Essay: The Sound of Clothes

by Maria Echeverri on 9 October 2013

Fashion researcher and historian Maria Echeverri unpicks fashion's lengthy and ever-changing relationship with sound.

Fashion researcher and historian Maria Echeverri unpicks fashion's lengthy and ever-changing relationship with sound.

The body is never silent; joints creak and crack, eyelids flutter and the heart beats steadily as air stridently surges in and out of the lungs. All our bodily sounds, which are often lost in their subtlety and familiarity, are in fact a reassurance of life itself, a signal of our most basic and compelling vitality. Dress allows the body’s natural sonorous state to be manipulated, suppressed or amplified, while the degree of experimentation in any given period is dictated by the culturally laden and chronologically specific institution of fashion. Sound in clothing, while never entirely absent, is more easily identifiable at certain moments in the history of dress. Charting this evolution ultimately magnifies its importance, while simultaneously explaining its oft-overlooked status by the nuance of its function.

A sudden proliferation of sense-based subject matter in poetry, music and the visual arts during the Renaissance shows a collective awareness of sensory experience. Yet it was sound specifically that defined the parameters of daily life in the sixteenth century, the ‘age of the ear.' [1] The world was quieter; in the absence of electricity and modern technology, soundscapes were defined by the whirr of running water and hum of conversation. Furthermore, life in a pre-literate society was controlled by soundmarks, which spread information aurally. Church bells were the cornerstone of daily life, marking time and geographical boundaries, signalling daily and seasonal events, and structuring spiritual life. [2] In short, sounds were more discernible and listeners more sensitive. Our understanding of the way that clothing sounded during the Renaissance must be considered through the fidelity of contemporaneous aural sanctity.

The birth of fashion, defined as an institution driven by the cycle of trends, is often designated to this era. Dress experienced an increased preoccupation with sartorial experimentation, innovative tailoring, complex forms and new shapes. An interior density was layered with strikingly intimate superficial design: any movement in a garment thickly encrusted with elaborate grids of metalwork and gems must have been noteworthy for its sonic quality. The silhouettes of the period were imposing; the broad, square contours of Henry VIII’s dress emanate an idealised form of masculine power. A sartorial expansion of the body’s girth – three dimensionally through pads and farthingales and aurally through chains, metal points, slashed fabrics and the boisterous avowal of a suit of armour – added to the heightened physicality of the dressed form.

The function of sound as an immersive sensation mimics both the three-dimensionality of dress, and the gripping totality of seductive appeal.

The auditory aptitude of sixteenth century dress can be further substantiated by the expressive potential of a body in motion presented through Renaissance poetry. Metrical line, which facilitated memorisation at a time of low literacy rates, mimicked the rhythmically patterned sounds of the clothed body: shoes tapping on cobblestones, silk skirts swaying in stride, jewelled necklaces softly thudding against a bodice. The auditory imagery in the work of Robert Herrick’s Julia’s Petticoat, hints at the sound’s capacity to stimulate emotion and situate us in a bodily experience of memory.

Thy Azure Robe I did behold,

As ayrie as the leaves of gold;

Which erring here, and wandring there,

Pleas’d with transgression ev’ry where:

Sometimes ‘two’d pant, and sigh, and heave,

As if to stir it scarce had leave… [3]

The function of sound as an immersive sensation mimics both the three-dimensionality of dress, and the gripping totality of seductive appeal. The effectiveness of sound in expressing eroticism through dress becomes even more evident during the heyday of noisy fashion: the nineteenth century.

Following the Renaissance, sound continued to function in clothing, but in the second half of the nineteenth century there was a notable increase in the terminology for and allusions to sound in dress. Examples in contemporary literature abound: A frou-frouing, rustling, swishing, whishing, whirling of buoyant, ample, voluptuous skirts made from silk, taffeta, moiré, glacine, crepe, satin and lace. The descriptions vary widely from the temperate: soft, light, faint, delicate, gentle, beatific; to the rhythmic: pleasant, musical, floating, graceful, sweeping; to the exhilarating: indescribable, glorious, thrilling, violent, bewildering. Why was dress suddenly so acoustically designated? Three specific sociological factors – the sensual onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations in sound, and the strict establishment of bourgeois values – converged to create the ideal setting for sound to enter its most active chapter in the history of dress.

The boom of the Industrial Revolution set a new pace of life that heightened sensual awareness and naturally altered the way bodies responded to sensory input and output. The most impactful inventions of the nineteenth century were acutely aural in their interactions with the world: trains, automobiles, typewriters, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Moreover, the telephone, radio and gramophone completely restructured how sound was experienced and interiorised. The shift away from physical immediacy to a commercialised commodity is elemental to understanding the era’s aural realities. Not only was the world louder, the meaning of sound itself completely changed.

As ever, fashion takes on the tensions and currents of the day. Vivid aniline dyes are described as ‘loud and overcharged… the colours outrageously crude… each swearing at the others.’ [4] The steel cage crinoline, a mass-produced lightweight marvel of modernity, changed the wearer’s movement, to ‘energetic, discordant, jerking, like a piece of machinery.' [5] Silk weighting resulted in plumper fabrics that moved with hefty purpose. In fact, the metonymy of the skirt for the woman is established in this period through the garment’s communicative power. A wearer could not change the brightness of her dress, but its level of noisiness was acutely alterable; in the nineteenth century the rustle of a skirt became an exceedingly useful tool to communicate messages with purposeful intent. Sound in dress, therefore, can function as proof of physicality and of personality, a manifestation of an assertion or a whim, one that is paradoxically subtle in its semiotic, pre-language universality, yet also specific in its deliberation. It is everything that fashion strives to be, and yet it manifests itself so subtly that sometimes it is almost imperceptible.

Gisele Bündchen by Nick Knight for Vogue, November 2006

Perhaps it is no coincidence that such a nuanced expression of individuality developed in this period. What a woman said, or was expected to say, had rarely been as strictly circumscribed as in the nineteenth century. As defined by bourgeois values, every expression of womanhood was codified as a reflection of the state of being female, as decidedly separate and opposite to masculinity. Nowhere was this truth felt more deeply than in fashion, which was specified as frivolous alongside (or because of) its associations with femininity. Through its own associations with fashion, sound itself became gendered, eroticised, fetishised and marginalised. An example of this is Frou Frou, the protagonist of the 1869 popular play, a frivolous heroine named for the noisy and intoxicating demeanour of her dress, which ultimately serves as a metaphor for a superficial and immoral character. [6] By the turn of the century, three decades of susurrus skirts had played out the whims of the fashion landscape, and the use of noisy petticoats was decidedly passé.

Throughout the twentieth century, a trend for sound in clothing arose. The beaded shifts of the 1920s flappers mimicked the cracking rifts of Jazz music. The effects of space age culture and materials produced a sonic flare in the midcentury; a 1964 fashion show by LA designer Eddy George was held in the world’s largest anechoic chamber, where the 'softest whisper can be heard… the perfect background for gowns that will ‘jet’ you to the moon.' [7] But it was in the last decade that bodily conscious designers harnessed sound’s unique duality as a sensory expression to produce provocative articulations through dress.

For Autumn/Winter 2000, the Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf - known for sculptural creations that distort proportions - presented a couture collection most notable for its aural breadth. The garments were covered with a thick layer of brass bells, and then sent down a runway pumped with heavy fog. The tinkling and clattering of every ensemble, neither subtle nor soothing, was heard long before it was seen. The collection staged the interplay between bells and clothes as signifiers and disseminators of information, with sound binding the two. The runway show proposed the notion that sound (over vision) is more in line with fashion as a three-dimensional embodied experience. Each garment took on the spectacle of the show, reaffirming the sensory experience of dress; the 'outfit' is only complete on the body and in motion.

It is the breed of bodily conscious designers that have harnessed sound’s unique duality as a sensory expression to produce provocative articulations through dress. Bjork’s performance in Alexander McQueen’s red medical slide and feather dress (S/S 01 VOSS collection) fosters the design’s reference to the vitality of the living body as her own body morphs into a pulsating instrument through the power of her dress. Similarly, the silvery crinkle of Gareth Pugh’s bin bag gowns (A/W 13) reinforces the paradoxical nature of the designs, at once voluminously imposing and materially ethereal.

The various instances of sound in dress ranging from the Renaissance to present day hint at the untapped potential of resonant dress, for ultimately, the act of making and hearing noise is implicit in the experience and interpretation of clothing. And by understanding the enlivened dexterity of sound through its past, we can begin to imagine, and hear, its future.

  1. Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1982)
  2. Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.) p. 55-58
  3. Robert Herrick, Works of Robert Herrick, Volume I. (London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891)p. 80-81
  4. Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England 1860-70, (London, 1970) p. 19
  5. Teresa Riordan, Inventing Beauty, (New York: Broadway, 2004). P. 30
  6. Augustin Daly, Frou Frou. (New York: T.H. French, 1870). Translation of the play presented by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac at Théâtre de Gymnase on October 30, 1869.
  7. Julie Byrne, Here’s the Sound of Fashion: An Explosion or a Whisper (Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1964. Part IV.) p. 7



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