Artistry appears in many forms. For those that pursue a creative practice, it seems that they embody numerous constructs that reflect this. Music offers one such outlet for artists to be creative in a number of different ways. Seldom recognised is the interdependent relationship between music and the garments worn by musicians. It is important to recognise how they often compliment the style of music being played. For instance, punk clothing typically reflects the anarchy that cuts through in the distorted guitars and grinding vocals, classical musicians will appear in uniform black to echo a certain reverence towards the canon, and folk musicians will shine an earthy collection of traditional dress.
Jazz critics are well known for a preoccupation with the musical expression as opposed to the image that accompanies it. Seldom ever interrogated is the symbiotic relationship between music and sartorial flair. For certain jazz musicians, the creative act did not end with the music on the page, but also came through in the garments they wore
Such performers include; the crisp suits, pork pie hats and sunglasses of Thelonious Monk, the afro-centric stylings of Pharaoh Sanders and the waistcoats and suspenders typically worn by Charles Mingus. The adventurous style of musicians’ lives on in popular culture through fashion statements in hip hop, neo soul and other musical genres. (Cottle et al., 2015: 203)
I would like to examine the distinctive style of a notable pioneer of the genre, namely the Prince of Darkness, Miles Davis. The sounds that Davis made on the trumpet were often a direct reflection of his clothing style: cool, intense, quiet at times and occasionally startlingly violent. (McLaughlin, 2015) As a bandleader, Davis was at the forefront of several major changes in Jazz and each departure was marked by a change in his attire. Nobody played the trumpet like Miles Davis, and nobody dressed like him either. Ever at the forefront of jazz’s major developments, he was also a sartorial chameleon constantly changing his colours. (Chensfold, 2009)
Pawnshop bop (1940s)
Davis’ early days on the New York Bebop circuit of the late 40s included second-hand Brooks Brothers suits bought at pawnshops. The outfit commonly associated with male jazz artists of the period was the fashionable yet traditional tailored suit. It was in these formative years that Davis took influence from smart dressers like the Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and most notably, the boxer Jack Johnson. Like Johnson’s approach to his sport, Miles saw music as a central component of a much larger aesthetic project that included painting, boxing and style. (Washington et Griffin, 2008: 43)
Cookin’, Workin’, Relaxin’ and Stylin’ (1950s)
In 1955, Davis signed his first major-label deal, with Columbia Records, this transition appeared in the silhouette of his suits as they changed from broad to natural shoulders. It could also be argued that the soft shoulder suited his trademark ‘hunched over’ playing style.
As his notoriety grew with ground-breaking albums such as Round about Midnight, Miles Ahead, and Porgy and Bess he adopted a preppy look fashioned by American intellectuals so did Miles begin developing a signature unconventional flair. ‘In the mid-’50s, Miles took to the Ivy League Look in fashion,’ writes jazz historian John Szwed, ‘having his clothes made at the epicentre of smart menswear, the Andover Shop in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, where tailor Charlie Davidson dressed him in jackets of English tweed or madras (pictured above) with narrow lapels and natural shoulder, woollen or chino trousers, broadcloth shirts with button-down collars, thin knit or rep ties, and Bass Weejun loafers. It was a look that redefined cool and shook those who thought they were in the know.’ (Chensfold, 2009)
The Prince of Sharpness (1960s)
In the 60s he went for slim-cut Italian suits and handmade doeskin loafers.
Davis is very much on point with the double-breasted pinstripe suit pictured above. While the details are impressive; with large pinstripes, peak lapels, knit tie, and a spread shirt collar, it is actually the form of the suit that is the coup de grâce. The shot above offers a good lesson on how a double-breasted suit should fit, contrary to popular belief, the crucial point in terms of fit is not the jacket, but the trousers. (Gallagher, 2013) Because a double-breasted jacket has a relatively squared-off hem, the cut of the trousers from the waist to the knee is paramount. As Davis illustrates, they shouldn’t be too tight — otherwise, because of Davis’s slender figure, it would just look like two drainpipes were sticking out of the bottom of the jacket. In doing so, the suit keeps Miles’ body proportions in check and offers the viewer a sharp and timeless silhouette. (Gallagher,2013)
In Flash Way
These dressy outfits were abandoned as he experimented with pseudo-rock styles when the 70s rolled around. Post Bitches Brew (1970), to the dismay of Jazz purists, he became fixated on cultivating a rock star image while exploring the sounds created by his first electric band. Miles’s embrace of electricity split the jazz world between excitement and contempt but he remained unrepentant. En route, the elegant suits were swapped for a garish wardrobe of suede, leather, jerkins and scarves, the respectful world of jazz clubs for noisy rock venues. (Spencer, 2010)
The catalyst for Miles’s change, the woman responsible for his glimpse of the future, was his new lover Betty Mabry , a 22-year-old model whom he had met late in 1967 and whom he would make his second wife a year later. In a 2010 interview, Marby noted that “I loved Miles’s suits, but he grew fond of clothes from a place I used to shop at, Hernandos, which had Mexican designs and which would custom-make items for him.”(Spencer, 2010) For Bitches Brew the clothes Miles wore became as provocative as the music he performed, this uncompromising interest in edgy clothing would remain with Miles until his death in 1991.
It is important to remember that the clothes do not make the man, but Miles’ distinctive ‘take no shit’ attitude could elevate the most commonplace clothing items to artistic expressions in their own right. Where other men need phrases and explanations to sum up their character, Miles’ style is summed up succinctly with one appropriate word: cool.
Chensford, Christian. ‘Miles Ahead: Chens On Davis For The Rake’, Ivy Style (29/10/2009) http://www.ivy-style.com/miles-ahead-chens-on-davis-for-the-rake.html
Cottle, Adam et Cottle, Frederick et Bell, Thomas E. ‘From suits to robes: The use of African inspired apparel as a communication tool in the mid-twentieth-century American avant-garde jazz community’, in Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, Vol.2, no.2 (2015) 191-206.
Gallagher, Jake. ‘One Icon, One Detail: Miles Davis’s Perfectly Proportioned DB Suit’, Esquire: Style (13/03/2013) http://www.esquire.com/style/mens-fashion/a20727/miles-davis-trousers-one-icon-one-detail-031913/
Spencer, Neil. ‘Miles Davis: The muse who changed him, and the heady Brew that rewrote jazz’, The Observer (05/09/2010) http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/sep/05/miles-davis-bitches-brew-reissue
Washington, Salim et Griffin, Farah Jasmine. ‘The Birth of a New Freedom’, in Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Greatest Jazz Collaborator Ever, (St. Martin’s: New York, 2008).