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.
It’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 . 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.’
These 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.
The 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.
 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)
 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.
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‘.