Dressed to Undress

James Bond has a reputation for being well-dressed. He is equally notorious for his tendency to undress. His many encounters with Bond girls require speedy and easy undressing, and hand-to-hand combat often occurs with shirts removed or cuffs rolled up. The … Continue reading

The Sound of Costume

A colleague, Danny Graydon, recently conducted an interview with Alan Moore, during which they discussed Moore’s recent short film, Jimmy’s End. Moore makes a cameo appearance in his film, dressed in an embroidered suit and golden winged boots. When Moore first steps onto the screen, we are shown the costume before we are shown the man. For a while, Moore’s Pegasus boots fill the screen, and the camera does not reveal his face until after panning across the awe-stricken faces of every man and woman in the crowd that watches from below. Moreover, we hear the sound of the costume before we hear the sound of Moore’s voice. The Cuban heels tap as Moore steps into frame, and the creak of leather echoes through the room.

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The shot of Moore’s boots is reminiscent of the shot encountered in so many Westerns – the close-up of spurred boots as the cowboy arrives for a duel. These shots are remembered for the sound as much as the image. The scraping of heels against gravel, and the jangle of spurs, expose the eerie silence that seems to descend on every Wild West town as a hero and villain prepare for a standoff.

The sounds of clothes tend to go unnoticed in the real world. They are so quiet that they tend to form part of the soundscape that is a background to more significant noises. If we want to hear them, we must cancel out every other sound, and listen closely. In film, this requires all other noises to be hushed. It is a kind of audio-equivalent to zooming-in on the subject: an audio close-up. These diegetic sounds – that is, sounds that originate from something that appears on screen – are often considered secondary to the visual experience of film. They add “surplus value”, complementing objects and events that can already be seen on screen: enhancing, rather than adding to, the narrative [1].

Not all diegetic sounds originate from something seen. Clothing can appear offscreen, its presence signified by sound. These are “acusmatic” sounds, similar to a gunshot heard in a neighbouring room, or a scream from the off-screen victim. Such sounds often accompany actions that may be too distasteful to depict directly. When clothes make sound off screen, it may be for the same reason. The sound of a dress being unzipped can signify that a woman is getting undressed, without the filmmakers having to show her nudity. These sounds do more than simply enhance the narrative – they drive it forward. They describe events that are a crucial part of the plot, and without them the visions on the screen would be confusing or incomplete.

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The parts of a garment that make the loudest noises tend to be fastenings – zips and  poppers. Equally noisy is the snap of elastic. The sound of clothes, therefore, often does not belong to the garment, so much as to the act of dressing or undressing. These sounds are unavoidably erotic, signifying the transition between clothedness and nudity. Even when they do not involve fastenings, sounds are created by the relationship between clothes and the body. The body caresses itself against cloth as the wearer moves. It is perhaps for this reason that filmmakers choose to enhance the sound of clothes: they signify exposure or bodily contact without being explicitly erotic.

[1] Lupone, Mario, ‘The Sound Dimension in Cinema,’ http://www.ecayp.net/pdf/ftc_lupone2.pdf

Alan Moore’s boots in Jimmy’s End: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/23595/watch-alan-moore-and-mitch-jenkins-short-film-jimmys-end-here
Girl unzips: http://pinkfancyblack.tumblr.com/post/1359432781
Live and Let Die, Bond gadget: http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/48178/charlie-higson-reveals-favourite-bond-gadget

James Bond, the Japanese Fisherman

Part 2: The need for transparency

By all accounts, James Bond’s trans-status masquerades are unconvincing. Common consensus in the blogsphere is that his most absurd disguise is that of a Japanese Fisherman in You Only Live Twice. Now considered “racially insensitive” [1], this disguise challenged believability and courted controversy.

James Bond, Japanese agent

Sean Connery’s Japanese look was achieved with the help of a black toupee and prosthetic eye-pieces. Despite the dark make-up and kimono, Connery remains clearly identifiable. He is, and always will be, a 6-foot tall Scotsman. Although contemporary audiences may find it laughable, this level of transparency may be exactly what is needed in an on-screen disguise.

It is a long-established convention in theatrical performance that a disguise must be transparent to the audience for the narrative to function as intended. Indeed, audiences do “not expect to be fooled by stage disguise”. Peter Hyland observes that, in the tradition of theatrical disguise, “the audience does not need to be fooled by something that it sees on stage in order to believe that the people on the stage have been fooled by it.” They need to be aware that “an actor who has just entered [is] playing a disguised version of the same character he had played before rather than a different character”[2].

On screen, disguise is complexified by the fact that the actor is already in a form of disguise. Like all actors, Connery spends his working life permanently disguised. When an actors are celebrities, much of their career requires the performance of ordinariness. A celebrity may be reduced to normalcy through make-up and wardrobe. Though their famous faces draw in the crowds, their costumes must convince audiences that the roles they inhabit are familiar: ordinary housewives, businessmen, school teachers. Audiences must be able to make a distinction between the actor’s costume and the character’s costume. The first of these, the actor’s costume, must enable the viewer to look beyond the real-life identity of the actor to that of the character; it must be convincing. The second, the character’s disguise, must simultaneously present both of his acted identities; it must be transparent. The audience needs to appreciate that the actor is playing one role with two identities, not two separate roles. This is not Connery playing a fisherman, it is Connery playing Bond in disguise.

Transparency of a disguise may be enabled through plot. Audiences may be shown the transition from one alter-ego to the other, so that we can track Bond into his new identity. We follow him in the acquisition of his disguise, a process that sometimes requires 007 to resort to petty theft. In Dr. No, Bond steals a radiation suit so that he may safely enter a nuclear reactor room; In Diamonds are Forever, he enters a hospital wearing a doctor’s coat; In Moonraker, Bond and a co-conspirator steal yellow jumpsuits. On all these occasions, Bond must first incapacitate the original wearer of the uniform, typically with a quick blow to the head. In this way, the acquisition of the disguise provides a moment of light relief before the plot ascends towards its climax.


[1] Matt McDaniel, ‘James Bond’s 10 Most Embarrassing Moments’, http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/james-bond-10-most-embarrassing-movie-moments-223337438.html?page=all
[2] Peter Hyland, ‘The Performance of Disguise”, Early Theatre, Vol. 5 (1), 2002, 78-79.

Sean Connery, Bond as a Japanese fisherman, in ‘You Only Live Twice’: http://you-only-blog-twice.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/you-only-live-twice-1967.html
Connery in a henchman’s jumpsuit, in ‘Moonraker’: http://thesuitsofjamesbond.com/?tag=disguise

James Bond, the Japanese Fisherman

Part 1: Trans-status disguise on film

James Bond is a man of expensive taste. His tailored suits and Omega watches reflect a kind of elitism. He presents himself with an air of confidence that is unattainable to most, and that suave sophistication is a hallmark of Bond in every incarnation. It makes women swoon, and men envious. It also presents a problem. As a spy, Bond must occasionally go undercover. He must don a disguise, and eliminate everything that makes him 007.

Fashion is typically aspirational, reflecting a desire to imitate those of higher socioeconomic status. Bond’s wardrobe is no exception. The character dresses in a way that would stretch the pay-packet of any civil servant. His wardrobe is designed less for practicality than to invite admiration. This is useful when his goal is to bed a Bond Girl, or attract the attention of a mastermind villain across the floor of a casino, but useless when he needs to infiltrate a secret lair or blend into a crowd. These are occasions on which it is desirable to use costume to reduce status, and to perform a masquerade of normalcy. Bond must abandon all outward indicators of individuality and status: to perform ordinariness.


Bond’s disguises have ranged from the obvious (a chauffeur in Skyfall), to the absurd (a Japanese fisherman in You Only Live Twice). Bond is not alone in requiring trans-status disguises. Bond villains with often use the same tactics to evade capture, including most recently, Skyfall’s Silva. After escaping from MI6’s temporary underground headquarters, Silva achieves anonymity on the London underground in a police uniform.


Fictional spies are not, of course, the only people who have a reason to conceal their identity and status through costume. Dressing down is core to experiments in “trans-status disguise” [1], a practice that flourished in the late nineteenth century social experiments, and is still vital in more recent journalistic practices such as those employed by Polly Toynbee[2]. In 1890, Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a taxonomy of class structure which included notes on “bodily signifiers” of class, most notably, costume. In his text, Riis invited readers to covertly “be with and among [the] people [of lower socioeconomic status] until you understand their ways” with the aim of encouraging greater trans-status empathy. There then began a trend for articles in British and American periodicals that featured the observations of “middle-class [reporters] who briefly lived ‘working-class’ lives”[3]. The accounts of these writers reveal dress as core in the construction of a trans-status disguise. In 1903, Jack London expressed surprise at how remarkably attitudes towards him changed when he donned a frayed jacket. The jacket, he noted, became a “badge and advertisement of [his perceived] class.” By “vesting [him]self in class-specific apparel” he invited observers to make assumptions about his socioeconomic status, and in so doing created opportunities to “move freely” among social groups that had formerly viewed him as an outsider[4].

These journalists and sociologists cloaked themselves in a “signified cloth granting liberation and opportunity”[5]. The clothes reduced their status, masking anything remarkable about their profession or prestige, and they found themselves empowered. The disguises gave them a peculiar power of normalcy and anonymity, which allowed them to partake in activities that were previously out of their reach. For Bond, anonymity grants the freedom to watch without being watched back. As an anonymous member of a crowd, Bond is able to get much closer to the action without being noticed until he chooses to make his move. Dressed as a faceless henchman, he is able to infiltrate the most secure depths of a villain’s lair.

[1] Hyland, Peter, ‘The Performance of Disguise”, Early Theatre, Vol. 5 (1), 2002, 77-83.
[2] See Toynbee, Polly, Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain, London: Bloomsbury, 2003, a record of the experiences of journalist, Toynbee, who spends a period living and working on minimum wage in order to expose the difficulties encountered by those of lower socioeconomic status than herself and her readers.
[3] Schocket, Eric, ‘Explorations of the ‘Other Half,’ or the Writer as Class Transvestite,’ Representations, 64 (1998), 112, 118.
[4] London, Jack, People of the Abyss, 1903, cited in Schocket, Eric, ‘Explorations of the ‘Other Half,’ or the Writer as Class Transvestite,’ Representations, 64 (1998), 119.
[5] Fhlainn, Sorcha Ni, ‘Our Monstrous (S)kin: Blurring the Boundaries Between Monsters and Humanity’, in Our Monstrous (S)kin, ed. Fhlainn, Sorcha Ni, Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2009, 9.

Connery plays Bond in Japanese fisherman disguise, in ‘You Only Live Twice’: http://www.modernprimate.com/tag/chinese-disguise/
Javier Bardem as Silva in disguise, in ‘Skyfall’: http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/Skyfall