MUSIC AND THE EVOLUTION OF FASHION PART 1: JAZZZZ

All art forms, by nature, are intertwined. Every new art piece that is created is simply an addition to this tapestry, stretching back to the first humans leaving their cute little handprints on cave walls. That being said, the past century has seen music interlace with fashion to a point where I would argue that they are now inseparable. It may seem obvious that the genre of music one listens to would have an impact on their style, but the link between the two is deeper than that. We often use the same names to label music genres and fashion subcultures, such as grunge, hip hop, disco, and so on. Both are artforms that have a great impact on the collective mindset and define decades. Music not only influences style culture and trends, but high fashion as well. This balance can either contribute to the norm by upholding societal expectations, or be used as a tool of rebellion against the norm. So, in this series, I’m going to talk about the influence of music on the fashion industry and the change that came from it over time.

Part One: Jazzzz 

Jazz was created and pioneered by African Americans in the latter part of the 1800’s, but did not gain mainstream attention until the 1920’s, when it exploded in popularity (hence the term, The Jazz Age). There is a great emphasis on rhythm and syncopation along with improvisation in Jazz, combining elements of classical music and West African culture to create a new style that was seen as radical. It was frowned upon by white America, who deemed it too immoral and too sexual, as well as harboring racist and sexist attitudes towards Jazz musicians and those who enjoyed it. The ‘20s was a time period of great racial segregation and gender inequality, in which jazz performers, such as Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker, used style as a visual tool to defy mainstream societal constructs, creating changes in fashion as well as music.

This time period was a great shift from the Victorian era that preceded it, in which fashion was much more restrictive and repressive. People were expected to dress in a certain socially acceptable manner with very little wiggle room for individual expression. The 1920’s brought the beginnings of women’s liberation, gaining their right to vote with the 19th amendment and therefore a voice in society.  This led to the birth of the flapper: a woman who engaged in “unladylike” activities, such as smoking, drinking, and dancing. These ladies, among other young people looking for fun, would flock to speakeasies to party, birthing dance crazes like the charleston. 

Flappers shed their corsets in exchange for looser, drop-waist dresses that hid the figure rather than emphasizing it. They wore flowing fabrics that were comfortable to move around in, often garnished with sequins and art deco designs. For the first time, the hemline did not sit at the ankle; instead, it was raised to just below the knee, leaving calves on display for everyone to see. The scandal! Flappers also had this super cute trend where they put blush on their knees so they were visible when they danced, and some would even paint them. Short hair was common for flappers, so it wouldn’t get in the way or look crazy while dancing. These changes in fashion for youth culture really were made for functionality, as women were able to have more freedom in terms of how they wanted to look. Many credit women of this era for the beginnings of the use of fashion as a tool of rebellion, but I would argue that jazz musicians deserve the same accreditation. 

Men’s fashion changed as well. Though there is less information on the topic in the 1920’s, mens suits also became more functional. Looser silhouettes, simpler designs, and a larger range of colors shows the influence of Jazz on fashion as a collective. The 1930’s, however, resulted in the creation and popularization of the zoot suit by Jazz musicians. Zoot suits were oversized, with large coats and high waisted, wide leg trousers and were popular in Black, Latino, Italian, and Filipino communities. They were outlawed during the second world war and labeled a “waste of resources,” but I think we all know the true reason behind this banishment: RACISM. Zoot suiters claimed that the style represented self-determination and freedom of expression. Jazz was an incredible influence on the world of fashion and inspired changes in how people dressed to strive for freedom, expression, and comfort. This in itself was incredibly rebellious. 

Everything comes back to dancing, really. And Girls. Jazz made the girls want to dance, and as a result fashion was changed forever. When I was researching the beginnings of music’s influence on fashion, I was somewhat surprised to see it was as recent as the 1920’s, but the roaring twenties were nothing short of revolutionary in terms of social change for women. Gaining a voice in a time of great social change following World War I, the United States economy booming, and with the right to vote, women gained influence over their lives and choices in ways they never had before. This had an effect on everything, and with this new freedom, fashion would never be the same. Black people are to thank for pioneering music, in this case jazz, and women for using clothing as a tool of expression. 

Coco Chanel was a major player in the baby stages of the high fashion world, and made  changes that incorporated rebellious attitudes of the youth at this time which were expressed through the mediums of music and fashion. She introduced pants for women for the first time, along with the little black dress and her signature Chanel suit, all of which focus on wearability, comfort, and function. Chanel is credited with killing the corset for good. I would argue that although she may have been the one to bring it to the fashion world and “high society,” Chanel was replicating the attitudes and styles already happening. She may have made it socially acceptable, but those dancing all night in seedy speakeasies, drinking illegal liquor and flashing painted knees under sequin dresses should be the ones credited with such things as the death of the corset. Chanel did not invent this, but merely brought it out of America’s underbelly and into high society. The fact that she recognized these attitudes and made moves to bring fashion into the future is commendable, however, as her creations are timeless reminders of Jazz’s influence on fashion. 

Fashion and Jazz are forever intertwined. Jazz inspired changes in youth culture and style, which inspired changes in society, leading Jazz musicians to incorporate fashion into music and designers to incorporate music into fashion. High fashion began taking these rebellious attitudes, and cultural influence from music and youth culture and started designing for the FUTURE rather than holding on to restrictions of the past. This is where we start to see music and fashion coming together as art forms for the first time in recent history.