Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism

By Dopp, Bonnie Jo | Notes, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism


Dopp, Bonnie Jo, Notes


Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism. By Mary E. Davis. (California Studies in 20th-Century Music, 6.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [xix, 336 p.ISBN-10: 0- 5202-4542-3; ISBN 13: 978-0-520- 24542-6. $39.95.] Illustrations, bibliographic references, index.

Mary E. Davis's dissertation examined Erik Satie's esprit gaulois, and her first book required a decade of perusing lavishly illustrated fashion magazines at the height of their haute couture alliance with music. Her suggestion in this journal last year to consider that "something fun may have been going on here" (review of The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940, by Jane Fulcher, in Notes 63, no. 2 [December 2006]: 358-62) comes from a true expert in French musical gaieté.

"Musicians-Clothing-20th century" is the library catalog subject heading for Classic Chic, though what readers learn is not very much about musicians' clothing, but about how audiences for concerts and ballets in France before and soon after World War I were encouraged to dress. Davis contends that in the early days of French modernism (ending in 1925), fashion was an art equal to music and painting, and she shows how its creators worked hand in glove, so to speak, with composers and painters (and its promoters with theatrical impresarios) to produce, for the well off, an encompassing style of universal participation.

Nancy J. Troy's Couture Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) linked fashion with modern art, and Davis builds upon similar work from a variety of scholars of early modernist musical and material culture, meticulously annotating her numerous sources. Her singular exploration of the nexus of fashion and music reminds me of a book she does not mention: Bonnie Wade's Imaging Sound (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), which also studied national costumes and music. Wade looks for mutual influences of Mughal and Hindu musical cultures over several centuries of South Indian history, drawing some conclusions by noticing changes in dress. Davis focuses on the cultural force of modernism as expressed in French music and fashion in the first decades of the twentieth century. Both scholars use illustrative art to make their points. Mughal rulers supported workshops where artists turned out officially sanctioned depictions of court events and common social activities; French and American fashion magazine publishers of the period Davis studies commissioned highly trained artists to draw or photograph trendsetting styles that would sell. Both cultural propaganda endeavors pictured ideal, stylized worlds, larger-thanlife even in miniature. What raises these images to the status of art is their continued ability to communicate "the moral and aesthetic feeling" of their time and place, as Davis tells us Baudelaire wrote of fashion illustration (p. 9). From them we may draw conclusions about their underlying reality, not least of which is that sartorial beauty and music were important to both societies, not only on formal occasions, but also in daily life.

Consistently documenting musical events that were instigated by or important to them, Classic Chic centers a chapter each on fashion designers Paul Poiret, Germaine Bongard, and Coco Chanel, and fashion magazines La gazette du bon ton, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. An introductory chapter traces the link between fashion and music (both necessary for "elegant living") to French publications of the seventeenth century, when "fashion plates" first appeared. Early French fashion periodicals published piano pieces but by the end of the nineteenth century, commentary on public concerts replaced sheet music, for music now was "an art ripe for consumption rather than practice" (p. 13).

Poiret established himself as a designer of neo-classical styles and host of musical soirées where old music was played on early instruments. Davis notes that he created a taste for such historical authenticity in music a decade before Nadia Boulanger's similar salons began. …

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