Brief history of music and style


“Music and fashion have had a kind of incestuous relationship since the 50s,” designer John Varvatos said. “It started with people like Elvis Presley and pop-icons like James Dean. Then it exploded in the MTV days. Now, with the internet, it’s instantaneous.”

Since the recent influence of mass media communication, the emphasis on the physical image of music and its close relationship to fashion has intensified. This relationship is by no means parasitic, but rather, symbiotic; music and fashion have consistently survived and thrived together. Fashion has always been a sign of the times and clearly bookmarks decades in history. The association of the 1960s with flared jeans or thick flannel in the 1990s cements these eras in societal memories.

Historically, fashion was largely concerned with being utilitarian and practical, but with the uprise of the mods in the early 60s, fashion became closely associated with musical genres rather than whether or not it was appropriate to wear certain styles to work in the factory.

The link between music and fashion is by no means an arbitrary circumstance; most musicians dressed in a way that would represent their musical genre. The punks wore clothes held together by safety pins, the glam rockers wore glitter and platforms, and the hippies didn’t wear shoes. A musician’s style, in part, sought to differentiate themselves from other musicians. As a result, fans wanted to emulate their favorite music makers, thus creating these entire subcultures. In many subcultures, fashion has been integral in molding music; the concert is not merely the musicians standing on the stage but also lies within (or on) the audience.

For every decade in the past century, fashion has been joined with music. In the 1920s, the rise of prohibition could not keep down the roar of jazz. Jazz music was seen as scandalous during its early years. It was only heard in speakeasies and nightclubs, with sensual undertones and prominent feminist messages, causing many women to be drawn to the music and thus liberated themselves by creating the era of “the flapper.” They wore short dresses often without a bra, and loose clothing that ebbed and flowed as they swung on the dance floor in after-hours bars, sipping illegal cocktails.

Though sometime later and not nearly as unruly, during the rise of television and film in the 1950s, music quickly became part of the public sphere. As the first glimpses of rock ‘n’ roll came to the surface of society, spearheaded by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, teenagers began coveting wide-shouldered blazers and perfectly coiffed hair popularized by these musicians.

Across the pond in London during the late 50s and early 60s, youth culture began listening to modernized styles of jazz music, ska, R&B, and soul, dubbing them “modernists” and soon shortened to “mods.” With their adoration of the New York City Beatniks, mods sought to mimic the look of formal-meets-casual clothing, becoming the most fashion conscious subculture of the era. Meanwhile, America was undergoing a different kind of revolution. Concerned with the politics of the Vietnam War, musicians began to write lyrics mirroring their disgust for society at the time. As seen on the integral protest musicians of the time, like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez, long hair and flamboyant clothing on men and women in pants became an act of rebellion.

In 1970s England, the monarchical society struggled politically and economically. The world seemed abysmal to the London youth; this nihilism was the final ingredient for punk music and when music and fashion began to meld into cohesive subcultures. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren established their fashion and fetish boutique, donning four-foot tall pink letters mounted upon the storefront, spelling out the shop’s name: SEX. The name was just as innovative and as provocative as the clothing that would soon come out of the shop. Fetish and bondage clothing emblazoned with studs and safety pins, tartan pants with straps trapezing from leg to leg, spiked leather jackets, and T-shirts with breasts or a swastika screen-printed on the front soon became the “uniform” of punk, associated with acts like The Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees, who embraced the do it yourself (DIY) aesthetic.

Punk music mimicked the simplistic musical arrangements and structure of 1960s garage rock. The songs were short, as if the popular songs of the time has been brutally cut in half and sped up to breakneck tempos, an approach that was contributed by New York City’s The Ramones. Traditional verse-chorus form and 4/4 time signatures were predominant in most punk songs, but bands like The Sex Pistols annihilated this structure that soon began to take on its own form.

Punk vocals often featured a cavalier growl coupled with simplified guitar solos, They were reduced to distorted power or barre chords creating the hissing drone identified with punk music. The lyrics were brazen and bellicose, a quality that was especially prominent in the punk music from the U.K. in an effort to shock the world into an epileptic fit and an attempt to reset their society completely. The punk movement was about rebellion; they rebelled against authoritarians, rules, corporations moving in on rock ‘n’ roll, the mainstream, society, and even simple hygiene. They candidly vilified the government as heard in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” and were anti-sentimental in their depictions of love and relationships, as in NYC group, The Voidoids’ “Love Comes In Spurts” and the anomie of their song “Blank Generation.” Punk became the first largely recognized music and fashion subculture in history.

Alongside the punks in the 70s were the glam-rockers. Intensifying the relationship between costume and music, the glam rockers such as David Bowie and KISS took inspiration from science fiction, which added to their exorbitant garbs and stage theatrics. Although glam was never a widely adopted fashion trend among youth culture, it existed in the underground, which also garnered its reputation as one of the first subcultures.

Birthed out of the glam and punk movement was 1980s goth, adopting the rough aesthetic of punk with the dramatic makeup and hair of glam rockers, albeit drenched in a tinge of morbidity. Goth was originally known as death rock, featuring bands like Christian Death and 45 Grave, who all donned black garbs, adored horror movies, and moonlit walks in graveyards.

The musicianship of goth was not just about gloomy theatrics, but hinged on repetitive, driving rhythm guitars; the bass and drums laid the foundation of the track with a 4/4 time signature, and the lead guitar is doused in pedal effects, creating the atmospheric quality known of the music. The lyrics often carried an air of surreality, although introspective to say the least. They often addressed angst-ridden themes of death, loneliness, and disillusionment. Goth and death rock can range from harsh and dark, as heard in Christian Death’s music, or more upbeat, melodic, and a bit tongue-in-cheek, as in The Cure. Much of goth and death rock instrumentation settles the atmosphere, allowing or demanding for the vocalist to convey the complexity of the lyrics and emotions. As such, the vocalists often have unique and distinctive vocal styles.

Only 10 years later, the birth of MTV jolted the world. The commercialization of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with hit singles like “Nevermind” and “Ten,” respectively, spread the angsty lyrics and gritty, apathetic look of grunge. The fashion associated with subculture was embraced by Generation Xers as an “anti-fashion,” as it was a complete antithesis to the extravagant dress of youth and musicians in the 80s. Often worn with a loose and de-emphasized silhouette and an androgynous demeanor, popularized by Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, (who embraced thrift store clothing), grunge musicians relied on the durability and timelessness of the clothes they found in charity shop racks and Goodwill bins.

Nineties grunge was a distortion-filled, down-tuned, and riff-based evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, utilizing searing electric guitar feedback and heavy, cumbersome bass lines to support the songs melodies. Grunge has been thought to have an ugly aesthetic, partially due to its dark lyrics and fiery, distorted guitars, but this musical style was not an indiscriminate instance—it was deliberately chosen to mirror the ugliness that these musicians saw in the world.

In 2017, music and fashion are still inextricably linked and the boundary between them becomes increasingly vague; rappers are creating their own fashion lines every year, underground bands become muses to fashion photographers every month and live bands perform at fashion week bi-annually. Today, music informs fashion more than it ever has, albeit on a more superficial level. Music’s ability to influence fashion has affected their fans the same way it has for decades. However, today someone might buy the latest Golf Wang or Ivy Park line because they want to look like Tyler the Creator or Beyoncé, whereas in 1977, music fans admired Johnny Rotten or Joan Jett because they related to what these musicians were trying to say, not only the way they were trying to look.

Photo courtesy of Potomac Arts Magazine

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