Follow the Pleat: Deleuze, Design, and the Hollywood Musical

Curator's Note

Deleuze insisted that his philosophy be understood literally, that his concepts existed in a concrete rather than a metaphorical relationship to their real-world reference points, even when that connection required some reconciliation of opposites, like the abstract and the physical or material. Daniel W. Smith argues that some of Deleuze’s most confounding and counterintuitive statements—“the unconscious is a factory,” for example—lend themselves to both literal and metaphorical readings of the text but that the aspiration of philosophy is to transform ideas and language into something literal, even if, in the end, its primary tool remains “inexact words.”[1] While many of his more idiosyncratic neologisms lack the basic or obvious meaning necessary to be taken literally, “the fold” occupies the opposite extreme in his work, as everyone intuitively grasps the worldly analog of the concept. Most readers have encountered Deleuze’s study of Leibniz and the baroque while enveloped in the folds of their clothing and flipping the folded pages of a modern variation on the codex, the paper gathered and turning back on itself at the spine. Read literally, Deleuze account of the fold would have to be a philosophy that emerges from and replies to those ubiquitous folds in the everyday material environment.

The Fold lingers on the philosophical implications of fabric and its aestheticized manifestation in painting, fashion, and interior design. As a concept, the fold begins at the interface of mathematics and aesthetics, with calculus framed as an apparatus for the generation and classification of curves and baroque art as an analogous machine that generates and displays an infinite variety of folds. The baroque, as envisioned by Deleuze, revels in the depiction of change, movement, and the passage of time rather than straight lines and fixed points. Examples of this key concept proliferate throughout The Fold, beginning with features of the natural world, from the humble cabbage, with each leaf folding around the ones beneath it, to waves in the ocean; from the folds visible on leaves of a tree, “two never being exactly alike because of their veins or folds” to prescient allusions to protein folding.[2] Baroque painting and architecture supply a range of examples, as well, but the part of The Fold with the closest relationship to the vernacular meaning of “the fold,” the site where the technical sense of the term merges with the everyday existence of people and objects, is the chapter that begins with a meditation on cloth and fashion in the baroque age. Titled “The New Harmony,” this chapter begins by asking how the fold can be “recognized in its most simple form.”[3] Deleuze continues: “The fold can be recognized first of all in the textile model of the kind implied by garments: fabric or clothing has to free its own folds from its usual subordination to the finite body it covers. If there is an inherently Baroque costume, it is broad, in distending waves, billowing and flaring, surrounding the body with independent folds.”[4] This extended meditation on textiles gives rise to the sparse but suggestive literature about the implications of Deleuze’s work for fashion design, which, like Deleuze’s writing, “probes the limits of what a body can do or what it can become.”[5] After rushing through a series of examples of the exuberant depiction of fabric and clothing in Baroque art, Deleuze writes, “In every instance folds of clothing acquire an autonomy and a fullness that are not simply decorative effects. They convey the intensity of a spiritual force exerted on the body, either to turn it upside down or to stand or raise it up over and again, but in every event to turn it inside out and to mold its inner surfaces.”[6] Rather than an enclosure for something prior and more essential, folds of fabric become our interface with a spirit and energy that depend on those textiles for their material and visible form.

The Hollywood musical is a narrative and performative genre that alternates between the story and song-and-dance numbers, but it is also a spectacle of design and a phenomenon of folds that both contain and shape the “spiritual force” animating the genre. Operating at the extremes of human athleticism and grace, the musical reveals that, in the words of Deleuze and Spinoza, “we do not yet know what a body is capable of.”[7] In the mythology of the genre, the slight, ethereal, elegant Fred Astaire is imagined as an almost otherworldly figure who descends from the heavens but maintains a touch of grace, in contrast to the more corporeal, vigorous, earth-bound Gene Kelly who, through training and technique, launches himself upward. In either instance the musical is envisioned as an aspirational genre, with the performers using the human body to transcend human limitations. Likewise, in the realm of the narrative, the “dual-focus” structure identified by Rick Altman seeks to bring about the unlikely, sometimes even miraculous resolution of human conflicts, as evident in the two partners who are torn apart at the outset but sing and dance their way to a happy ending.[8] One function of the musical as a genre was to provide an occasion for awe and wonder to arise from the mundane circumstances of human relationships and bodies. Seemingly disparate universes fold into each other in the musical, a genre whose function is, first and foremost, to entertain, but to entertain by revealing the interplay of difference and reconciliation. As Deleuze suggests in his book on Proust, the work of art or literature can reveal the complexity of the world we inhabit while also asserting that “there must be a unity that is the unity of this very multiplicity.”[9] While the Hollywood musical drives relentlessly towards some type of unification, often a tenuous and qualified one, it does so only after the feature-length exhibition of a chaotic, miscellaneous world.

The genre that gestures beyond the limits of the human body and operates on the verge of order and chaos also made intense material demands on the studios and their workforce. The most elaborate sets had to be built out to accommodate dozens of performers; the costumes, most remarkably the gowns on the female stars, had to be designed, cut, and sewn, with precision and at scale. The studios that were otherwise intensely focused on the bottom line were also responsible for all that ornamentation, all that excess, all those folds. Can that billowing and festooned fabric, that profligacy and extravagance within a profit-seeking corporation, teach us anything about Deleuze’s concept of the fold and vice versa?

One revelatory example is the famous concluding number from Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936), the fifth musical featuring Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the performance that critics often cite as one of the highlights of their screen partnership. Connie Martin (played by Harriet Hilliard, the future star of the long-running television series the bears her name and that of her husband, Ozzie) has borrowed money to restore a ship originally constructed by her father. After a night spent talking about the future with a sailor on shore leave, she intends to marry the sailor and begin their life of adventure aboard the boat, as soon as he returns from a tour of duty at sea. When her elaborate plans fall through, at least for a time, she needs to raise money to pay off the substantial debt, and, in the grand tradition of the musical, she, her sister, and her friend’s former dancing partner decide that the best way to make some quick money is to put on a show. The sister, Sherry, played by Rogers, and her partner, Bake, played by Astaire, will star in the performance. The concluding stage show is itself framed by a narrative conceit, with Astaire and Rogers, each in a position of hopelessness and despair, encountering each other after almost leaping from a ledge to their deaths. But even the most detailed account of the events at the core of the plot, with performances mistaken for reality and a show-within-a-show and even a cameo by a monkey, fails to do justice to the narrative intricacies that precede it and the number that begins with Astaire singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and continues with a nearly three-minute dance sequence filmed in one long take.

From the perspective of costume design, what’s most remarkable in this scene is the beaded gown draped over and around the body of Ginger Rogers, its bell sleeves repeatedly spreading and regathering around her arms, its skirt extending almost to the floor, the weight of the fabric and ornamentation evident in the graceful movements that also register the resistance of a heavy garment. The metaphorical burden of life sketched out in the scene’s minimal backstory is made literal in the gown that both loads her down with ornamented fabric and sparkles like pure light, a confluence of matter and luminosity. The scene also features a famous “mistake” in which a sleeve on Rogers’s gown slaps the face of Astaire as it whirls by; included in the long take at the core of this scene, this moment remained in the final cut because that overall performance was considered the best of the twenty takes used to record the number. Why do costumes matter so much in cinema? Why run the risk of wrecking an expensive take and perhaps a singular performance for that play of fabric and folds? Why dance in a gown that was, as Astaire recounted in his autobiography, “surely designed for anything but dancing”?[10]  

RKO, for many years the major Hollywood studio with the most precarious finances, was both concerned about the costs of these productions and aware that the successful Astaire and Rogers series was keeping its business afloat. The production files of these RKO musicals reveal the give-and-take—typical at the time, but with more absolute dollars at risk in an expensive, high-profile picture—between studio executives and the set and costume designers asking for overages in addition to their already substantial budget.  On the set of The Gay Divorcee (Sandrich, 1934), for example, the daily wear and tear of dancing made it necessary for an all-night crew to repair costumes for the next day’s scenes and have duplicates readily at hand.[11] Cost-cutting measures often failed. The men in the chorus were supposed to bring their own clothes for a scene when they dance in black suits, but an overage report summarizes the situation as follows: “When budgeting it was understood the boys would furnish parts of the costume—they furnished nothing.”[12] It was not unusual for the most prominent costumes to be discarded and redesigned during production. Two years later, with Follow the Fleet, the budgets of these Astaire and Rogers musicals had ballooned, and warnings about cost overruns became more explicit and direct. RKO studio President and production boss B.B. Kahane warned: “I would like to caution you now against requesting any overages on this budget as I will not approve any overage request unless it is because of conditions or emergencies beyond control. There is a sufficient allowance for sets, wardrobe, extras, etc., and I must refuse to okay any request for additional sets, wardrobe, people, etc.”[13] In this context, we observe both the material burden of fashion, its strain on studio resources and the balance sheet, and its essential function in the musical. Alongside the unmistakable role of singing and dancing or the less obvious but equally essential narrative structure, design has always featured prominently in a genre with enormous sets creating a stage for the performance of a chorus of elaborately costumed dancers. It might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the production of a musical introduces all this risk, inefficiency, and waste because one essential function of the musical is the creation and exhibition of folds.  

In one understanding of the relationship between the concept of the fold and the Hollywood musical, the costume is what continuously links the economic and aesthetic dimensions of cinema, tending in opposite directions but always interwoven. The wardrobe is where the ostensibly opposed aspirations of art and commerce fold into each other. Perhaps for this reason the most extravagant and seemingly frivolous line items in the budget were also, often to the chagrin of the studio executives, indispensable. But if we are to understand the fold literally, as Deleuze suggests, we also need to focus on the matter and movement of the costumes themselves in addition to their interaction with the budget and studio management. When Astaire and Rogers dance at the end of Follow the Fleet their costumes both conform to their bodies and resist them, their tails, skirts, and sleeves continuing to move even as the dancers have stopped momentarily or spun around, their movements halted as though waiting for their costumes to fold and settle. The virtuosity of the dance derives from the interaction between the performers at the height of their powers and their recognition of the material conditions that both limit their control and implicate another dimension of complexity and beauty into their dance. Doesn't the concept of the fold serve a similar function in philosophy? In a discipline often dedicated to the parsimonious production of concepts, with a coherent system attained at the cost of a simplified sense of the world and its intensities, the fold refers to the excess that would be impossible to capture within a philosophy that remains anchored where it rests. Deleuze suggests that the world consists of “pleats of matter,” with the fabric of things remaining in motion, always undulating around us.[14] A phenomenon of energy, exuberance, and flair, the musical is the genre where folds are everywhere, and it reminds us that when we want to understand how cinema thinks and moves, we should follow the pleat.


[1] Daniel W. Smith, “Sense and Literality: Why There Are No Metaphors in Deleuze’s Philosophy,” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy of Freedom: Freedom’s Refrains, eds. Dorothea Olkowski and Eftichis Pirovolaski (New York: Routledge, 2019), 44. The phrase “inexact words” is quoted from Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 3.

[2] Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 8, 10.

[3] Deleuze, The Fold, 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anneke Smelik, “Gilles Deleuze: Bodies-without Organs in the Folds of Fashion,” in Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists, eds. Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), 172.

[6] Deleuze, The Fold, 122.

[7] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 61

[8] Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 16-27.

[9] Deleuze, Proust and Signs: The Complete Text, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 163.

[10] Fred Astaire, Steps in Time: An Autobiography (New York: Dey St., 1987), 213.

[11] Overage Report (August 16, 1934), Box 50P, RKO Radio Pictures Studio Records (Collection PASC 3). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

[12] Overage Report (August 17, 1934), Box 50P, RKO Radio Pictures Studio Records (Collection PASC 3). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

[13] Letter from B.B. Kahane to Mr. Berman (October 29, 1935), Box 63P, RKO Radio Pictures Studio Records (Collection PASC 3). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

[14] Deleuze, The Fold, 3.

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