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Flowers, Fur, and Turtlenecks: The Fashion Statements of Jazz

Duke Ellington and his band wear wool overcoats and tailored dress to signify celebrity status, Los Angeles, 1934.
Billie Holiday

In the 1940s, when jazz singer Billie Holiday was at the height of her power and artistry, she always performed wearing at least one white gardenia in her hair. WRTI's Meridee Duddleston visits Drexel University professor and fashion scholar Alphonso McClendon, who looks at the meaning behind that statement and fashion in his book Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation. 

At its start in the late 1800s, jazz, the new "syncopated" music, was a frontier beyond popular parlor songs, waltzes, and marches; it was considered musically subversive.

McClendon says that fashion and jazz pushed for modernity. And celebrated African-American jazz performers, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington, discovered the power of dress as they negotiated both the written and unwritten rules of racial and gender discrimination.  

McClendon drew on his academic background, five years of research, and his passion for jazz to articulate and write about the relationships between fashion and jazz.

Radio script:

As jazz came of age, performers dressed for success. WRTI's Meridee Duddleston explores the connection between fashion and jazz.

MD: In these casual times, wearing a shirt and tie, or nylon stockings doesn’t pack the punch it did in the last century. But in the late 1800s, when African-American musicians gave birth to jazz, performers didn’t take chances when it came to what to wear on stage. The music was seen as subversive enough.

AM: For them to be successful at the beginning of the 1900s, the men started wearing tuxedos and suits.  That allowed them to make more money...they started to play some of the society houses, and received very favorable responses. 

MD:  Drexel University Professor Alphonso McClendon analyzes the societal, political, and cultural links between fashion and jazz, up to the turtlenecks of the '60s, in his book Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation.

By the roaring '20s, jazz was mainstream music and - later on - Billie Holliday was the most successful jazz vocalist in the country. She loved fashion, and in the '40s wore a white gardenia in her hair and made fancy mid-act outfit changes. And offstage...

AM: In the '30s and '40s, jazz women embraced fur. Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith. They all wore a lot of fur coats. What fur coats allowed them to do was project wealth and affluence. And it was very true – they were making at the time over $2,500 a week, which was quite a bit of money at that time. 

MD:  It was an outward sign of prosperity for these African-American vocalists who achieved celebrity in the midst of racial and gender discrimination. It was fashion as a way to express a new identity.

Excerpts of an interview with Alphonso McClendon on how fashion and jazz are related, and where he went to analyze and discover their connections.