From digital dresses to remote-control couture, Techno Fashion exposes the revolutionary interface between contemporary fashion and technology. Wearable cameras, wireless communicators, metallic nodules and electronic embroidery may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these devices are real enough to revolutionize the meaning and function of fashion forever. Right now, teams of chemists, physicists, fashion designers and engineers are busy creating the high-tech future of fashion. Tomorrow’s garments will do more than just look good and feel great: they will have an intelligence of their own. You will know, because they will tell you.
These visionary designs are known collectively as ‘techno fashion’; their technical abilities are made possible by wireless electronic devices fully integrated into fabrics and accessories. As personal electronic devices became adapted for wear as jewellery or accessories, the scope to integrate them into fabric became apparent. Mobile phones, personal stereos, laptops, digital organizers and music players are being fully integrated into items of clothing to form part of a wearable ‘body area network’ that can also surf the Web, monitor vital signs and even administer medication through the wearer’s skin. These systems are activated by sensors that respond to voice-recognition software and body movement, and are programmed to detect and respond to other networks in the home, office or urban environments.
The potential of techno fashions may have profound implications for our experiences of body and mind, our communication abilities, health care and lifestyle. One of the obvious questions triggered by this new genre is why science tuned in to the aesthetics and sensibilities of fashion in the first place. Fashion, as an essential component of everyday life, provides the ideal means for information technologies to be constantly accessible and widely relied upon as they become indistinguishable from clothing. Fashion also allows technologies to engage with the human body in a comfortable and aesthetic zed form. Each new generation of technology will have multiple opportunities to market itself as the ephemeral trends of fashion bring it to the consumer with each new look.
Techno fashions will also function in an industrial context. The military is exploring how clothing can be better adapted to equip soldiers for battle and reconnaissance missions, and security companies are developing wearable surveillance systems that transmit information at high speed. Health care promises to be one of the biggest markets for techno fashion, but, ironically, the high-frequency electromagnetic waves used to operate techno systems create potential health hazards because of their proximity to the body. While industrial research into techno fashion holds the potential to turn every wearer into an urban warrior or self-diagnostic doctor, it also reveals that there are considerable risks associated with its use.
One of the most ambitious intelligent clothing projects to date was the development of the ‘i-Wear’ prototypes created by Starlab, a scientific research laboratory based in Brussels. With the technology of the Internet and cellular communication already changing the way most of the world works, lives, shops and even thinks, Starlab predicted that fashion was also ready to undergo significant changes, even transcending its medium. Starlab placed fashion on the cutting edge of both marginal science and advanced technology by acknowledging fashion’s inherent mobility and communicative ability and used the rubric of science to amplify these. This radically altered the relationship between science, which had traditionally dismissed fashion as frivolous, and fashion, which is now heralded as a legitimate area of enquiry and critique.
The impact of technology is also breeding a generation of designers-cum-scientists who use technology to probe new territories and fresh directions. These designers are more interested in fitting clothing with personal thermostats, remote-control systems, signal transmitters and power grids than following colour trends or seasonal styles. Their designs explore the extent to which dress can detect and respond to temperature fluctuations, identify and combat bacteria, screen out ultraviolet rays, change colour and wick away moisture. 1 Their work is even changing the accepted fashion vocabulary – they describe their clothing as being engineered, constructed, processed and installed rather than sewn and manufactured. The concept of ‘couture’ has also been redefined and updated, moving away from the traditional salon to reference works of designers who tend to produce multiples and prêt-a-porter ranges.
Hussein Chalayan was one of the first of this new breed to pioneer wireless garments activated by remote control. Chalayan uses high-tech systems and materials to establish a dialogue between the wearer and the environment, while exploring the extent to which fashion, interiors and architecture can be integrated in a single design. According to Chalayan, ‘This way of thinking about fashion is still quite new to the fashion world, but it’s what is moving things forward.’ 2 Though Alexander McQueen is best known for his unique approach to the body and the use of cutting-edge materials, he also shares Chalayan’s vision: ‘As for the future, technology is what will move fashion forward, the new fabrics and engineering. I cannot wait to do a seamless suit, where you just climb in and that’s it.’
As the boundaries between clothing and machine are reconfigured, the roles, functions and identities traditionally associated with codes of dress are also changing. Both designers and consumers find that the Internet is having a marked impact on fashion and is rapidly becoming a new platform from which fashion can be shown, designed and purchased interactively. Pia Myrvold is one of the first to explore the possibilities offered by cyberspace, where she creates her innovative range of couture inspired clothing via her website. Myrvold’s departure from conventional fashion results from her mission to circulate the ideas behind her collections simultaneously with her clothes, using sounds, images, films and texts on her website to give her collections a new dimension. Cyberspace also provides a platform where fashion shows can be webcast to a global audience by downloading catwalk images or streaming live shows digitally. In fact, digital technology creates a new format for ‘virtual’ fashion shows that feature models, catwalks and music able to be projected in practically any venue. This enables designers like Simon Thorogood to present their collections using a computerized catwalk show with virtual models to give viewers scope to interact with the running of the show. Digital systems also lead to a wealth of possibilities for clothing construction and fabric design.
The dialogue between technology and fashion is nothing new. Looking back over the past two centuries reveals how fashion itself can be considered to be a history of technology. From the publication of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, the possibilities and potentials that technology held for clothing fascinated fashion and science alike. At a time when the design techniques used to create crinolines, corsets and soldier’s uniforms were considered to be technical innovations, the spacesuits that Verne’s fictitious characters wore would have been a nineteenth-century fashion fantasy. The principle of a spacesuit suggested that clothing could perform tasks and penetrate environments previously unthinkable, and that humans could even survive in a portable microcosm that would carry them through unexplored worlds. As the idea spread it became a topic for journals and novels, eventually creating the science fiction genre of the twentieth century. By 1929, American comic-strip character Buck Rogers was depicted travelling in space, wearing an armour-like metal suit with a glass helmet, carrying radio transmitters and oxygen tanks.
Even couture practices are being redefined by technology as scanning devices map individual sizes to produce a ‘couture’ garment tailored to an individual fit. DuPont’s three-dimensional colour Body Scanner uses lasers to enable designers to pinpoint exactly how the body of today has changed from conventional sizing. Pia Myrvold’s vision of cybercouture is premised on consumers having three-dimensional body scans available to email designers, enabling them to craft made to measure garments purely through e-commerce transactions. This is already generating a scientific analysis of shaping that can chart and predict the evolution of the human body as it transforms along with emerging fashion trends. The use of this advanced technology has helped create the type of ‘Seamless’ technology McQueen is anticipating.
Fashion’s potential to engineer and enhance traditional materials, replace computerized devices and assume new forms entirely promise to forever disrupt the historical narrative of fashion evolution. The fact that technicians and designers are engaging in promiscuous collaborations promises that fashion will not desist – but opens a forum for debating what forms it will take. Unlike previous generations of designers who looked to the past to recycle previous eras, these designers now focus on the high-tech future to forge new directions, moving fashion drastically forward and charging it with an optimism not felt in fashion since the 1960s. With the possibilities technology offers, fashion may never look back again.
Marshall McLuhan (1994), Understanding Media, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 119–20.
Scott Lafee, ‘Geek Chic’, The New Scientist, Vol 169, Issue 2279, p. 33.
Susan Sidlauskas (1982), Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Committee on the Visual Arts.
Paul Virilio (1996), Refuge Wear, Paris: Editions Jean Michel Place.
Valerie Steele (1996), Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 27.