‘Rapture bombs’: Clothes at the end of the world

As I have explore previously, empty clothes can act as a stand-in for the absent body. Empty-shoe memorials, for example, can signify the tragic loss of the body that once wore them. It seems that ‘isolated clothes create for us a mystery we must solve’ (Tallichet, 2014). These mysteries may be widely mythologised, as in the Rapture. Depictions of the Rapture ranging from HBO’s television series The Leftovers (2014) to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkin’s Left Behind novels (1995-2007) stress the significance of empty bundles of clothes as reminders of absent wearers (notably, the cover illustration for Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2012), the novel on which the television series is based, depicts an empty pair of shoes and a puff of smoke).


LaHayle and Jenkins’ fictional tale of Rapture survivors, Left Behind (1995), which Amy Johnson Fykhom (2004, p. 3) credits with bringing Rapture theology into mainstream American culture offers clothes as evidence of the Rapture. LaHayle and Jenkins describe how the colleagues, friends and family of those who have vanished remain alongside the personal ‘artifacts of the vanished’, most notably, the clothes that ‘lay crumpled in homes and on the streets’ (Baker, 2011, p. 110). These individuals find themselves suddenly faced with bewildering piles of empty clothes where living men, women and children had recently been standing. Kelly J. Baker argues that these piles of clothes are necessary to provide survivors with tangible evidence that the Rapture has occurred, and that they, the survivors, have failed in their religious duty. The empty clothes are a ‘rebuke, and the unrepentant remain fully-clothed in their religious impurity’ (p. 110).

Prompted by calculations made by Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, real-life believers in the Rapture anticipated a date of 21 May 2011 for the ascent of all deserving believers to heaven. Harold Camping’s followers shared the common belief that raptured souls would leave their worldly possessions behind, including clothing. When the Rapture failed to transpire, pranksters were prompted to stage mock evidence in the form of piles of clothes evidently left behind as bodies ascended towards heaven.

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These so-called ‘Rapture bombs’ – piles of clothes laid as false evidence of the sudden disappearance of the wearer – reflect both a desire to ridicule belief in the Rapture, and a need to compensate for the lack of occurrence of such a widely mythologised event. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s (1992, p. 9) exploration of America’s insatiable desire for news observes a need to ‘provide synthetic happenings to make up for the lack of spontaneous events’. We demand, he writes, ‘more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world’s deficiency’.


Such is the excitement of anticipation for some predicted events that if they fail to transpire, suggests Boortsin, there is a need to compensate with illusion (p. 9). On the day of 21 May 2011, as it became apparent that Camping’s predictions were incorrect, photographs of ‘rapture bombs’ began to litter the web. In these images, clothing is neatly arranged in the form of an absent body, typically consisting of an entire outfit, including shoes and sometimes tools or accessories. They are laid as if to suggest that the owner was engaged in everyday activity before he or she was raptured: a child’s baby-grow positioned half-way down a playground slide; a family’s clothes dotted around a picnic mat in the park; jeans and t-shirt draped over a toilet seat with empty shoes laid side-by-side in front of the pedestal.

These photographs inspired more elaborate fakery, including Capitol Improv’s rapture prank video, staged at the Washington monument in 2011. The film is recorded from first-person-perspective, presented as found footage from a tourist’s camcorder. In the footage, the tourist chats casually to his friend, pans around to film the monument, and then back to find his friend mysteriously vanished. The evidence of his friend’s disappearance is a pile of clothes left on the ground. Panicked by his friend’s sudden disappearance, the tourist races through the Mall to find other piles of clothes similarly strewn on the ground, alongside other tourists who appear similarly shocked and dismayed at their own friends’ sudden rapture. Those who remain fall to their knees and wail in mock anguish, or wander bemused, as if unable to comprehend the scale of the tragedy.

The scale and sophistication of Capital Improv’s hoax is revealed in behind-the-scenes footage, released on YouTube. The footage reveals how the prank was staged, with a series of carefully timed undressings. The actor in the role of raptured tourist is shown hurriedly undressing while the camera is directed at the monument. He strips to reveal a second set of clothes hidden beneath the first, so that his undressing leaves him transformed but not naked. Having laid his first set of clothes on the floor, he ducks behind the cameraman’s back to avoid being filmed as the camera pans around to survey the scene. Meanwhile, extras positioned in the surrounding field pull garments from their rucksacks and litter the grass with this false evidence to complete the hoax.

The separation of body and clothes has become such a pervasive symbol for Rapture that it has been parodied in cartoons by David Hayward. The cartoon Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts four individuals who suddenly find themselves naked as their clothes are miraculously stripped from their bodies and float heavenwards (below). The figures display both surprise at their sudden denuding and shame at their unexpected nakedness. Their shameful poses are particularly noteworthy given the historical association between shame and Christianity.

David Hayward’s Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts an alternative Rapture scenario, in which clothes float skyward leaving their shamefully naked owners behind. © David Hayward, www.nakedpastor.com

David Hayward’s Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts an alternative Rapture scenario, in which clothes float skyward leaving their shamefully naked owners behind. © David Hayward, http://www.nakedpastor.com

Hayward’s image references the particular kind of undressing that characterises Rapture: a mysterious separation of clothes and body that suggests the extraction of body from clothes: not, as in other forms of undressing, clothes stripped from people, but rather people stripped from clothes. Garments become ‘flotsam’ (Tallichet, 2011) as the body spontaneously evaporates from within them.

Q&A with Hussein Chalayan

Hussein Chalayan’s current venture met its first audiences at Sadlers Wells this week. Gravity Fatigue, a dance production, developed in conjunction with choreographer Damien Jalet, is the culmination of what he has learnt about the costumed body and a close relationship with the Sadler’s Wells contemporary dance venue. Chalayan and Jalet discussed the project at a Q&A last night, at which they spoke about Chalayan’s role within the creative industries, and how the project evolved.

Gravity-Fatigue-ballet_Hussein-Chalayan_dezeen_1568_8Chayalan’s interest in dance dates back to his childhood in London, and memories of house parties during which his father would demonstrate the Tango. Later, as a student at Central St. Martins, he became a fan of choreographer Michael Clark. To him, the relationship between fashion, music and dance seemed obvious: “Clothing, body, movement, dance – they’re all interconnected,” he remarks.

After becoming known to Sadler’s Wells as a regular audience member, Chalayan was invited to propose a production by the venue’s artistic director Alistair Spalding. He presented Spalding and Jalet with a series of sketches, each describing a different theme. Over the next two years, eighteen of those drawings (reproduced in the programme as a valuable insight into his method) were developed into a series of interrelated scenes.


The production responds to Chalayan’s extensive experience with the way that the body moves when dressed, and  the way that clothes restrict or extend movement. “I know what kind of movement the clothes can make,” he says. The costumes he developed for the show were selected and developed because of the movement that they permitted and created, and on some occasions choreography arose unexpectedly from physical interaction between dancer and garment. “The garments lead the movement,” says Spalding. He uses the example of a reversible jacket that is the centre of one of the show’s scenes. In the early stages of development, Chalayan and Jalet observed that when a dancer removed and reversed the jacket, it created a kind of centrifugal movement that carried the dancer around in a spinning motion. This spinning motion, in and out of the jacket, became the central action of the scene.


Jalet recalls that they sought to “create a dialogue [between body] and costume”. “I wanted it all to be about relationships,” says Chayalan, “I wanted the movement to come from [the body’s] relation to the garment… or the relation to the space.” Movement should always be “relational” if it is to work within the allocated space. It is not only the dancer’s movement that is closely choreographed, but rather the relationship between them, the costumes and the space. This space is elastic, and if it is pulled in one direction it must give somewhere else; “the space works with movement”.


Although there is a catwalk-feel to many of the scenes, Chalayan stressed that he “came to this project as an artist rather than a designer”. As with all his work, he wanted to focus more on abstract themes than on the design of the garments. Many of those themes are an extension of those previously explored in his fashion collections. The theme of displacement is present in the scene entitled “Arrival of Departure”. The scene explores the “gap between arriving and departing”, in which “clothes became tools” to represent “wanting to be in one place;… not wanting to leave”. The costumes designed for this piece “have all the accessories built into them… to give a weight on them [sic]” and create a sense that the dancers are carrying all of their worldly belongings with them. This is the latest manifestation of Chalayan’s fascination with “making territory”, earlier explored in his fashion collections (particularly Echoform, A/W 1999).


Dance direction is not a departure from fashion design for Chalayan, rather it is a natural extension of his role as a creative. Chalayan has never referred to himself as a fashion designer, and even feels unsuited to the label of “fashion artist”. He choses not to re-define himself in the wake of expanding his creative portfolio, saying, “I don’t really care about titles. I care about ideas… I am interested in executing ideas that I find interesting” regardless of where those ideas take him. Despite his reluctance to define himself as fashion designer, he maintains respect for the practice of fashion design, and continues to have faith in its artistic and cultural value. “I think that fashion is as art,” he suggests, “but I think that the [events] that occur around it [such as the rise of celebrity designers] can cheapen it”.


His practice transcends disciplines in a way that permits freedom. “Being an outsider is a very rich position to be in”. It offers opportunities to respond to a theme in whatever manner seems most appropriate, so that there is never a need to manipulate ideas to fit them in the tight constraints of any single creative discipline. Variety of discipline offers variety of experiences. This project showed Chalayan that “there is much more freedom as a costume designer than a fashion designer”. Fashion, he says, contains “all sorts of restrictions” because it is ultimately a commercial enterprise. But for Gravity Fatigue he found himself “dressing all shapes and sizes of people”; responding to body shapes that he had not previously encountered in his fashion career. This does not mean, he stresses, that he will leave fashion behind. He concludes by revealing that he is “very open” to taking what he has learnt from this experience and feeding it back into his future fashion collections.

Source: Live Q&A with Hussein Chalayan, Damien Jalet and Alistair Spalding, with questions from Barbara Brownie and other audience members.

Images: Dezeen

The Sounds of Undressing

Part 1: Foley and the cloth pass

The role of a foley artist is to generate sound effects for film, television or radio, usually in post-production. Foley typically produces diegetic sound, to enhance or replace sounds that are seen to originate from actions and events that occur on screen, or it may generate the impression of unseen events that occur off-screen. These sound effects play a vital role in the construction of a believable landscape, part of the process that is described by David Bordwell as ‘worldmaking’ [1].

The sound of clothing is typically recorded in a ‘cloth pass’, which is then laid over other audio tracks to contribute to a multi-layered soundtrack. Foley artists record audio to accompany the movement of clothed characters, moving cloth between their hands or wearing similar clothes to the actors on screen, then exaggerating their gestures close to a microphone. Foley artist Vanessa Theme Ament recalls that it was once standard practice to record a cloth pass for every central character, but time and budget constraints have meant that a single cloth pass is now typically recorded for the whole film [2]. The aim of this track is primarily to provide texture. Like other incidental sounds – a dripping tap to suggest a poorly maintained abode; raindrops against a window-pane to create a somber atmosphere; passing cars to signify an urban setting – the sound of cloth is rarely central to the progression of the narrative, but does contribute to hyperdetail that is necessary for believability and immersiveness. These incidental sounds highlight the ‘microevents that reconstitute the texture of the present’, rendering a moment is vivid detail [3].

The art of foley must also, ironically, eliminate some clothing sounds. Any noise from a foley artist’s own clothing may add unwanted noise to the soundtrack, and thereby destroy the illusion that the sound originates within the film. In order to prevent the possibility that their own clothes may add unwanted noise, foley artists often undress before their performance. David Lewis Yewdall recalls spending most of his time as a foley artist ‘with [his] pants off’ [4].

There is intimacy in the cloth pass. The sound of clothing invites listeners to consider the surface of the body, and the intimate sensation of touch. Clothing alone does not make the sounds that can be heard in a cloth pass, but rather, sound is generated through intimate action. As Michel Chion observes, sound ‘necessarily implies a displacement or agitation’ [5]. The displacement of clothes, as the wearer’s body moves against them, as in dressing or undressing, makes them audible.

The cloth pass is an expression of the sound of a garment itself and the object with which it interacts. In Ament’s exploration of the recording of footsteps, she observes that the sound of shoes varies significantly depending on the ‘sonic character’ of the surface on which they land, and so sound design must be equally concerned with the shoe and the surface [6]. Likewise, other clothing makes sound only when it is displaced by the movement of the body, and comes into contact either with other parts of the garment or with the body itself. The sound of cloth gliding over smooth, soft skin is different to the coarse sound of cloth against stubble. The sounds of undressing tell a complex story of the journey that a garment takes as it leaves the body, expressing the changing relationship with the various surfaces with which it makes contact.

When clothes fall from the body to the floor, they produce a sound which communicates both the nature of the garment and the environment in which the undressing takes place. A reverberant sound may express as much about the ‘space that contains it’ as it does about the garment itself [7]. In Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, heiress Susan Parrish (Claire Forlani) undresses Joe Black (Brad Pitt) in her father’s palatial manor. As she slides it over his shoulders, Joe’s jacket can be seen and heard brushing against the sleeves of his shirt. In this close-up shot of the characters’ head and shoulders, the rest of the jacket’s journey to the floor is not visible, nor is the vast interior in which the scene takes place. Both of these – the jacket landing on the floor, and the extravagance of the surrounding space – are aurally signified by a soft thud and its echo as the sound reverberates off the marble surfaces of the room.

Such sounds may also be designed to express the character of the undresser. When Bond girl Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) undresses for James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in Die Another Day, her falling gown generates sounds which speak of her aloofness. The audience does not directly witness Frost’s naked form as the gown slips from her body, as the camera cuts to a shot of the gown falling on the floor. The gown lands heavily, with a sound that indicates the weight of the many glass beads that adorn it, reinforcing the sternness of her character. Previous Bond films have featured lovers of gentler character, and with softer gown to match. When Bond unzips Plenty O’Toole’s silk-jersey dress and lets it fall to the floor in Diamonds are Forever, the garment lands softly – almost inaudibly.

The soft, feminine sounds of a Bond girl’s dress falling to the floor contrast markedly with the more masculine sounds of undressing in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. In the prelude to the film’s sex scene, the sound of clothes being removed from the body reflects the vigorous, even forceful, tone of the lovemaking. The first homosexual encounter between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) is ‘abrupt, aggressive and passionate’ [8] and so too is the sound of their partial undressing. The cold mountain location is punctuated with harsh sounds even before the love scene begins. When Ennis makes his way towards Jack’s tent he stumbles over a metal pan, triggering a rattling sound; inside the tent, the rustle of thick tent cloth and sturdy workwear similarly accentuate the harshness of the environment. When Jack initiates sexual contact, Ennis initially withdraws, and his inner conflict manifests in firm, occasionally aggressive fumbling from both parties. Ennis overcomes his reluctance, but his actions remain forceful. When he begins to unfasten his jeans in preparation for love making, the dominant sounds originate from his belt buckle and zipper, both of which are hard, metallic objects. The masculinity of both characters is reflected in the rawness of the sound.

Never is the sound of undressing more important than when it is the only means by which the act is signified. The visual image is contained within the screen, thus visual events may be seen or unseen depending on whether they are located inside the frame. Sounds have no such boundaries. When audiences are denied the sight of clothes being stripped from the body, sound can be relied upon to provide almost as much detail. Foley artists for radio, film and television can signify dressing and undressing entirely through sound effects, creating aural images of clothes ripping, unfastening or falling to the floor. This sonic image-making is achievable through acousmatic sound, that appears to originate from beyond the boundaries of the screen from an off-camera source.

Acousmatic sounds suggest events and actions without direct visual depiction [9]. The dislocated sound that is distanced from the immediately observed space, separates the sound from its source so that filmmakers are able to represent events and actions which may be too distasteful to show on the screen. It allows the audience an insight into events without telling the full story. For a filmmaker who produces scenes of a violent or sexual nature, sounds that originate off screen allow the narrative to progress without censorship. In Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, seductress Lili Von Stupp (Madeline Kahn) makes an effort to ensnare local sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little). Lili blows out the lamps in her boudoir, plunging the room into darkness, and leaving the screen entirely black apart from the silhouette of a jug on the windowsill. We hear Lili as she enquires, ‘Is it true what they say about the way you people are… gifted?’ A ‘zzzzzip’ noise penetrates the darkness, which presumably originates from the zipper of Bart’s slacks. Lili remarks, ‘Oh, it’s true!’ The lack of direct reference to any body part in this scene, verbally or visually, is consistent with the innuendo that characterizes this and many of Brooks’ other films. The direct depiction of a (presumably erect) penis would limit the potential for humour in this scene. The penis in performance may either be perceived as comical or aggressive. When flaccid it invites mockery; when erect it represents, at best, ‘depravity’, or at worst, sexual aggression. By avoiding the image of an exposed penis, Brook is able to sustain a light-hearted tone throughout the scene, and ensure that the film will meet the approval of censors.

[1] Bordwell, D. (2006), The Way Hollywood Tells it: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 58.
[2] Theme Ament, V. (2009), The Foley Grail: The art of performing sound for film, games and animation, Burlington, MA: Focal Press, pp. 99-100); Smith, J. (2013), ‘The Sound of Intensified Meaning’, in J. Richardson, C. Gorbman and C. Vernallis, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 344.
[3] Chion, M. (1994), Audio-Vision: Sound on screen, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 19.
[4] Yewdall, D. L. (2007), Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, Burlington, MA: Focal Press, p. 451.
[5] Chion, Op. Cit, p. 9.
[6] Theme Ament, Op. Cit, p. 78.
[7] Chion, Op. Cit,  p. 79)
[8] Patterson, E. (2008), On Brokeback Mountain: Mediations about masculinity, fear, and love in the story and the film, Plymouth: Lexington, p. 50.
[9] Schaeffer, P. (1966), Traite ́ des objets musicaux. Paris, France: Le Seuil.

Werewolf Striptease

Humans distinguish themselves from animals in part by their wearing of clothes. ‘From this perspective’, writes Mario Perniola, ‘nudity is a negative state, a privation, loss, dispossession’ [1]. A particular perception that nakedness is primitive was established during early encounters with indigenous cultures and during slave trade. As Ruth Barcan observes, ‘the opposition between nakedness and clothing lies at the heart of unconscious assumptions about what is most essentially human’ [2].

Denuding is, therefore, one way to imply a descent into savagery; a return to a primal, animal nature. This descent is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the transformation of humans into monsters. Christian Pyle proposes the transformation of the comic book superhero, She-Hulk, is ‘an atypical striptease’ which transforms Jennifer Walters into ‘the savage She-Hulk’ [3]. The Hulk and his female counterpart are superheroes who, when affected by extremes of emotion, particularly anger, physically transform into monstrous green giant. This transformation, in which the characters’ muscles swell to monstrous proportions, rips their clothes from the characters’ bodies. For fantasy creatures such as this, clothing operates ‘as a clearly demarked boundary between the self and the Other’ [4]. The loss of clothes is an explicit indicator of descent into monstrous savagery. The civilized human identity is lost to the primal, animal identity, and during this descent vestiges of civility and advancement are destroyed.


This transformation, as depicted in literature, comics, film and TV, is also an opportunity to expose the body to a lustful adolescent audience. Recent science-fiction and fantasy tales have found countless excuses to expose the bodies of their male heroes, particularly those who are subject to transformation between human and non-human identities. Recent sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy have exploited denuding to such an extent that it has become a defining feature. Promotional materials for MTV’s Teen Wolf (2011-) unashamedly permit voyeurism in their teenage audience, with images depicting a naked torso beneath ripped shirt: an image that has come to signify a recent transition from man to beast, and vice versa. For the comic book character, the Hulk (and his screen incarnations), and werewolves ranging from Buffy’s Oz to Being Human’s George Sands and Twilight’s Jacob, violent metamorphosis from human to other involves such extreme physical transformation that their clothing does not survive the change, and is typically shredded or cast off.


Philippa Levine also observes, however, a trend for depicting nakedness as ‘helplessness’, and the vulnerability of the female nude has influenced depictions of all forms of nakedness. He identifies a trend in the late colonial period for depicting ‘the naked savage not only with defenselessness, but with childlike qualities’ [5]. Some contemporary depictions of denuding have explored the convergence of these two different connotations of nudity, and have stumbled upon contexts in which savage otherness and childlike vulnerability meet. Curiously, some of the most compelling examples of this convergence can be found in contemporary fantasy tales of monsters and werewolves.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Being Human (2008-2013), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and the Twilight saga (Katherine Hardwicke, 2008, David Slade, 2010, and Bill Condon, 2011-2012) all present the werewolf as cursed. These werewolves the reluctant victims of their conditions, and so do not voluntary sacrifice their human form for that of an animal. It follows that their undressing is also unwanted – an unfortunate side effect of their condition – and thus these narratives avoid positioning the character as willingly eroticized.

It is worth noting that both Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and Twilight are intended for teenage audiences. Bridie Connellan explores such teenage idols through the female adolescent gaze, observing that ‘these teen male figures of spectatorship are never actually meant to be touched and thus remain “safe” objects for young girls to gaze upon’ [6]. Despite the physical danger that may be posed by their monstrous wolf identities, the characters remain sexually passive. That their denuding is involuntary protects viewers from what may otherwise be perceived as a predatory striptease. They do not knowingly or willingly present themselves as sexually desirous, and yet still invite the female gaze.


Nudity thus reinforces the vulnerability of man, in contrast to beast. The characters are particularly shy when they transform back into human form. For Buffy’s Oz, and the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012), the human alter-ago is often modest: the polar opposite of his beastly counterpart. Buffy’s Oz is depicted as embarrassed by his nudity whenever he wakes, and hangs a towel to preserve his modesty [7]. In The Avengers, Bruce Banner loses his clothes in his transformation from human to beast, and so when he reverts to his human form he is left without protection from cold or the prying eyes of curious onlookers. He is forced to hide, or make do with borrowed or stolen coverings. These characters’ modesty further reinforces the message that their undressing is neither voluntary nor predatory.


The vulnerability of the naked body, in contrast to the strength and aggression of the monstrous alter-ego is continually emphasized throughout TV and film depictions of werewolves. The werewolf’s body is denuded through transformation that, like Kirk’s ripped tunic, signifies descent into animalistic savagery, and yet simultaneously, like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, emphasizes the vulnerability of denuded human. In promotional imagery for the US remake of Being Human (2011-), werewolf Josh Levison (played by Sam Huntington) wakes naked, next to the deer that he has slaughtered as a wolf. The bloodstains on his naked body, and the similarity between his state and the dead deer that lies beside him, suggest that he is both perpetrator and victim of violence. While naked, he is both savage and vulnerable.

[1] Perniola, Mario (1989), ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, in M. Feher (ed), Fragments of the Human Body: Part two, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 237.
[2] Barcan, Ruth (2004), Nudity: A Cultural Icon, Oxford: Berg, p. 71.
[3] Pyle, Christian L. (1994), ‘The Superhero Meets the Culture Critic’, Postmodern Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1.
[4] Heaton, S. (2013), ‘Consuming Clothes and Dressing Desire in the Twilight Series’, in D. Mulch (ed.), The Modern Vampire and Human Identity, New York: Palgrave McMillan, p. 84.
[5] Levine, Philippa (2008), ‘States of Undress: Nakedness and the colonial imagination’, Victorian Studies, vol. 50, no. 2, p. 213.
[6] Connellan, Bridie (2009), ‘Consuming ‘Man Candy’: Teen idols and the feminine adolescent gaze’, in N. Lee, C. Henderson (eds) Arna 2009: The Journal of the University of Sydney Arts Students Society, Sydney: Darlington Press, p. 10.
[7] When Buffy is herself transformed to and from a rat in ‘Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered’ (season 2, episode 16), she finds herself returned to her human form, naked and embarrassed in the school basement, and in a rare moment of vulnerability for this otherwise powerful superhero, she is forced to seek help in finding her clothes.

Tilda Swinton: A picture essay

It’s difficult to express in words how Tilda Swinton embodies style. In her fashion shoots, Swinton presents herself as ethereal, androgynous and with a defiant of “the conventional expectations of feminine emotional expressiveness and legibility”, a property that Jackie Stacey describes as the “flat affect” [1].

For Swinton, departures from the feminine ideal are familiar. Her role in Sally Potter’s Orlando (an adaptation of Virginia Wolf’s novel), for example, required Swinton to don both male and female costumes. Swinton herself (2009) expresses doubt that gender “really exists”, instead preferring to think of her identity as transformable. In an interview with W Magazine, she describes how she admired her father’s wardrobe: “From childhood, I remember more about his black patent, gold livery, scarlet-striped legs, and medal ribbons than I do of my mother’s evening dresses,” she says. “I would rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour than pretty for a week”[2].

She brought this androgyny to her role as face of the Pringle of Scotland womenswear collection in Spring/Summer 2010, and then their menswear line the following season (A/W 2010), for which she adopted masculine poses.

Swinton is renowned for her chameleonic performances, but her transformations do more than demonstrate her flexibility as an actor. They express a desire to embrace the beauty and mystery of style, art and fashion without being limited by preconceptions about how she, and her body, might fit. I hope to capture a hint of the ethereal versatility that is Tilda in this collection of images:

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine.

Tilda Swinton for Pringle of Scotland (menswear)

Tilda Swinton for Pringle of Scotland (menswear)

Few female actors are so frequently photographed without eye make-up, particularly for a beauty shot.

Few female actors are so frequently photographed without eye make-up, particularly for a beauty shot.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker at the Menil Collection for W Magazine

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker at the Menil Collection for W Magazine

Viktor & Rolf designed their Fall 2003 collection in collaboration with Tilda Swinton, who models it here alongside an army of models made up to look like her doppelgangers.

Viktor & Rolf designed their Fall 2003 collection in collaboration with Tilda Swinton, who models it here alongside an army of models made up to look like her doppelgangers.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Fabio Lovino.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Fabio Lovino.

Tilda Swinton and David Bowie, who co-stared in Bowie's video for 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)'.

Tilda Swinton and David Bowie, who co-stared in Bowie’s video for ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’.

Tilda Swinton for Pringle of Scotland (2013).

Tilda Swinton for Pringle of Scotland. AAA

Tilda Swinton wears Hussein Chalayan (she also appeared in a short-film made by Chalayan, entitled Absent Presence).

Tilda Swinton wears Hussein Chalayan (she also appeared in a short-film made by Chalayan, entitled Absent Presence).

Tilda Swinton by Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Tilda Swinton by Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Tilda Swinton in 'Snowpiercer'.

Tilda Swinton in ‘Snowpiercer’.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando.

Tilda Swinton interacts with other people's clothes in her art performance, 'Cloakroom', one of three collaborations with Olivier Saillard.

Tilda Swinton interacts with other people’s clothes in her art performance, ‘Cloakroom’, one of three collaborations with Olivier Saillard.

Tilda Swinton possessively clutches a coat worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, which she was entrusted to handle for 'Impossible Wardrobes'.

Tilda Swinton possessively clutches a coat worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, which she was entrusted to handle for ‘Impossible Wardrobes’.

Tilda Swinton and Olivier Saillard create a dress on stage, for 'Eternity Dress'.

Tilda Swinton and Olivier Saillard create a dress on stage, for ‘Eternity Dress’.


1.) Stacey, Jackie (2015), “Crossing over with Tilda Swinton—the Mistress of “Flat Affect,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society (2015): 1-29.

2.) Solway, Diane (2011), “Planet Tilda,” W Magazine [online].

Obama’s jacket and personal territory

Browsing through the White House’s photography archives provides a fascinating insight into President Barack Obama’s use of clothes, both on and off his body. In particular, images depicting Obama in the Oval office show the president in his home territory, comfortable enough to remove his jacket and drape it over a chair.

Obama's feet on the resolute desk

This image of Obama provoked debate as a result of his apparently casual attitude to his role, as indicated by his feet resting on the desk (a pose previously adopted by former presidents including Bush and Ford). The image is also noteworthy as evidence of Obama’s territorial claim not only to the desk, but also to the neighbouring chair, where he has draped his jacket.

By placing that coat on a seat or chair, an individual marks his or her temporary occupation of that space. Territorial markers extend the presence of an individual beyond his or her body, and thereby temporarily modify the rules of ownership. For President Obama, the Oval Office is a temporary territory, held in guardianship for the victor of the 2016 presidential election, and the many future leaders who will follow. He has no right of ownership, but rather acts as a custodian of the office. Obama is one of millions of office workers the world over who occupy a designated space for most of their waking hours without having any claim of ownership of that space or the objects within it. In the home, ‘there is no reason for territorial behaviour [as] one has psychological ownership of objects that are not in a social realm’ [1].  In contrast, in a place of work employees may occupy an office indefinitely, using the same desk and chair for years, knowing that those objects are the property of an organisation. In such environments, employees feel the urge to mark territory as their own, by providing physical evidence of their right of occupation [2].

Images from the first 100 days of the presidency in particular show Obama asserting his right to occupy the seats around his desk.

Images from the first 100 days of the presidency in particular show Obama asserting his right to occupy the seats around his desk.

Individuals and groups can claim space for their personal use by marking it with objects that are not native to the environment – brought from elsewhere. These territorial markers ‘reduce the likelihood of an invasion of personal space’ by others [B]. Clothes are particularly effective territorial markers because they are so often viewed as an extension of the body. The removal and purposeful placement of a garment extends the body into the surrounding area, thereby establishing new boundaries between self and others beyond the outer layer of worn clothing. Typically, an item of clothing may be left on a seat to mark territory in the wearer’s absence, while he or she is temporarily away, signifying his or her intention to return. In Obama’s case, however, territory is extended beyond his own chair to one of those that sit either side of the Resolute Desk.

Obama chooses a chair

Even before Obama had chosen his chair, he claimed his right to sit at the Resolute Desk by draping his coat alongside it.

In photographs of the first years of his presidency, Obama’s jacket is invariably draped not over his own chair, but on one of the smaller chairs that sit either side of his desk. Official Whitehouse photographer Pete Souza has captured Obama’s jacket draped on one of the chairs either side of his desk on a number of occasions, including many within his first 100 days in office, and continuing into his second term, including a infamous image of Obama leaning back in his chair, with his feet on the desk, on 25 February 2013 (see above). As a boundary marker, the jacket serves to prevent others from sitting either side of the desk, asserting his right as its sole user, and prompting colleagues and visitors to keep their distance by standing or sitting elsewhere. Childress’ exploration of teenage territory may provide an explanation for the position of Obama’s draped jacket [4]. If, as Childress observes, those ‘prohibited from property ownership’ are more inclined to mark their temporary residence, then perhaps Obama too feels inclined to mark his territory as compensation for the impermanence of his role. The Oval Office is not his own, and as a mere custodian of the space he may seek means of asserting his right of occupation.

An October 2014 photograph shows Obama occupying 2 seats simultaneously, with his body and his jacket - an extension of his body - so that an aide must stand rather than sit next to him.

An October 2014 photograph shows Obama occupying two seats simultaneously, with his body and his jacket – an extension of his body – so that an aide must stand rather than sit next to him.

In much more recent photographs, a significant change appears to have taken place. Now that Obama’s time is office is coming to an end, his jacket is photographed more regularly on the back of his own chair. More recent photographs of Obama in his office show his territorial claim receding, suggesting that towards the end of his term in office he is accepting of his inevitable exit from this contested territory. As he graciously makes way for the next president, he expects to take his jacket with him.

An image captured on 29 October 2014 shows Obama seated in his jacket,  allowing others to occupy the spare seats.

An image captured on 29 October 2014 shows Obama seated in his jacket, allowing others to occupy the spare seats.

[1] Brown, G., Lawrence, T. B. and Robinson, S. L. (2005), ‘Territoriality in Organizations’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 30, no. 3,  p. 579.
[2] Ley, D. and Cybriwsky, R. (1974), ‘Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 64, no. 4, p. 357.
[3] Cassidy, T. (1997), Environmental Psychology: Behaviour and experience in context, New York: Psychology Press, p. 135.
[4] Childress, H. (2004), ‘Teenagers, Territory and the Appropriation of Space’, Childhood, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 196.

Note: This blog post is in no way intended to comment on aspects of Obama’s presidency, rather to illustrate the claiming of territory in temporarily occupied office spaces. Further discussion of this topic is available in my forthcoming book, Acts of Undressing (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Did film make models skinny?

Images of the ideal female figure were once voluptuous, but static. The recumbent nude lays her flesh out as if she will linger there indefinitely. Images of past century, however, have been defined by motion. A brief remark in Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes notes that this curvy ideal was replaced by the now-fashionable slimline figure at about the same time as the introduction of cinema.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-28. The so-called 'Rubenesque' figure is often depicted motionless.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-28. The so-called ‘Rubenesque’ figure is often depicted motionless.

With the introduction of film, the female body was depicted in motion. At about the same time, photographs by Edweard Muybridge depicted the motion of the body, allowing photographers and audiences to understand photographs as depictions of static moments within a dynamic sequence. Photographers of the twentieth century, influenced by kinetic images, started to depict the female form as if it were in constant motion. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the fashionable body started to become slimmer and more expressive. The feminine ideal was no longer passive and static, but rather, active.

Edweard Muybridge's studies of the human figure in motion captured the movement of the human body in detail that had not previously been seen or understood.

Edweard Muybridge’s studies of the human figure in motion captured the movement of the human body in detail that had not previously been seen or even fully understood.

In twentieth and twenty-first century fashion photography, the body is extended. Limbs reach outwards, and the body is ‘made apparently larger by its movements. Hollander notes that, even if the body appears to be slim, the fact that it is in motion suggests that it has the potential to occupy a larger space. There is, she writes, ‘the possibility of enlargement’. This, she proposes, is what led to the preference for slim figures – a new feminine ideal with a slight frame that could be enlarged through motion.

A review of twentieth-century fashion shoots shows slim bodies extended in all directions. Christian Dior’s New Look, renowned for its narrow waists, is also remembered for the ‘Dior slouch’, with a hunched back which adds additional volume at the top of the body. Dior’s models also extended their limbs outwards, expanding themselves and demonstrating the potential to occupy larger spaces through movement. In the 1960s, notoriously slight Twiggy was photographed with limbs outstretched, as if in motion, throwing her light frame enthusiastically into surrounding spaces.

Christian Dior's New Look was modeled by women with impossible narrow waists, who compensated for their narrow silhouette by posing with limbs outstretched.

Christian Dior’s New Look was modeled by women with impossibly narrow waists, who balanced their slim silhouette by posing with limbs outstretched. Anne Hollander suggests that these dynamic poses, and hence the new trend for slim models, was a result of the introduction of cinema.

Despite Twiggy's minute size, in these images her body extends as far as the frame of the photograph.

Despite Twiggy’s minute size, in these images her body extends as far as the frame of the photograph.

Contemporary fashion photography continues to depict the body as potentially able to occupy larger spaces. Elbows and knees jut out away from the body, and limbs extend in all directions. The body is depicted as a dynamic form which occupies ‘possible space’ as well as actual space. The slim feminine ideal continues to be reinforced by images which exaggerate and extend the silhouette of a body, and with these dynamic poses only the slimmest models can squeeze into a photographer’s frame.

Imaan Hamman thrusts her knees and elbows outwards, more than doubling the overall width of her body.

Imaan Hamman thrusts her knees and elbows outwards, more than doubling the overall width of her body.

Dynamic poses let Angie Ng occupy 'possible space' as well as actual space.

Dynamic poses let Angie Ng occupy ‘possible space’ as well as actual space.

S. Hollander (1988), Seeing Through Clothes, New York: Penguin, pp. 153-155.

How to Undress: Domestic advice of the 1930s

A 1937 domestic advice feature published in Life Magazine (15 February, pp. 41-43) contrasts descriptions of how a woman might dress unobserved with how she ought to dress in front of her husband. The article stresses the importance of rolling down stockings instead of pulling them off from the toes, in order to avoid ‘unesthetic wrinkles’ [sic] and so that a husband may be pleased by ‘his wife’s graceful method of displaying her legs’. The advice is accompanied by photographs by Peter Stackpole, depicting a careless undressing, followed by an ‘artful’ alternative.

Life Magazine, 15 February,  1937, pp. 41-43

Life Magazine, 15 February, 1937, p. 41

This advice requires that a woman always considers dressing and undressing as performances. Erving Goffman’s (1959) explorations of the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ identifies ‘back stage’ events and locations, in which individuals engage in private activities in preparation for everyday performance of self. Undressing might commonly be considered a ‘back stage’ activity, but Life infers that it should instead be considered as part of the performance of self – a ‘front stage’ activity – with the expectation that the act will be observed by others. It transforms the domestic space of the bedroom into a performance venue, and the wife into a striptease artist (incidentally, the models used for the photoshoot were burlesque dancers).

Life Magazine, 15 February,  1937, pp. 41-43

Life Magazine, 15 February, 1937, p. 42

Responding to popular demand from ‘amused’ readers, Life’s 15 March edition included a follow-up featuring ‘various methods, some good, some bad, of male disrobing’ (Life, 15 March 1937, pp. 68-69). The advice for men focuses on the contrast between slovenliness and neatness in the removal of clothes.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 68.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 68.


Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 69.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 69.

The article inspired this short film which contrasts the undressing of one glamorous and one not-so-glamorous starlet:

The film transforms the voyeur from a husband into a peeping tom. It proposes that even a single a woman must be constantly aware of her gestures and behaviour, performing at all times as if observed. The advice is perhaps even more relevant now, with the threat of hidden webcams and compromised cloud storage.

The Sound of Fashion

Clothes on stage and screen for the visually impaired

Some cultural experiences are inaccessible to the blind or partially sighted, and although steps have been taken to improve the accessibility of various visual media, the fashion industry is only just beginning to come to terms with the fact that they may have to market their products to people who cannot see them.

Clothes are not primarily visual artefacts. We experience our own clothes as much, if not more, by touch than by sight. Despite this, fashion tends to be promoted, perceived and described primarily through its aesthetic features. When viewing clothes on a catwalk, audiences are deprived of any experience other than the visual. Audiences may not touch the fabric, and the sound of the garment as a model’s body moves inside it tends to be drowned out by music and distance.

However, as any partially-sighted person will attest, clothes can provide an aural experience. The difference between the sounds of various fabrics has inspired sonic compositions by SHOWstudio, whose video and sound works are constructed from recordings of leather, silk, tulle, taffeta and beads. Fastenings in particular – zips, velcro, poppers – have distinctive sounds, and different fabrics produce very different acoustic effects when they rub against skin. In film, the sound of clothes is so vital in contributing the ‘texture’ of a soundtrack, that a ‘cloth pass’ is recorded and laid over the soundtrack. The cloth pass contains only the sound of clothing, amplified to enhance the audience’s sense of immersion.

foley-recording-for-LG-commercial-sound-design-film-002It’s worth noting that clothes do not produce sounds independently, rather, sound is produced through interaction with the body. The cloth pass is not, therefore, a sonic experience of fashion, but rather of the body. The sound of fastenings in particular, suggests the donning or removal of clothes. In films that choose to deny the audience a direct depiction of a body becoming nude, we may instead experience an unzipping sound accompanied by a shot of a dress falling on the floor. In Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974), seductress Lili Von Stupp (Madeline Kahn) makes an effort to ensnare local sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little). Lili blows out the lamps in her boudoir, plunging the room into darkness, and leaving the screen entirely black apart from jug silhouetted against the window. We hear Lili as she enquires, ‘Is it true what they say about the way you people are… gifted?’ A zzzzzip noise penetrates the darkness, which presumably originates from the zipper of Bart’s trousers. Lili remarks, ‘Oh, it’s true!’

This experience is accessible to sighted and visually impaired viewers, but most other experiences of clothes on screen are denied to the partially sighted viewer. Audio description provides a solution. Ofcom provides guidelines that stress the importance of descriptions of clothing, noting that many viewers who have experienced progressive degeneration of their sight have visual memory, and are therefore accustomed to assessing characters in response to their choice of wardrobe [1]. Indeed, audio description often introduces characters through their costumes. The audio caption for Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall, 1990) introduces Vivian by describing her clothes as she dresses, ‘glimpsed as if in a peep show’:

‘A shapely thigh stirs and turns to reveal black lacy panties and a red T-shirt on the upper half of this female body. An arm stretches out from the bed silencing the alarm at five to nine… The girl eases on a stretchy cream top, attached by a metal ring to a short blue skirt.’

julia-roberts-artikel_5768565-original-lightboxThese audio descriptions in film serve the purpose of helping partially sighted viewers to understand the clothed character. They rarely exist to provide an experience of the garment itself. In the fashion industry, the garment itself takes priority, and perhaps this difference is the reason that audio described fashion shows have not been a logical next-step for the industry. Audio description has only recently found its way to the presentation of high fashion.

Ryerson University’s School of Fashion staged its first audio described fashion show in 2010. The description was performed live, by a fashion student with drama experience, who wrote the descriptions herself after discussing the collections with the designers and viewing the garments in advance. Attendees who requested audio description were seated away from the music speakers, and given headphones through which the live audio description could be heard. The commentary contained about 60% scripted description, and 40% improvisation.[2]

massexodus2The describer’s commentary did not simply describe the garments. It also introduced information that she had gathered while speaking to the designers, including references to the concepts which underpinned their collections. In this way, the description offered access to unseen content that was not available to the sighted audience, and so arguably offered a richer experience with greater insight into the garments on display.

Improvised description related to the way that the models moved on the catwalk to showcase the clothes’ details. It also included some brief descriptions of audience reactions (for example, when a model waved to the audience, and they waved back).

In contrast to audio description for pre-recorded film and television, this description granted access to much more than just an aural image of the performers and their clothes. It offered insights into the motives of the designers, and the experience beyond the events contained within the performance space. Arguably, this experience left the partially-sighted viewers more informed than those who had actually seen the garments with their own eyes.

[1] ITC (2000), ‘ITC Guidance On Standards for Audio Description’, Ofcom [online]. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/static/archive/itc/uploads/ITC_Guidance_On_Standards_for_Audio_Description.doc (accessed 24 November 2014)
[2] Udo, J. P. and Fels, D. I. (2010), ‘Re-fashioning Fashion: An exploratory study of a live audio-describes fashion show’, Universal Access in the Information Society, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 63-75.

Further reading:
Piety, P. J. (2004), ‘The Language System of Audio Description: An investigation as a discursive process’, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, vol. 98, no. 8, pp. 453-469.
Woolaston, V. (2013), ‘That shirt’s a bit loud! The fabric that turns clothes into a walking sound system – using tape cassettes and a converted Walkman‘.