Cochleate Couture, or Hearing A La Mode

Towards an Aesthetics of the Hearing Aid

Fame and fortune await the inventor of the aural equivalent of spectacles. – Seth Scott Bishop, 1906

Nothing is more serious than ornament if we really want to address the human ability to invent a planetary-sized ecology of technology as a designed form of organic life. – Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, 2016

An illustration of outer and inner ear anatomy in James Yearsley’s Deafness Practically Illustrated, 1863.

IF WE FOREVER CARRY our bodies as garments, to riff on the analogy that philosopher Michel Serres makes in The Five Senses  – an extended echo of Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 anatomical treatise On the Fabric of the Human Body  – then we certainly ‘wear’ our ears as readymade anatomical ornaments. Dome-shaped auricles of the external ear enframe the dramatic scenery of the human face, just as inner ears operate veiled, beyond view, beneath the delicate envelope of the skull. Not incidentally, the liquid-filled cochlea, or innermost ear, was so named by Gabriello Fallopio in the mid-sixteenth century after Latin cochlea for ‘snail shell’ and Greek kokhlias for ‘spiral,’ entangling its labyrinthine morphology with the figure of the spiral and water yet further. We are sensing agents, ears remind us, of aquatic origin.

Did innate ornateness at the biological register provoke the initial urge to adorn these extrusions with media – to decorate these thresholds to the perceptible world, and to mimic their baroque scaffolds in visual culture? As if to amplify the image of our ear-wearing, ear piercing figures among the earliest expressions of body adornment. Lore has it that sailors would pierce their ears after completing their first circumnavigation, turning the earlobe into a true synecdoche of the globe. The ‘auricular’ or ‘lobate’ style of seventeenth-century Northern European silverware, meanwhile, drew its vocabulary of forms from curvatures belonging to ears and mollusk shells – those ‘doppelgänger ear[s].’1 

Fashion and physiology have everything in common, for they share the locus of the body. Yet they become complexly entwined around hearing loss in conflicting ways, because hearing aids, as a design genre, trouble fashion. To study auditory prostheses  – that is, apparatuses to compensate for varying degrees of hearing impairment  – from the evolutionary perspectives of design and eventual wearability, is to unfold an active ‘politics of frequency’2 in fashion, wherein a criteria of invisibility is almost always adhered to in order to circumvent the detection of deafness. Commercial advertisements for hearing aids reach their hyperbolic apotheosis in the 1950s, when ‘body-worn’ hearing aids become a well-kept ‘beauty secret’ with the help of stylists and ‘Park Avenue authorities’ who expound the benefits of ‘Out-A-Sight’ aids in order to avoid becoming ‘conversation-exile[s].’3 In aids’ not ever being ‘in fashion’ or à la mode, per se, they become articulate objects about fashion  –  and how fashion expresses itself within oral and aural culture, while making clear that aural culture cannot be decoupled from visual culture at large. As if to enact poet Anne Carson’s adage, ‘show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding,’ aids make fashion talkative about its attitudes and affectations. Eerily, physician Adam Politzer’s remark in 1894 that ‘the number of those who prize ease of social intercourse so highly that they pay no regard to the discomfort and conspicuousness of large ear-trumpets is very small,’ remains relevant to this day (albeit if ear-trumpets were substituted for in-ear models).

An advertisement for a hearing aid disguised as a brooch.

That aural impairment is as old as hearing itself is evidenced by a Neolithic female skull unearthed by archaeologists in 1955, during an excavation at Roque d’Aille in Southwest France. By itself, the skull would not be especially remarkable were it not for a prosthetic seashell ‘ear’ surgically implanted in the skull, and still seamlessly intact. Dating to the third millennium B.C., paleopathologists ascertained that the skull had been opened with a rough flint in order to implant a seashell, which had been carved to replicate, in minute detail, an earlobe and concave outer whorl of skin, known as the pinna. Leaving a nine centimetres-long scar in the skull in its wake, this elaborate open-brain procedure would likely indicate that the shell’s purpose was not purely ornamental, but instead to serve as a functional conduit for vibration.4 (Did she hear multispecies sound as a result?) The skull figures, at least to the best of the author’s knowledge, as the earliest known aural prosthesis in Europe.

We may as well interpret the seashell-ear, a chimeric mingling of human and mollusk, as an instance of prehistoric cochleate couture from an epoch when mollusk shells were primary among forms of ornamental media, as indicated in archaeological records by perforated, inscribed and manipulated shells found across continents. This is implant and earring, both ornament and augmentation: not yet bionic, but somehow presciently cyborg in its implanted arrangement. Moreover, the seashell-ear is ‘worn’ and inhabited in a manner nearly congruous with ‘personal electronic equipment’ today – heralding the development of portability in electric hearing-aid models, which was driven by an unrelenting ‘philosophy of miniaturisation’5 that privileged compactness in line with a criterion of invisibility.

A shell prosthetic surgically implanted in a Neolithic skull, unearthed in 1955 in Roque d’Aille, France. Photographed by Gustav Sobin.

Designs in ensuing millennia, however, were less seamless, for auditory prostheses were not always ‘worn’ thus – if they were worn at all. Aids fell into two categories: those that operated via air conduction, and those that employed bone conduction. Air conductive devices, like ear or hearing trumpets, directed vibrations of air to the external ear to amplify sound  – a more sophisticated version of that elemental hearing aid, a cupped hand – while bone conductive devices usually channelled vibration to the skull from inside the mouth via dental prostheses, or alternately, via contraptions like ‘ear spectacles.’ As such, aids were normally conspicuous and encompassing to use, akin to musical instruments in needing to be tuned, played and performed. It follows, then, that aids were advertised as acoustical or ‘deaf instruments, speaking tubes (or trumpets),6 and hearing tubes (or trumpets)’  – even ‘flexible whispering phones’  – rather than ‘hearing aids,’ which enters cultural lexicon largely in twentieth-century speak.

Most auditory prostheses were disembodied, handheld appendages. The effect of this inconvenience spawned the invention of ‘acoustic furniture’ within the realm of interior architecture, like environmental camouflage, which included acoustic thrones, chairs fitted with binaural hearing trumpets, pulpits and vase centrepieces affixed with tentacular speaking tubes. King John VI of Portugal (regnant 1816 – 1825) commissioned F. C. Rein & Son (est. 1800) to design an ‘acoustic throne.’ The score for an intricate choreography of sovereignty, subjects knelt before the chair to speak directly into the open ‘mouths’ of animal heads carved into its arms, such that sound was conveyed to the King through a single speaking tube hidden in the back of the chair.

Left: A vase receptacle with multiple sound receptors, 1810, F.C. Rein. Right: Acoustic instruments, in John Harrison Curtis, 1817.

In truth, there were scattered exceptions to handheld aids. Popular wearable models in eighteenth-century Germany and France, for instance, included ‘ear scoops’ or auricles, headbands (in both monaural and binaural models) with shell-shaped covers for ears, and artificial concha or ‘ear inserts,’ often cast in silver or gold, for discrete placement inside the cavity of the outer ear. In their design, these were precursors to wearable ‘in-the-ear’ and ‘behind-the-ear’ aids developed in the mid-twentieth century – as well as to now-ubiquitous bluetooth headsets and wireless earbuds.

Ornamented devices reached their fanciful peak during the Victorian Age, when aforementioned F. C. Rein & Son became the first firm to commercially manufacture mechanical hearing aids, and who counted members of the British Royal Family among their clientele. ‘The Paradise for the Deaf,’ or so they proclaimed in advertisements for their shop on London’s Strand, the firm manufactured elaborate devices like fabric-covered acoustical fans, acoustic beard receptacles, acoustic headbands, bonnets, hats and ‘bugle’ ear trumpets, all concealable ‘accessories’ for a wide variety of occasions.

Victorian-era hearing aids disguised in fashionable coiffures, from the firm F.C. Rein & Son.

Across the device spectrum, styles in coiffure played key roles as concealing mechanisms, and advertisements illustrated how ladies might comb their hair over or around their aid to avoid detection. F.C. Rein & Son’s popular line of acoustic headbands, called Aurolese Phones, impelled wearers to devise bouffant-style hairdos that engulfed ears with tresses evocative of seventeenth-century auricular design, and which were frequently further crowned with hats – practically afloat atop the head. In sophisticated cases, aids were embedded in barrettes themselves, tinted to match their wearer’s hair colour. A 1913 F.C. Rein & Son testimonial echoes countless in sentiment: ‘[I] obtained an aural phone, which… is completely covered with hair, and nobody but my own friends at home know I wear anything.’7 Likewise, in 1941, Sonotone advertises a recent model of ear trumpet designed to be ‘concealed under the coiffure of the feminine wearer’  – which also makes clear that ear trumpets remained in production and circulation well into the twentieth century.8 

If pre-electric models persisted even as electric ones arrived, was that because they were chic in their obsolescence, or utilitarian for not requiring battery packs? Adolf Loos, a sufferer of progressive hearing loss and sartorial author of Why a Man Should be Well-Dressed, as well as The Mystery of Acoustics, was a proponent of the former, for he was renowned for carrying an ear trumpet to concerts in Vienna.

The first wearable electric vacuum tube hearing aids were produced by Amplivox and Multitone in England in the early 1930s, while in 1937, an Arthur M. Wengel was the first in the United States to patent the technology for manufacture as the Stanleyphone. Though dominant before, carbon hearing aids were quickly overtaken by wearable vacuum tube models, and companies including Acousticon, Aurophone, Radioear and Sonotone modified their production accordingly. In switching from carbon to vacuum-tube models, users commonly articulated irritation over the noisiness of their new aids: vacuum tube models had higher gain and greater sensitivity in the high-frequency range, which led to amplified clothing noise from fabric rub. Suddenly, clothing itself acquires a level of sonic agency as vacuum tubes transduce feedback into annoying audibility – an odd phenomenon, perhaps, to hear oneself wearing one’s clothes. Eventually, though, vibration isolating mounts for microphones were engineered to quell this.9  ‘Rustling taffeta, too, will sound lovely to you,’ a Sonotone ad promises, ‘because there’s a no clothes-rub with this microphone.’10 

Dubbed SONOWEAR, special ‘transmitter and battery garments’ were manufactured for ladies in tandem to accommodate battery packs, and sometimes aids themselves  – whereas men’s fashion was readily equipped with ample pockets for the concealment of device components. Women, particularly, were encouraged by hearing-aid manufacturers to experiment with modes of wearing aids to increase in ‘sono-charm’ value, by variously siting them within turbans, clip-on earrings and necklaces, as well as to subscribe for free beauty tips. ‘Write us for a free pattern,’ an advertisement by Zenith Electronics Corporation invites readers, ‘if you wish to make the special support garments shown in the pictures.’

SONOWEAR support undergarments, mid twentieth-century.

Interestingly, as items of clothing start to be technologised in such ways, or at least designed to accommodate and host technology to augment hearing, we move a step closer to the kinds of wearable prostheses – or hearables, in tech parlance – in circulation today, wherein clothing becomes the interface that helps hear.11 Credit Suisse’s 2013 report, ‘Wearables Are In Fashion,’ foretold a $50 billion increase in market value, calling it a ‘Mega-Trend.’ Meanwhile, the prediction in tech circles that 3D printing both one’s own clothing and/or personal prostheses will be common in a matter of years likely signals a future of additive fashion, where outfitting and augmenting oneself will become the practicable norm, rather than the exception. In 2016, Ray Kurzweil, an outspoken futurist and a director of engineering for machine intelligence at Google, speculated that open-source clothing templates for 3D printing will have become mainstream as soon as 2020  – once raw material options advance to enable facile fabric production.12 How different is this scenario to requesting a free pocket pattern from Sonotone in which to lodge an aid’s battery?

A number of recent interdisciplinary exhibitions at Cooper Hewitt, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Kent State University, among others, have centred around conceiving of disability as a space of agency within design. In 2006, RNID, the UK’s largest charity for deaf and hard of hearing constituencies, partnered with Blueprint, the architecture and design magazine, to launch HearWear via an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which intended to spearhead design engagement to compensate for a longstanding lack of ‘design investment’ in the field.13 In Cooper Hewitt’s Access + Ability exhibition (ongoing until October 2018), the SoundShirt and Sound Miniskirt were featured as vibrotactile hearing aids designed by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, the London-based duo who founded CuteCircuit, a wearable technologies label. Made of stretch microfiber fabric with laser-cut motifs, the garments were designed to be worn by deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members attending Germany’s Junge Symphoniker Hamburg, as sixteen embedded micro-actuator sensors that correspond to the instrumental sections of an orchestra transduce music in realtime through their wearer’s skin. No longer ear-limited, but haptic and full-bodied, such prostheses merge with the bodies of their wearers, becoming electronic exoskeletons and sensory second skins that act as conduits for the production of affect. As garments begin to hear for us, as they become sensorial, we begin to literally – and figuratively – dwell in our hearing.

What if so called ‘disabled’ bodies prove, in fact, to be better adapted than those perfectly ‘abled’ to evolving paradigms of nascent techno-sensory realities – better able to attune to, and to biohack into, their milieus?

As the world’s first legally recognised cyborg, Neil Harbisson is a beacon and pioneer of such new paradigms: an activist for self-design, or modelling altogether new organs and senses, Harbisson hears colour and sees sound through a visibly implanted antenna in his skull, which looks more like a divining rod. ‘I don’t feel that I’m using technology; I don’t feel that I’m wearing technology,’ he articulates in oracular fashion, ‘I feel that I am technology. I feel no difference between the software and the brain, or the antenna and any other body part.’ His partner, Moon Ribas, a choreographer whose magnetic sub-dermal implant transduces seismic data from Earth and Moon tremors into perceptible vibration in realtime  – forces that she channels in her performances – dubs herself a ‘senstronaut.’ Their brand of partnership becomes a referent for how augmentation, in an age of biosynthetics, might ornament itself to enable new modes of prehension at registers nominally infra and ultra – where one ‘tries on’ senses, or sheds of them, like clothes. Is hearing the new hemline? As oceans encroach, will we equip ourselves to become aquatic once again? Or will we 3D print chimeric ‘ear inserts’ in keeping with the first recorded mention of hearing aids in Giovanni Battista Porta’s 1588 treatise, Natural Magick, of wooden aids carved in the shapes of ears of nonhuman animals with superlative hearing?

For the time being, at least, flesh remains our first and last garment.

Neil Habisson at a conference in Riga, Latvia, in 2014.

Emma McCormick-Goodhart is an artist, writer and researcher based between New York and London.

  1. S Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Vibration and Beyond. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016, 160. 

  2. S Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010, 9. 

  3. Sonotone, Fashion: Your Passport to Poise with Hearing Aids Styled for Flattery. Sonotone, 1950. 

  4. G Sobin, Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999, 51 – 55. 

  5. M Mills, ‘Hearing Aids and the History of Electronics Miniaturisation,’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 33. 2 (April-June 2011): 118-143. 

  6. K W Berger, The Hearing Aid: Its Operation and Development. Livonia, MI: National Hearing Aid Society, 1984, 7. 

  7. F.C. Rein & Son, The Paradise for the Deaf: Acoustic Chairs, Pulpits, Vases, Conversation Tubes, Auricles, Martinos, Flexible Whispering Phones for extreme Deafness, And every variety of Instrument to enable the Deaf to hear a general conversation. F.C. Rein & Son, early twentieth century. 

  8. F W Kranz, Hearing Aids: Electronic Principles of Modern Hearing Aids and Problems In Design, Together With a Discussion of Audiometry and Other Considerations Pertaining to the Fitting of Instruments to the Varying Needs of the Hard of Hearing. Elmsford, New York: Sonotone Corporation, 1941, 5. 

  9. K W Berger, 89. 

  10. Sonotone, Fashion: Your Passport to Poise with Hearing Aids Styled for Flattery. Sonotone, 1950. 

  11. N Dunn, ‘Hearables – The New Wearables.’ Wearable Technologies, April 4, 2014. 

  12. E Paton, ‘Fashion’s Future, Printed to Order.’ The New York Times, December 5, 2016. 

  13. G Pullin. design meets disability. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009, 25.