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Sound as Signifier: Communication and
Expression Through the Sound of Clothing
Tala Kamea Berkes
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Berkes, Tala Kamea, "Sound as Signifier: Communication and Expression Through the Sound of Clothing" (2012). Theses and
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SOUND AS SIGNIFIER: COMMUNICATION AND EXPRESSION THROUGH THE
SOUND OF CLOTHINGBy Tala Kamea Berkes Bachelor of Commerce, University of Alberta, 2006 A thesis presented to Ryerson University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Program of Fashion Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2012 © Tala Kamea Berkes 2012
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ii Sound As Signifier: Communication and Expression Through the Sound of Clothing, Master of Arts 2012, Tala Kamea Berkes, Fashion, Ryerson University
ABSTRACTFashion, clothing, and dress have traditionally been evaluated on visual characteristics.
This paper focuses on the aural qualities of clothing and on what is being communicated through sound. Semiotic theory, in particular denotation and connotation, discusses the ability of clothing to communicate through sound. Philosophical ideas of expression through music and sound emphasized the significance of feeling and experience in art and fashion. Five garments were designed as sound objects to explore this link between sound and clothing. The garments are featured in a video in which two musicians dance in the pieces. Musician Born Gold created an original film score from the recorded sounds of the pieces. These works attempted to direct the focus of fashion experience towards sound, without disregarding the cultural emphasis on visual aesthetics. The intention is to shift the way individuals relate to their clothing, to a fuller and more cognizant sensory experience.
Thank you to Leigh Krekoski for his patience, help, love, and support, and for putting up with my nonsense. Thank you to my parents for their support and love, which comes in various forms, but is always there when I need it. Thank you to my Lola and Nagymama, who were early fashion influencers in my life, dressing me in finely handcrafted garb since childhood. Thank you to my brothers and my dear friends who are always encouraging me in my work.
I express my immense gratitude to the following individuals who were instrumental in completing this research and the creative works of this project: Noreen Berkes for her hard work and patience in helping produce the garments; Cecil Frena (Born Gold) for so willingly participating in this project and creating a fantastic song out of strange, clothing-generated sounds; Landon Speers for graciously recording the sounds of my creations; Greg Biskup for beautifully capturing my work; Eleanor Espiritu and Cosima Friesen for so charismatically expressing their personalities on screen; Natalie Sirianni for her countless hours of brilliant video editing; Jodinand Aguillon for giving his creative ideas and wonderful energy to my project;
Leigh Krekoski, Matthias Berkes, Annalie Bonda, and Adeline Yu for lending their time and skills towards the production of the pieces; Cora Poon and Melissa Leslie for the stunning hair and makeup on the models; Hanah Chung for capturing some wonderful behind-the-scenes moments; and Erin Macnab for patiently modeling my garments to be photographed.
Thank you to David Brame and Lucia Dell’Agnese for their guidance and support through the research and writing process, and to Daniel Laxer for taking the time to provide valuable feedback on my writing.
Finally, thank you to ELLE Canada for their generous support of this research and creative project through the ELLE Canada Graduate Award in Fashion.
Fashion, clothing, and dress have traditionally been evaluated on visual characteristics.
From ‘dazzling’ to ‘glossy’ to ‘striking,’ the metaphors used to describe dress convey visual primacy. Style, colour, cut, and design details of dress are scrutinized and assessed, often employing frameworks of analysis that focus on considerations of race, class, and gender. Other sensorial characteristics are typically ignored, from the feel and texture, to the sound, smell, and taste of garments. This research paper focuses specifically on the aural qualities of clothing, providing a curious look at, or listen to, what is being (and can be) communicated through sound.
What does clothing and fashion sound like? What does the rustling of a taffeta skirt down a church aisle, the sharp click of a stiletto heel on a marble floor, or the bright jangling of bangles on a swinging arm say about one’s social, economic, or gendered identity? What does clothing say, and how does it communicate as it moves and interacts with the wearer and the environment? Such questions will be explored in this paper through the theories of semiotics that relate to the visual and the aural.
This paper provides a deeper analysis of clothing and fashion’s ability to communicate through sound. As a primarily visual entity, this aspect of clothing and fashion has not been studied in depth. Most sound produced by clothing is incidental, occurring due to inherent properties of the materials, and the cuts and shapes of the garments and accessories. There are instances where clothing sounds are intentionally produced; examples are often found in folk dress, and in the dress of First Nations people. For example, the early 20th century jingle dress, which originated amongst the Ojibwa, was used in dance ceremonies as a healing prayer (Thiel 14-18). There are also a few historic cases where statements relating predominantly to social
30). A few theorists have briefly addressed sound as communication in dress, but always as an aside to analyses focusing on clothing’s visual characteristics. The aural qualities of clothing are often described in fictional literature, as part of a character’s development, or contributing to an atmosphere. The sound of clothing often plays a role in film as well, where congruity and incongruity of sound and image are tools for directors to play with in their storytelling. Sound is everywhere; garments and accessories are constantly speaking, attempting to communicate.
Their signals are largely going unnoticed due to the “hierarchical placement of the visible above the audible” that is not just characteristic in film, but is “a more general cultural production” (Doane 322).
Since the Enlightenment there has been a privileging of sight over the other senses (Smith 14). In spite of this hierarchy of the senses, the power of sound in communicating may on occasion be more powerful than a visual signifier. Sound has the ability to escape the limitations of linear visual perspective, traveling around corners, through walls and doors, and may succeed in communicating something long before its source is seen, if it is seen at all. What may be denoted or connoted by a sound? How can the sound of a pair of shoes indicate the wearer’s economic or social status? Can the sound of one’s clothing cause adverse or positive effects in social situations, and why? Are there functional or emotional benefits of wearing clothing that “speaks”? How can sound enable greater self-expression through clothing?
This link between sound and clothing is explored through the creation of garments designed as sound objects. The works created through this project attempt to switch the focus of experience towards sound, without disregarding this cultural emphasis on visual aesthetics.
While the works aim to be visually aesthetically pleasing from a fashion perspective, they also
and may be enjoyed by those with the sense of vision, but also those without. Although visually interesting, the greatest interest of the pieces lies in the ability of the wearer to create and perform sound, or music, through movement. Both the wearer and audience are able to experience the garments in an auditory form as the wearer moves and plays the pieces. The wearer controls the production of sound, enabling another level of experience and permitting communication and self-expression through movement and sound. Although the clothing does not “speak” as humans do with recognizable signifiers in the form of language, the overall level of sensory interaction with the garments is increased. The garments encourage engaging with fashion through a wider array of sensory perceptions, with a focus on sound, and call attention to a more holistic way of experiencing, understanding, and communicating with the world around us.
The final component of this project is a short fashion film featuring the five garments, and an original score created from the recorded sounds they produce. The ubiquitous force of music may be discussed as a means of abstract, intuitive, non-verbal sound communication (Langer 218-222). The sounds act as a new vocabulary, which the composer may arrange as they please to evoke emotion and communicate with the audience1. The film depicts two models exploring the communicative capabilities of the garments through their movements. Their experiences with the garments come through in their movements, in the sounds produced, and in the personas they assume as they engage with the pieces. The musical score accompanies their individual experiences, organizing an array of disjointed sounds and messages into a more accessible, relatable, and perhaps understandable whole.
1 See Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1964)
is about the sound of clothing. The creative components of this project result in garments that produce “sounds” (some of which may be argued to be “music”), and also a short film featuring an audio compilation and organization of said sounds into what may most certainly be called “music.” Without engaging in a highly complex discussion of what is or may be called music, it must be clarified that regardless of one’s opinions of the sounds produced and the resulting composition, their purposes are the same. While some theorists discuss the emotive power of “music” and others discuss that of “sound,” this paper argues for the communicative abilities and expressive value of both sound and music as products of clothing. The creative components of this project provide unique and interactive examples of how sound and music can be produced by clothing to communicate concepts and ideas, and incite feelings, emotions, and even physical reactions.
2.1 Textual Review A review of the ideas presented by semioticians is necessary as a foundation for this project. Much of the work focusing on fashion as communication addresses fashion as a system of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure is one of the most highly acclaimed linguists, and his theories of language and sign systems have influenced the writings of later theorists in communication. One of his most significant contributions to theories on language and communication is the sign/signified/signifier model, proposed in his Cours de Linguistique Générale, or Course in General Linguistics (1906-1911). This model originally applied to language, referring to the auditory “sound-image” (signifier) and a related “concept” (signified) to create the “sign” (Saussure 66). The sound-image did not only refer to a sound, in this case words, but primarily to the “psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses” (66).
Saussure presented a complex and comprehensive look at language and signs. As his work was directly and indirectly influential on a number of fashion theorists2, so too his ideas come into play in an analysis of the sound of clothing. The sounds emitted by clothing as they move and interact with their wearers and environments are not just sounds, but may also be examined as having a “psychological imprint,” referring to much more than just a physical sound.
One can certainly understand how familiar sounds, such as that of a zipper, conjure up a particular sound-image, without having to take the form of an arbitrarily assigned word. In this case, what is signified is directly linked to what is creating the sound. The sound of the zipper 2 See Malcolm Barnard, Fashion As Communication, Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes.
with a simple pulling motion (signified). It seems a less arbitrary connection of sound-image and concept than that existing within our current realms of language. There are numerous other cases, however, where what is signified is far less clear. In these cases, there may be no words in our language, no dialectical signifiers, which may describe what is being signified. In such cases, what is felt by the listener must be considered as the concept, or what is signified, even if impossible to put into words. This idea relates better to a system of communication put forth by Roland Barthes.