Thursday, January 22, 2009

You Can't Hide Your Love Forever

Aloof From Inspiration's post on the formation of sexual desire/identity through pop, made me think about the role of clothing in focusing that desire. The look and feel of a band becomes a kind of cultural landscape that fans inhabit which has its own rules and behavoural codes, not least sexually. Not only that but in the narcissistic mirroring of star and fan lies a form of proto-relationship, the first serious one for many, where dressing identically suggests a virtual form of co-habitation, as if you are borrowing each others clothes.

If the subtext of mainstream pop has always been sex and sexual desire, then its margins have often been a reaction to that. Alternative music provides an outlet for feelings of sexual unnatractiveness, physical awkwardness and personal misanthropy. Sometimes, as in the case of The Smiths, this is expressed as a haughty disregard for sex altogether. In this case the role of clothes becomes less about making oneself appear conventionally sexually attractive than of confirming a kind of higher allegiance to something else.

Most of the bands I listened to as a teenager were deliberately sexless. The Smiths, obviously, but also Orange Juice, The Cure and countless other now forgotten C86 bands. Well, perhaps not sexless exactly, but awkward, gawky, troubled. This was in marked contrast to the priapically obsessed heavy rock/metal that my older brother listened to: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Whitesnake - christ, even the band names were filthy - music which was continuously, comically, horny (Train Kept A Rollin' All Night Long). The clothing worn by these bands was equally comical, obsessively drawing attention to lavish chest hair and bulging groins.

Against this there was also the landscape of suburban Essex in the 1980's, the well dressed lads with their peg trousers, wedge haircuts and Maze albums, the Essex Barn nightclub with Shakatak and Shalamar on the dancefloor and the endless rituals of going out on the pull.

To be an indie music fan - a puritanical, not to say snobbish genre - was to reject such overt displays of sexuality and the heavily coded us and them courtships of the dancefloor. To like indie was to align oneself with gawky romantic failure, particularly as so much of its aesthetic derived from a celebration of un-worldly, deliberately childish imagery. Not just the names (Orange Juice, The Pooh Sticks, The Soup Dragons etc.), but the clothes too. These were defiantly un-sexy, mixing an old-man/lady charity shop aesthetic (long coats, tweed and suede jackets, paisley skirts) with pre-adolescence (floppy fringes, shorts, pig tails), possibly the two periods in life when a lack of sex goes with the territory.

Orange Juice were not sexless. They were giddy romantics but in an aspiring, bookish sort of way, more in love with the idea of being in love itself. They sounded as if their idea of romantic love was a kind of tremulous chasteness, a never-quite-there moment full of witty conversation and charmingly drunken bicycle rides. Orange Juice were forever on the cusp of adulthood, or even late adolescence, balanced on an intense over excitable knife edge of anticipation without consumation. The clothes reflected this: shorts, buttoned up shirts, fur hats (for some reason), a boy scout aesthetic with a deliberate camp edge.

Although in many ways Britpop destroyed this version of indie, together with its angular awkwardness, Jarvis Cocker manged to give it a new twist. Jarvis took Indie's perennial teenager and mixed him with a sex obsessed dirty old man. He still wore the charity shop clothes but this time they were those of the 1970's would be lothario mixed with a libertarian but slyly dirty comprehensive school teacher thrown in. Acrylic shirts undone to the navel, flared suits, oversized sunglasses. Melody Maker once described him perfectly as having the look of "someone who has just emerged blinking into the daylight from a soho peepshow, escorted by two policemen".

Vampire Weekend's look brings this all somewhat up to date. They are less eccentric dandies than polite mannerists, thoroughly aware of the rules and mischeviously playing with the pedantry. There are echoes of Bret Easton Ellis and his early New England campus novels examining the microscopic hierarchies of social one-upmanship in such places. And the tedious empty perfectionism of the business card envy of American Psycho. They are perhaps the indie band gone to college, realising after years of sand being kicked in their faces that bookishness can be sexy, preppyness cool. Some mention should be made of Kanye West too, with hislatest buttoned up (and down) look, the preppy scarves and college mascots although now twinned with a more worldly post grad come down: heartbreak.


Lily said...

Wonderful post! I want to hear more from you on topics of fashion.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Lily. I'm already busy working on a history of the tank-top....