Audio-Visual Equipment

Designer Andrea Sisson creates clothing you can play


he caption above a Facebook image of local musician/performer/activist Ethan Philbrick states: “This will make music,” which is true about Philbrick — he does indeed make music (he plays cello in local band Turmeric). But it’s also true about the garment he’s wearing.

It looks like a large wooden vest, and in fact it is a large wooden vest of sorts, with strings. It's one of the four wearable instruments designer Andrea Sisson created as her 2010 senior capstone for DAAP’s fashion design program.

Along with this stringed guitar/cello vest, she also created wearable keyboards, xylophones and a head resonator/gypsy viola that’s reminiscent of a backpack. While she didn’t physically make the keyboards or the xylophones (only the garments that contain them), she did create the stringed instruments from scratch and invented (with patent pending) the head resonator, which resonates sound around the musician’s head and out into the audience and includes two fingerboards and violin strings. All four musical garments were worn and exhibited at a recent "44" event at the Contemporary Arts Center by musicians, including violinist Eddy Kwon, for whom the resonator was created.

Sisson’s goal is to physically connect the musician to his or her instrument in a way that allows for a more organic creative process.

“I ask musicians what they would want if they could have anything attached to them,” says Sisson (pictured above with Kwon). “To musicians, their instruments are as important as their arm. Their instruments are an extension of them. And the music they create is an extension of them. I just wanted to put instruments into the garments they’d be wearing so that they can act naturally, walk naturally, talk naturally, sit naturally, while playing.

“It’s like bridging that connection between the music you want to create and you. Usually you have to sit behind this thing and create music, and instead you can walk and just be while you’re playing. Then the music just gets created. You are the instrument.”

Although she went to DAAP for fashion design, Sisson has since realized she’s a “designer” without the fashion modifier, but her training in fashion did provide the foundation for her to create these instruments.

The stringed vest form is a repurposing of a traditional fashion template.

“I basically replicated the sides of a jacket,” Sisson says of shaping the wood for the vest. And she credits her freshman year at DAAP — which teaches students basic coloring, form and shape — along with the Internet for her woodworking ability.

“For six months all I did was watch YouTube videos on acoustics,” she says.

Her research was supplemented by the fact that her father builds guitars. Sisson imagined the design, and he helped her perfect the acoustics. They also sourced the wood and fabric for the garments sustainably through donated items, including an old piano.

“My dad plays about everything you could imagine, so do my brothers, except for my deaf brother,” Sisson says, “which is really interesting. I think it’s the reason I like music so much, because he also likes music. He can feel it. He put these (instruments) on and was just like, ‘Oh! I can feel it!’ On his legs.

“Music is this sensory thing. It’s a sound thing, but I feel like it also creates a visual and it just encompasses you. So I thought, wow, to be able to actually create a visual instead of just having the music create this mental visual, like having it out there for people to see. They’re seeing things and then hearing things.”

This fall Sisson will move to Iceland to do research on a Fulbright grant. The program will fund her, as she summarizes it, “to be an ambassador for America for country relations, emphasizing doing things that better the world.”

“It’s really great getting a letter from the U.S. government saying, ‘We believe in you,’” she says of the Fulbright program. “I’m doing all of this to give to other people and better the world. ... People, because they’re seeing what I’m creating, it makes them feel better and it makes them want to do things, positively.”

Learn more about ANDREA SISSON’s designs and check out videos of her work at

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