoreditch. We just don’t know. It was sustained through a mix of music and fashion – Carrie Mundane AKA ‘Cassetteplaya’ provided the palette, ‘SuperSuper’ magazine the aesthetic and about twenty million bands with synthesisers and screamy vocals provided the soundtrack. Music and fashion were in perfect harmony again, if only for a passing moment.

There is another important aspect of the relationship between music and fashion – the media, the public and their demands. Let us ask: who holds cultural influence in the media? Magazines hail the ‘new generation’ of post-teens to be multi-talented, ambitious, diverse and pliable – they mean the models who DJ, designers who identify strongly with whatever ultra-modern music scene may be growing, bands whose music and style is fluid and near-synonymous. The idea of An Image is crucial to success – Madonna’s entire career is punctuated by revivals and reinventions, based on the belief that cultural chameleons will always succeed by staying one step ahead. ‘Image’ is all-encompassing – music, fashion, personality, politics; musicians are selling themselves to the media and the public unashamedly, hoping that their latest incarnation will appease the heaving masses. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. Pop musicians depend on popularity, therefore their image is integral to their appeal – so they bend to the demands of the public and the media, changing their musical direction while changing their outfits.

What is left of the anarchy of the early 1900s, when music and fashion were unified in their need for change? Now, indie pop stars stand uneasily alongside statuesque fashion models in Burberry ad campaigns and we, too, feel uneasy – maybe we pine for the days of ‘proper’ models and ‘proper’ singers (in reality, there was no such thing, just ask Francoise Hardy), or possibly we feel that the line separating music and fashion has disappeared, leaving us confused - the jumbled mass of ideas of music and fashion labelled ‘culture’ is surely too chaotic for us. In truth, it is far more personal than this – before, music and fashion joined forces to ‘do good’ – open our eyes to new forms of artistic expression – now, it merely comes together under the wide, merciless, corporate umbrella of ‘entertainment’. As long as the fashion industry remains aggressively capitalising on music, the relationship will be one of suspicion – only when music and fashion are once again on a par can we say that music and fashion are linked. Until then, I warn you of more ‘crossover’ models, more rubbish songs and a distinct lack of inspiration on the runways. Sigh.

AJ For 3E News

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