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Rebecca Willis

Applied Fashion

Touch, taste, smell, even sound – close your eyes, and clothes sense is at your fingertips

Rebecca Willis | November/December 2014

I don’t recommend shopping for clothes while wearing gloves. I tried it last winter by mistake when taking refuge from the cold in a local boutique. And I realised, as I moved along the rail, that I couldn’t get enough feedback from the clothes without my sense of touch. I could gauge by eye the size that might fit me, but otherwise I might as well have been shopping on the internet. 

Fashion appeals largely to our sense of sight—it’s all about the look, the adverts would have you believe—but what we actually choose to wear and what endures in our wardrobes is equally influenced by our other senses. Without touching the fabric, I couldn’t form an opinion about what I was looking at. The skin of our hands can, in a micro-second, distinguish soft cloth from rough, natural from synthetic, and we make an instant judgment about whether we’d like to be swathed in it. Often, we move swiftly on. A quick caress also tells us whether the fabric is going to be itchy—crucially important if, like me, you’d rather be stung by wasps than wear a lambs­wool sweater for a day. Without wanting to sound like the princess who felt the pea through layers of mattresses, I have to say that a badly placed piece of lace can render a bra unwearable, and a seam cheaply sewn with nylon thread can do the same to a pair of trousers.

Our sense of smell plays its part, too, not least because certain shops crop-spray their interiors and their wares with their signature scents. Zadig & Voltaire and Abercrombie & Fitch are two of the worst offenders on this front—I am planning an oxygen-tank-wearing protest one day. Some shops smell without even trying, though, notably those which sell leather goods—in the cheaper ones especially, the mortal smell of the tannery lingers on. 

It is a cinematic cliché that one character who misses another will bury their nose in the clothes of the departed, but like most clichés it’s based on fact. Research at Rockefeller University indicates that the human olfactory system is able to distinguish between a trillion different odours, which means that everyone on the planet can have their own unique fragrance—and 993 billion other smells will still be left over for everything else, from flowers to food, farmyards and pollution. Our clothes are like olfactory diaries, too, recording where we have been: in the days of indoor smoking, a visit to the pub left a stale beer-and-fags tang that outlasted any hangover. The after-aroma of a good bonfire, on the other hand, always seems pleasant to me. And when it comes to second-hand clothes, it is their smell—or perhaps the idea that they might smell?—that makes some people find owning them impossible to contemplate.

Clothes make noises, too, even though we don’t always notice them in the shop—too-clicky heels, buckles that jingle, a creaky bra (really), the hard swish of waterproofs, the soft burr of corduroy trousers. What we wear provides part of the soundtrack of everyday life, and there are online companies that sell clothing sound-effects to designers of video games and films to make them more believable. Not only can you buy “clothing rustle, acrylic”, for instance, for a mere $1.95, but you have 13 different acrylic rustles to choose from. It might make a fun party game to play the sounds and make people guess what they are—although the distinction between “gloves latex, put on” and “gloves latex, take off” is a fine one. 

For centuries, if literature is any guide, the rustling of skirts was synonymous with femininity. Edgar tells King Lear not to let “the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman”, and Tolstoy’s novels are punctuated by rustlings—of skirts, of starched petticoats, of a silk dress—on the other side of doors. Long skirts, particularly the voluminous ones of the 19th century, were an encumbrance, and rustling was their aural equivalent. Because women in those days were in effect property, you start to wonder whether the dresses had a dual function as a sort of cow bell or tracking device.

Taste is the least important of our five senses when it comes to clothes—unless used metaphorically, of course, when it is the most. The fact that edible garments seem to be mostly of the crotchless variety tells you all you need to know about that particular retail niche. My son, when he was about six years old, did go through a stage of eating his collars, and I know of a child who consumed most of his school blazer. But those were passing, developmental phases. Babies explore the world with their mouths. For the rest of us, when we go shopping—just like the wearing of gloves—it’s not really recommended.

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