Sonic Identity

The shift from clothing to fashion transfers us from the functionality to meaning-making—dress becomes a signifier. Everyday sounds of dress become a collective practice of sounding. Sounds are part of personal and individual as well as social and collective activity. As Jean-Luc Nancy calls it: ‘being singular plural’, being-with-one-another (Nancy, 2000). ‘Sonic commons’ (Auinger and Odland, 2009; Schulze, 2018; Voegelin, 2010) is seen as the field for sonic identities and fashion. In this way sonic expressing could be seen as a cultural practice that relates to individual or group identity—subcultures.


The character of a ’sonic persona’ (Schulze, 2018) is mainly dependent on its particular cultural and historical significance, which is sonically embodied in one’s auditory appearance: in one’s sonic acts, sonic performances, sonic roles or masks. ”This audible embodiment stores the emanations radiating from one’s highly idiosyncratic, one’s individual, biographical, and instantaneous sensory constitution” (Schulze, 2018, p. 123). Different identities bring different behaviors, for example: ‘sonic dominance’ when one is very loud, ’sonic resistance’ while reflecting/blocking sounds back, ’sonic camouflaging’ as being ’muted’/silent, and etc. 


The sonic expressions differ from visual ones, for example, underwear (the loudly squeaking plastic details of bra) becomes in this case a dominant sound of the overall sonic silhouette. The fur is considered outstanding or expressive in visual language, but when it comes to sonic identity it is the one that is silent/muted. What is an auditory extravaganza, a ’sonic fur’? 


Wearing a cow-bell or cat-bell on a human body questions the identity. These sounds signify other bodies that are embodied in the sound of a bell and the identities are merging into one ’sonic marker’. The mix of various identical sonic markers makes an interesting new sonic assemblage. What sonic identities could be there? Auditory extravaganza, avant-garde tribal cat, modest asymmetry, jazzy sport, disco swimmer, and etc.

Coming from textile to the fashion field the focus becomes the context: the commonplace for expressing identity. The sonic expression of the dress is a non-verbal sonic communication where one can express herself/himself. ”Depending on the specific situation in which a sonic event occurs, the sound of this event signifies a meaning in relation to this situation; thus, this sonic sign can and must also be interpreted as a genuine and intrinsic part of this specific situation. <… > Materiality and situativity constitute in confluence the meaning at play here” (H. Schulze, 2018, p. 148). Therefore, it is a question of what sonic materiality to choose and for what context. 


The context was one is expressing the sonic identity is related to the sounds already existing there, e.g. club, pub, busy street, etc. add different layers of sound. How loud you should sound then if you want to dominate? The surrounding space (walls, ceilings, floor, etc.) are ’shaping’ your sonic identity—reflecting or absorbing, amplifying, or damping. Therefore, one should think about it as the sound everyone hears is the echoes from flat or shaped surfaces, thus, a way of sounding in context comes into play: reflecting (for yourself or from yourself), damping (yourself or other sonic expressions of others), amplifying (adding a lot of sounding materials (quantity) or wearing a resonating material (quality)), isolating (hearing sounds just by yourself, e.g. cocooned in an isolating dress-filter).


Sound design. The symbolic content of acoustic events describes the fact that the effect and relevance of a sound signal always depend not only on the context of the stimulus and the perceptive environment but also on personal experience and the listener’s current emotional state. Therefore, it is important to consider how the sonic expression is perceived—what kind of emotions it provoked.


Think of the sound of a car engine. The engineers do not only have to focus on engine sound and driving noises but also on the indicators of quality and safety. As Wolfsgruber (2005) explains very vividly: “with a saturated “wham” the door falls into the lock. The ear hears safety. The electric window lift does not wheeze “uiuiuiuiui!”, but grumbles dynamically “Bzzzz!”. The ear hears energy. The blinker drums a dominant “Click-clack, Click-clack!” The ear hears control!” (Kilian, 2008, p. 44).

For example, at Bahlsen, one of the leading cracker makers in Europe, a development team of 16 researchers works continuously at the optimal sound design for its pastry. When testing their products, the noises that emerge when biting and chewing are being transmitted via loudspeakers into the research lab where they are analyzed in detail (Kilian, 2008, p. 32) since the sound when eating a cracker has a significant impact on the overall evaluation of the pastry, for instance, whether it is fresh and of refined quality. Similarly, Kellogg’s analyzes the texture of its cornflakes again and again to ensure optimal “crunchiness”. Thereby, the company not only guarantees a flavorful product quality difference relative to its competitors but also an augmented acoustic impression that leads to brand preference and loyalty (Kilian, 2008, p. 45).


One more example comes from the first ”portable music players”. There was a sonic trend which began in China over 1000 years ago in the Tang Dynasty—that of keeping crickets for their song. While mainly kept in the home or garden, the crickets were also carried around in small gourds, concealed in clothes, and worn like a portable music player. It is thought that the practice, started by the royal family, began in order to bring company and comfort to the listener. The trend quickly caught on and became a popular pastime practiced widely in society, and it continues to this day. 


As demonstrated with examples from sound design/audio branding, the choice for the specific sonic expression is very related to the emotions elicited by it. The sound could annoy or comfort, relax or scare, let you experience safety or control and etc. Therefore, the reactions to the specific sonic identity (expressing sound in the social context) become important when designing a ’sounding-dress’. As well, the attention for the sound perception (the way one hears while sounding), comes into play, such as if the sound is damped or amplified by wearing a hat or any other headwear. It becomes one more element for design choices and opens a space for ’listening-dress’.


To sum it up, the shift from the textile to the fashion field, from functional sounds to sonic identity, opens a complex area fulfilled with different design choices regarding sonic expression. The upcoming audio-visual sketches within the frame of a styling method demonstrate several examples of possible sonic identities and behaviors. The aim is to open up for sound-based thinking regarding the sonic identity, therefore these sketches should be considered as idea generators, rather than finished concrete suggestions. 

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