Fashioning the Voice – A singing trench coat that shows how clothes touch us in more ways than you think

Guest post, by Jennifer Anyan (@jenniferanyan)

Fashioning the Voice is an interdisciplinary research project that brings together the expertise of Yvon Bonenfant, Dr. Tychonas Michailidis and myself, Jennifer Anyan. Yvon is an artist-academic and creative director at Tract + Touch, who extends voice across media to explore innovative ways of creating. Tychonas’s work focuses on sensor technology and interactions. I am an artist and fashion studies scholar and my research focuses upon the styled corporeal body and the experience of the (dressed) body.

Fig. 1: Fashioning the Voice promotional film Credit: Tract + Touch, Anyan, Michalidis

Fashioning the Voice is in essence a singing trench coat that is offered to members of the public to try on as a participatory arts experience. It enables individuals to explore self-identity through how we fashion ourselves, how we fashion our voice and how the two influence each other. We have developed garment prototypes in the form of a set of coats animated by a range of sensors that use gyro, stretch, and light and heat to produce data. A microphone in the collar of the coat captures the wearer’s spoken voice, and sensors perceive the body’s movements whilst wearing the coat. We then use these movements and audio data to shape the characteristics of the voice that radiates back from the speakers within the garment or close environment. We immerse the participant in their fashioned voice, and ‘touch’ them with it.

Clothes Touch Us

I work across disciplines as a practice-based researcher and artist, whilst also drawing upon my commercial experience as a fashion stylist. Much of my work is about understanding the way clothes affect experience. Consider the way that tight jeans or leather trousers rub, press, and constrain, or the way an oversized coat envelopes and engulfs the body and makes us aware of its presence. The way clothes mediate our experience of being in the world is one of the primary concerns of my research. A key part for me of the Research & Development process of Fashioning the Voice was wearing the coat myself, styling it on my body and paying attention to how it felt.

I reflected on tactile experience from the early tests, focusing on the sensations of connecting the garment itself with my body. Through the sensors, my movements produced sounds, and I became hyperaware of the way my gestures connected the coat with my body, such as pushing up the sleeves, popping the collar, wrapping it tightly around myself and sweeping the full skirt. I paid attention to what my body can do in the coat and how the coat touches me, rather than considering what my body symbolically represents in the coat.

Fig. 4: Jennifer testing Prototype 2, a simpler version made out of calico cotton. Image Credit: Tychonas Michailidis

This approach to studying clothes has been described by Lucia Ruggerone as the “feeling of being dressed. Ruggerone situates this type of research in the field of affect studies, which originated in cultural geography and feminist theory. It considers how the body can be a considered as a composition of forces and approaches to [dressing] practices, rather than as a representation.

Notably, as I wore the coat I realised the importance of feeling the weight of the fabric as I wrapped the coat around myself, and the position of the pockets being just right enabling me to ball my fists and plunge my hands into them, pushing against the lining.

Audience Testing – Gordon’s experiences of feeling clothing

As research on Fashioning the Voice developed, we worked with different audiences to understand how they interacted with and responded to the coat. A group of visually impaired retired people were among the most engaged, many of them wearing the coat for up to 30 or 40 minutes at a time. One participant, Gordon, tried on the coat on two separate occasions. There were no sensors on the length of the sleeves but Gordon liked experimenting with disrupting the sound by rubbing the sleeves, trying to make a rustling sound and afterwards explaining that he wanted to create a higher pitch. He also commented that he loved the feeling of weight around his wrists – this weight was created by the tight ribbing on the wrists that contained gyroscopes. Details such as these, which emerged through close observation, have particularly helped us to better understand how we can connect the sensation of feeling clothing with voice.

At one point Gordon tried the coat on without some clothing underneath; this was because he was interested in feeling the sensation of the silk lining on his skin. He also asked if we might incorporate further textures into future versions of the coat and attach them to different voices.

Future steps

The experiences and reflections from our participants opens up interesting spaces for further exploration. As the project moves forward, the Fashioning the Voice team are looking for opportunities to collaborate with different venues to expand the experience for more audiences.

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