Consider today's hip-hop, 1990s grunge or the psychedelic rock of the 1960s, and it quickly becomes obvious that music and fashion have close ties as forms of self expression. But this is nothing new, as Mary E. Davis, an associate professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, reveals in her new book, Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism (University of California Press).
Davis demonstrates in her groundbreaking study that music and fashion have been linked from at least the time of Louis XIV and considered as essential elements of style—first at court and then in the wider world.
Her book tracks this interrelated history from its earliest days, with a particular focus on the period from 1900 to 1925, a time of tremendous change across the arts when music and fashion played a key role in the shaping of modernism. Looking in particular at France and the United States, Davis says composition and couture played important roles in forging transatlantic ties.
Davis explores this history through the work of three major fashion designers and the coverage of music in three important fashion magazines. She studied the most influential figures in 20th-century haute couture: Paul Poiret, whose radical designs included corsetless tube dresses and harem pants; Germaine Bongard, who quietly advanced the idea of simplified dress; and Coco Chanel, whose "little black dress" and eponymous "No. 5" perfume changed the landscape of fashion.
She investigates the relationships these couturiers cultivated with modernist composers, including Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and the group known as Les Six, revealing previously unknown relationships and illuminating the shared aesthetic ideals that motivated both forward-looking fashion and new music of the early 20th century.
Just as the bustles, corsets and ornate embellishments of late-19th-century dress gave way to the streamlined simplicity of sportswear and the unornamented flapper styles, Davis argues, so too did the lush and expansive symphonic works of the late Romantic era cede ground to brief compositions scored for small and unconventional ensembles.
"In fashion, the code word for the new look was 'chic'; in music it was 'neoclassicism'—but it all pointed to the style we still consider modern," states Davis.
Nowhere were music and fashion more firmly linked, Davis demonstrates, than on the pages of fashion magazines.
She notes that she was "surprised to discover that the very first magazine of any sort (the Mercure galant, published in the 1670s) printed fashion plates and musical scores on adjacent pages, definitely promoting the idea it was de rigueur to be up to date on both topics."
The trio of early 20th-century magazines she examines in Classic Chic continues the tradition. They include the Gazette du Bon Ton, one of the most exclusive French magazines which regularly featured exquisite hand-colored illustrations, and two publications still in circulation today, Condé Nast's Vogue and Vanity Fair. In these magazines, Davis found, music, like clothing, was promoted and publicized as part of an idealized lifestyle.
The idea for Classic Chicgoes back to Davis's first trip to Paris. It was a high school graduation gift from a favorite aunt.
As an avid follower of fashion and a serious piano student through her teens, she said, "I realized while visiting Paris that my passions didn't necessarily have to be separate."
Whether in Renoir's paintings of girls at the piano or costumed performances at the Opéra, Davis says she was struck by the connection between the two arts. But it was only much later, as a doctoral student at Harvard University, that she was able to pursue this interest as part of a scholarly project for her dissertation about Satie.
She said the Satie research revealed the composer's many links to the fashion community, and discovered he was not alone in his fashion involvements; in fact, Stravinsky and Chanel even had a romantic liaison during what was a key time of innovation for each of them.
The book explores these connections in detail, while charting the many major social, political and aesthetic shifts that marked the first quarter of the 20th century–from World War I and the movement for women's' rights to the rise of Cubism and the triumph of the Ballets Russes. Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso and Amédée Ozenfant are a few of the significant cultural figures from outside the world of fashion or music who are featured in the narrative.
"It was an extraordinary time and a small world; the artists interacted all the time, and both fashion and music were seen as the best markers of what was new and utterly modern," Davis said.
Beyond the publication of Classic Chic, Davis was asked to write an article about Stravinsky and Chanel, which appeared in the December 2006 issue of Fashion Theory. She will contribute an essay on the Gazette du Bon Ton for the catalogue that will accompany a major exhibit on Paul Poiret, which is set to open at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in May. She also will be speaking about Classic Chic later this spring at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS), as part of an event that will include musical performances, an exhibit of clothing from the wonderful and very rich costume collection at WRHS.
Davis also recently completed a biography of Erik Satie for the Critical Lives series published by London-based Reaktion Books. It will be available in May. She is spending part of this semester as the Rothschild Fellow in Dance at Harvard University's Houghton Library, researching her next book, which will continue to follow the music and fashion connection.
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