Out of Fashion

Out of Fashion

“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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Out of Fashion

  1. philmusic

    Most folks do judge books by their covers. A short trip to any school will also show that folks who dress alike will hang out together It’s also a good bet that they listen to the exact same music.

    Is it any different as adults?

    In most circumstances its not hard to identify the artists in a room because they want to be identified as artists. On the other hand there is a difference between being a fashion model and being a fashion leader–or is there?

    Just ask Eric WHITACRE

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s superfecial page

  2. ctheofanidis

    Hey Frank- thanks for this- it’s an interesting way to think about music.

    I go back and forth to Italy a lot, and I realize that over there, it is really more of an issue of daily self-respect and dignity that makes people dress so well. There is even that sense of decorum in the home and the most familiar environments- their freaking pajamas are even nice when nobody is looking or cares (that’s why I’m American- I love my tattered pajamas). I always felt, though, like music had this equivalent in someone like Stravinsky or Ravel who had musical surfaces which (at least for me) represent that way of thinking- the ‘self-respect’ model- presenting yourself well at all times, fastidiously well even, because it reflects your sense of self at all times, and doesn’t come from the idea of having to fit in or be impressive, or from some superficial sensibility. Those composers took great care with the surface sound because it was the first thing both they and other people came into contact with and represented them as much as what was underneath represented them.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the complete lack of seeing ‘dress’ as important at all, which might be an idealistic way of cutting straight to a sense of meaning and depth, because there is enough frivolity in the world. This way of ‘dressing’ forces others to work to understand if you have value or not, and probably keeps many people who would waste your time out of your immediate circle. I really don’t think this is a bad thing- it’s just the way some people are- they are almost exclusively far-sighted. This is the ‘Charlie Sheen doesn’t even register on my radar’ model.

    Anyway, as a result of your article, I will probably be wondering what every-person-I-see-on-the-street’s music would sound like if they composed. I like your model the best- your is dress is an outgrowth of your world view! Keep it simple!

  3. PWThreadbury

    Guys, get with the program! All New York composers are now supposed to dress just like Nico Muhly. It’ll mean a run on stripes and clogs, but it’s the law.


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