Dimensions of Dress: the Sensorial Aspects of Wearing
The way our clothes feel, smell and even sound plays a significant part in the wearing experience. Let’s have a closer look at the familiar everyday activity that exceeds the visual.
We often consider and evaluate our clothes for their visual aspects, asking ourselves questions such as: Can I wear these things together? Does this colour work for me? These aspects are of course important for style and aesthetics, and for fashion. However, there is more to our clothes than their aesthetic qualities. The act of dressing, and wearing clothes, is a multi-sensory activity. It is not only perceived through our eyes but felt, heard and smelled.
My fascination for the affective side of dressing stems from my master’s dissertation research on memories of and in clothing. A striking amount of recollections revolved around the (remembered) sensory experience of wearing clothes. I find this affective side of wearing particularly interesting because it does not explicitly relate to the concept of fashion. These experiences apply to everyone since even those who claim not to care about fashion do (typically) get dressed on a daily basis. We are all wearers after all.
Stories of clothes often centre around the (recollected) sensory aspects of wearing them. While the visual aspects are most certainly important, it’s not exclusively about the looks. The materiality of clothing is of particular importance when we discuss the act of wearing outside of what is available to the eyes. The material properties of clothes matter for what we feel when we wear them; the cut, construction, composition, and weight of the fabric define what clothes do to us and how they make us feel.
While the development of digital fashion might bring some change to the premise, we still wear our clothes on our bodies. We cover bare skin with spun yarns that have been turned into knitted or woven fabrics as a means of protection and to make ourselves socially presentable. The experience of wearing, therefore, is a tangible one. One in which the garment’s materiality is mediated by the human skin: the interaction of the human body and its protective or comforting layers.
What we experience is determined by the composition, textures, and surfaces of these fibres and fabrics. We perceive these as sensations on our skin and they make us feel certain things: safe, cosy, comfortable or perhaps irritated. Think, for example, about the snug feeling of soft cashmere on a cold day — guess what I’m currently wearing as I write this — or the sensations of plush-textured fleece on the skin.
The way we perceive our clothes is inherently linked to the material properties of the garments we wear. A clear-cut and perhaps recognizable example is the case of sheep wool. Based on the conversations I had during my dissertation research and afterwards, I can say that one of the world’s oldest fibres is definitely not universally loved. For a fibre that can take many different forms, it is striking how often it is demonised. “Itchy and prickly” are occurring descriptions I have encountered in both my research and in everyday conversations. In general, it appears that coarse heavy knits are the main offender but I’ve heard similar stories of the woven variety. Interestingly, bad experiences seem to linger. The once-experienced ‘itchiness’ of a wool garment appears to be enough to swear off the fibre for eternity.
I also want to invite you to consider the fragranced sensation of wearing, or, in other words, the olfactory experience of clothes. Our garments carry the potential to sustain scents or to develop them. Think about the unmistakable smell of leather, sometimes in combination with polishing conditioner, or — another example I pulled from my research — the distinctive (mal)odour of second hand that signifies the perceivable traces of previous ownership. These perceived experiences arise from the ability of the fibres to hold on to scent molecules. The smell of garments can play an important part in emotional attachment too: we may find comfort in smelling the ‘signature’ fragrance of a family members’ laundry detergent or attempt to trace the scent of a lost loved one in the garments they once wore and left behind.
Lastly, we can experience our dressing practices through sound. Think about the rustle of crisp linen or the jingling sound of metal jewellery that arises as we move. The auditory sensation of wearing is particularly apparent in the case of shoes. We may perceive our own walking pace by the clicking sound of heels on the pavement or puzzle out who approaches based on the rhythm of their steps, mediated by the materiality of the shoe soles. Our choice of footwear and the design of the shoe determines how we walk, our pace, the length of our steps.
As wearers, we experience things — life — in our clothes. We also experience our clothes every day. While the above-mentioned examples might be recognizable, and if not at least imaginable, they reflect the very personal and intimate aspects of our dressing practices. Giving them some more consideration might help us understand why garments make us feel certain ways. It is worth giving it a thought next time you stand in front of your wardrobe.
As always, we’re curious to know your experiences. So if you have any, please do share.
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