How audio description fails to address fashion

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Image source: Netflix

“Emily rushes down the street wearing a short green coat.” That’s the vague audio description given to blind and visually impaired viewers for one of Lily Collins’ first outfits in the season two opener of the hit Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” Unsurprisingly, what Emily is wearing is much more exciting. After an awkward exchange with her neighbor and lover, Gabriel, Emily rushes to work in a colorful striped Versace polo shirt and a blue-green Mugler miniskirt. It’s teamed with a bold green belt and strappy heels, then layered with a green Elie Saab jacket.

As you have probably noticed, these are two very different descriptions. The first is what is typically provided to those who rely on audio description – if a character’s clothing is described. Fashion is almost always excluded from audio description, as character outfits are rarely considered important enough to describe. Blind model and bodybuilder Brittany Culp wishes this wasn’t a conversation we had to have. “If you want to describe something in audio, describe it. Paint the picture,” Culp says. “Emily is literally in Paris! Paris is one of the major fashion capitals of the world, next to New York. So, of course, fashion will be an integral part of depicting the story.”

Audio description is an accessibility feature designed for the blind and visually impaired. It breaks down the action and non-verbal communication in a scene so blind and visually impaired viewers can follow the storyline. Audio description has proven to be especially useful in movies and TV shows where there’s a lot going on outside of dialogue. The mode descriptions, however, need an update.

Some might argue that fashion isn’t essential to a storyline – that a character’s experiences, thoughts, and dialogue are more important than their clothes. But if that were true, there wouldn’t be categories for costume design at every major awards show, let alone a separate ceremony held each year to honor the best costume designs in the industry.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, left to right: Ashton Sanders, as Jimmy Palmer (back), Dominique Thorne, as Judy Harmon, Daniel Kaluuya, as President Fred Hampton, Darrell Britt-Gibson, as Bobby Rush, Caleb Eberhardt, as Bob Lee, 2021. Warner Bros.  / Courtesy Everett Collection

Image source: Everett Collection

“What a character wears really says a lot about who they are,” said Charlese Antoinette Jones, a costume designer whose work in “Judas and the Black Messiah” was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award in 2021. “Fashion is a visual language that helps move a story forward. Before a character even opens their mouth, you see what they are wearing, their hair and makeup. These things help viewers understand what a character is could do for the job or what subculture/counterculture they might belong to.” Costumes from “Judas and the Black Messiah” are essential for recreating the 1960s and even serve as identifiers for organizations like the Black Panthers, Crowns and Young Patriots, all of which wear different colored berets.

But even when they’re not integral to world-building, costumes are still an essential part of the visual experience. The cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” isn’t about fashion, but 25 years after the series first aired, there are still countless pieces on the iconic styles worn by Buffy and the Scooby Gang. Instagram pages are dedicated to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s wardrobe, and fans are still trying to recreate costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom’s looks to this day.

“What a character wears says a lot about who they are,” Jones says.

In the season three episode “Homecoming”, Buffy and her classmate Cordelia compete for the title of homecoming queen in Sunnydale – only to be kidnapped just before the dance. One of the episode’s highlights is Buffy and Cordelia’s homecoming dresses – which is why it’s such a missed opportunity that streaming audio descriptions fail to describe what the two are wearing.

“I designed these two dresses. Buffy’s dress was borrowed from popular designer Isaac Mizrahi, and Cordelia’s dress was really inspired by ’40s movies and actors like Rita Hayworth,” Bergstrom told POPSUGAR. “And the difference between the two dresses was really emblematic of their personalities.” Buffy’s sweet red number is “more of a tea dress,” says Bergstrom, with spaghetti straps, a straight neckline, princess seams and a fuller skirt. By comparison, her rival Cordelia is dressed in what Bergstrom describes as a “very sexy” green satin maxi dress, featuring a halter neckline, a slender silhouette and a thigh-high slit.

Of course, audio descriptions don’t always have enough time to do such an in-depth narration of outfits – but it’s still important for those who write and voice audio descriptions to learn some basics. “There should be fashion knowledge, even if it’s just understanding fashion vocabulary. That way you’ll know how to say something quickly between scenes,” said Stephanie Thomas, a stylist disabled fashion designer who also worked as a voice talent for audio description, says. “As a stylist, I’m going to talk about totally different outfits from someone who isn’t. But as an audio-describer, I’m going to have to be able to talk about it in a way that someone who’s listening can And they maybe don’t know anything about fashion, so at least I need to be able to describe the color, cut, length and texture.

Invent Anna.  Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna episode 102.  cr.  Aaron Epstein/Netflix © 2021

Image source: Netflix

There are good examples of audio mode descriptions: shows like Netflix’s “Selling Sunset,” “Selling Tampa,” and “Inventing Anna” describe outfits much better. Culp recently watched “The Matrix” and found the audio descriptions of the costumes to be detailed and accurate. “I researched articles about the wardrobe stylist and the different looks from ‘The Matrix,’ and whatever the audio description depicted them wearing in the film matched the articles perfectly,” she says. “I already had a really good picture of what the outfits were like before I Googled them. So there, showing you the power of a full audio descriptor.”

Good fashion description in film and television is possible, but only if the companies responsible for audio description understand that it is something that appeals to blind and visually impaired audiences. Fashion is important to many viewers, not least because it inspires their own wardrobes. Outfits from hit shows like HBO’s “Euphoria” often sell out online – and like everyone else, blind and visually impaired viewers want to know what’s trending and buy it for themselves.

“I think it’s important that people who are blind and visually impaired have access to current trends,” Culp says. “Because it’s what we wear in our day-to-day lives. Especially if you work in an office or an environment that requires you to look a certain way…all of that influences a person’s ability to live his best life and presenting himself in the best possible way.”

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