What is cool? How has cool been defined through time? Drexel University professors Brent Luvaas and Alphonso McClendon joined the community conversation “The History of Cool” Nov. 13 at the First District Plaza to discuss stories surrounding the concept with local people.
The event was hosted by the Philadelphia Jazz Project with the participation of Homer Jackson, PJP director, as the moderator. Jackson initiated the discussion with the first question: “What is cool?”
“I think cool is in no sense definable, and as soon as you start to define it, you’ve crossed the boundary into not cool,” Luvaas said.
Luvaas shared a project he is doing based on street-style photographers who go out in New York City; Philadelphia; and Jakarta, Indonesia, to take pictures of fashions they think are cool. Luvaas commented that the idea of cool is a kind of media and physical response to a person.
“Cool is some kind of quality that is desirable, that we all wish that we could possess. We know we see it. And if we have to describe it and we have to define it, then probably it’s something other than cool,” he said. “When you know it, you see it but you can’t predict what form it’s going to take.”
McClendon defined cool as something different.
“I think cool is style, is attitude, is being natural,” McClendon said. “I think it’s authentic. Especially for the jazz artists, it’s the way to be defined, it’s a way to fight oppression, it’s improvisation, and it’s closely related to how someone is dressed.”
McClendon approached cool from research he had done about jazz around ragtime in the early 1900s.
“I think what’s interesting about jazz artists is that early on, they were imitated in positive and negative ways,” McClendon said.
According to McClendon, the negative way is through music; black styles are portrayed as provocative, sexual and dangerous. But jazz was also imitated in a good way through certain kinds of African dance.
“What is cool? I knew that as a young person, whatever that was, I [didn’t] have it,” Jackson joked at the beginning. “The idea of cool is not only indescribable, but it’s also almost unattainable at a time,” he added.
Jackson also posed the next question: “Who is cool?”
McClendon replied that from a jazz perspective, he thinks that performers and musicians like Louis Armstrong are cool when they are accepted among their colleagues, such as when Miles Davis got the first job with the band in which he was playing.
“In the beginning, they didn’t think they were cool until they were accepted among their peers,” he continued. “I think it’s about popularity; it’s about acceptance. Innate in that is the common understanding among others.”
“I think we have to distinguish between people who are cool in the sense that they are adhering to some kinds of trends that right now are evaluated as being cool versus those people who have some kinds of possessed innate qualities that remain cool regardless of those trends,” Luvaas said in response.
Luvaas said he believes that the latter are aware of and engaged in being cool but not actually embodied by it.
“Cool ends up defining those categories that in fact we like to label as being cool,” he said.
Joining the guests was Diane Turner, a historian from Temple University. In response to the question of who is cool, she said, “I would say jazz musicians, some public figures, entertainers, people that I know personally, people that I like.” On the topic of whether jazz in America is the defining language of cool, McClendon said, “Not until [jazz musicians] adopted masculine traits, particularly masculine dress.”
According to McClendon, in the past, the aristocracy used to prevent the lower classes from copying what was in fashion by creating sanctuary laws so that the people would not mimic them. However, things have changed.
“Having worked in the fashion industry — fashion is a $450 billion industry — my job is to look at what’s going on in the room and copy it, imitate it, look for what’s cool, what’s the next hot thing,” McClendon said. “I think you can’t confine the law of cool because if you do that, you’re restricting the creativity.”
Luvaas went on to say that the only way for the fashion industry to grow is to kill cool and reinvent the concept in other ways. Then the process repeats.
“[Marketing of cool] is a dialectical relationship with the fashion industry, the music industry,” he said.
McClendon is a writer and associate professor in the Department of Fashion Design, Product Design, and Design & Merchandising. At Drexel, he analyzes the visual and behavioral representation of jazz and African-American aesthetic that influences fashion and popular culture. McClendon has over 15 years of fashion industry experience and over a decade of experience in menswear design and management at VF Corp. Earlier this year, his work “Fashionable Addiction: The Path to Heroin Chic” was published in the book “Fashion in Popular Culture: Literature, Media and Contemporary Studies.”
Luvaas is an assistant professor of anthropology. He has written and published extensively. His work appears in the Journal of Cultural Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, Inside Indonesia, and International Journal of Cultural Studies. Luvaas is the author of the book “DIY Style: Fashion, Music and Global Digital Cultures.”