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Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism

by Mary E. Davis
University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 2006
333 pp., illus. 100 b/w; music examples. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-24542-6.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Stanford, CA 94305-6004


This book probably will be of moderate interest only to those in the Leonardo Community most immersed in the arts as there is little to nothing to be found in it relating to sciences or technology. With that understood at the outset, readers should also be warned that the whole premise of Mary Davis' work——that some reciprocal relationship existed between early twentieth century French fashion and music——is fatally flawed.

The two most glaring weaknesses in this notion of "fashion-music fusion" are that, despite abundant annotation of contemporaneous accounts, little valid substantiation exists and those examples cited——for the most part, commentary on music and musicians from fashion publications——have been roundly repudiated by the passage of time.

Much of what awaits within the book's covers is utter nonsense. The best clue of that is the near oxymoronic nature first two words of the book's title. That which is considered "classic," by definition, withstands the test of time. "Chic," of course, tends to be that which is trendy or currently in fashion (in Vogue?). The author seems almost to be conceding as much by quoting Cecil Beaton in the epigraph for Chapter 3, "Fashion, the ephemeral, shares the last laugh with art, the eternal." Similarly, all instances of "modernism" are those which were new a century or more ago.

The old aphorism of a picture being worth a 1000 words becomes comes to mind early into the first chapter. Atop page 7 is Figure 2 captioned, "Concert-room evening dress from La Belle Assemblée, 1809." A woman is shown playing harp in the most outlandishly contorted position with the top of the instrument's neck almost buried deeply into her left armpit while her left hand seems, effortlessly, to reach the bass register. All the while her right arm——fortunately disproportionately shorter than the left——is able to pluck the upper register. Such representation seems to set the tone for so many citations throughout this and subsequent chapters.

After exhaustive setup of Serge Diaghilev's cultivation of all up-scale Parisian print-media, only the skimpiest and most ambiguous assessments were to be found in La Gazette du Bon Ton of the 1913 premiere of Le Sacre du printemps. Although mention is made of the Ballets Russes connection between Picasso and Stravinsky resulting in the collaboration on Pulcinella, there is no discussion of Picasso as the "Stravinsky of art" or Stravinsky as the "Picasso of music!"

Readers even slightly familiar with the "usual suspects" involved, after seeing the blurb's contentions of connections between music and fashion, anticipate far more links than those offered. The strongest tie put forth is that of Erik Satie with his substantial connections to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and——in the world of art——to Picasso. Indeed, a quick scan of the index shows that the bulk of musical references are for Satie and Stravinsky.

Conspicuously absent, however, is any real cause-and-effect as to how fashion affected music. Perhaps that is because there really is none to be found! The sole attempt at making the case is a brief suite of 20 short "monologues with music" for piano by Satie titled Sports et divertissements with illustrations by Charles Martin which Professor Davis terms an "extraordinary and category-defying work that celebrated and cemented the relationship between music and fashion in the early twentieth century."

Hmmm ...

In what reads in almost a defensive tone, Davis writes how brilliant Sports et divertissements was in the estimation of Darius Milhaud and John Cage. She further adds that to "Les Six"——so labeled by Henri Collet——Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Germaine Tailleferre and Milhaud——"Satie was their elder statesman." But how enduring in the grand sweep of musical history were they? As individual composers only two have written anything that survives in anybody's memory and, for each of those two, just the smallest handful of compositions. Only two works by Milhaud are performed——with ever decreasing regularity——the Scaramouche Suite and Le Boeuf sur le toit and of Poulenc, the Concerto for Two Pianos, Gloria and Stabat Matter.

An approach for this book that might have worked far better would have been to posit that the world of French fashion had impact upon all the arts, thus encompassing far more of the non-familiar set-design and wardrobe work of Picasso for Diaghilev, not only on Pulcinella and Parade but, also, on Manuel de Falla's El Sombrero de tres picos.

While discussing all the luminaries who thrived in France in the early twentieth century, Professor Davis made only two fleeting references to André Breton. Had the book been written to cover other forms of artistic expression, a discussion of Salvador Dali and his Paris stint could have touched on such seemingly unrelated topics as the short film by Louis Buñuel with Dali Un Chien Andalou from 1929. Doing so might even have shed light upon the question of what led his thinking eventually to what would be called "pixels"——as seen in his Lincoln Portrait——so many decades later. Then again, perhaps a book is not the ideal venue for fleshing out this tale with its undercurrent of exactly where one draws any line of distinction between genius and being certifiably nuts. A better vehicle for that might be cinematic collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as Dali.

Readers are given accounts of the rise of Vanity Fair and Vogue as well as the life of Coco Chanel but, here again, little insight is afforded into how music and fashion affected each other. At the least, some account of what music might have been playing in the background while Chanel——and her successors, Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Nina Ricci, Aldo Gucci, et al——designed successful fashions might have been more illuminating than the recitation of people who were hobnobbing.

In that regard, a quick check of one of today's most exciting designers, Alfredo Menotti of Menotti Couture, reveals that his preferences in background music for stimulating the breakthrough "Eureka!" moments while reconciling spherical trigonometric problems of accommodating sloping shoulders' or hips' effects on hemlines, range from Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini to Barbra Streisand. In more casual contemporary garb, one imagines that fashion designer Sean John (Combs——aka "P. Diddy") tends to prefer hearing Notorious B.I.G., but this is not easily verified.

Perhaps "Paris is passé" is "le plus ultra example" of redundancy. On a far smaller scale, the entire notion of Paris even as center of the world of fashion is probably the most outlandish cliché, if not anachronism, of all. Why does the knee-jerk reflexive look there——as opposed to Milan, New York, Madrid, Tokyo or anywhere else——persist to this day for any hint of the future of the fashion line? After all, the idea of French "linear thinking" could not possibly be more obsolete were it conceived by André Maginot, himself.

Such examination of recent (within the past century or two) artistic activity in Paris tends also to shine a blinding light of reality upon the ever-lessening number of homegrown contributors. Is there anything beyond the large number of people with francs——okay, these days, euros——to attract (Picasso, Dali, de Falla, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nureyev, Stravinsky) external artistry? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that the words "dilettante" and "poseur" come from French.

The quote used by Ravel on the epigraph of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales from Henri de Régnier probably would have served best as both a dedication to and summation of this book: "... à le plaisir délicieux et toujours noveau d'une occupation inutile" ("... to the delicious and always novel pleasure of useless pursuits").



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