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Friday 30th of November 2012

Fashion and technology have been knitted together (pun intended!) for centuries. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City is opening an exhibition next week that explores how fashion has interacted with — and been transformed by — technological advancements since the late 1700s. The exhibit, curated by Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon, starts with mechanization of knitting technology and marches forward to the present, when designers are using e-textiles to create clothes that can (seemingly) think. Culture Craver’s Julia Levy had the chance to speak with the curators this week to get a sneak peak of the exhibition. It sounds fascinating, and Julia, for one, is craving it. (You can see the Fashion & Technology exhibition from December 4 through May 8, 2013 in the museum’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery. The picture above, courtesy of the Museum at FIT, is of a 1996 Jean Paul Gaultier jumpsuit, incorporating multicolored nylon and spandex with an Op-Art cyber graphic print.)

Julia: Most people don’t immediately think “tech” when they think of fashion. Why did you decide to take on this topic?

Ariele: If you think of fashion and technology, they have always had a very close relationship. They’re both very fast pace, they’re constantly evolving.

Emma: There’s been a lot of talk in the press and in exhibitions about really recent developments and collaborations in fashion and technology — the really cutting edge “wearables,” electronically and digitally programmed garments that can light up with LEDs, or play music, or monitor a wearer’s heartbeat. Those have been gaining a lot of recognition lately, but what we thought as really interesting when we were looking at our research, in the last 200 years or more there have been technological developments throughout those centuries that have really pushed fashion in new directions and have really in a lot of cases been instigated by fashion, like the knitting machine, the sewing machine, and others.

Julia: What are the top technologies that have affected fashion?

Emma: There’s a range through history. There’s a slew of really fun stuff we have that is really cutting edge, but there are also pieces from the mid-18th century to the present.

Ariele: Within the exhibition, we have things like the knitting machine, the sewing machine. We bring up things like the spinning jenny and the jacquard loom, which was really important. As we progress through, we have different materials that came about — including early things like celluloid.

Emma: We think of the 1960s being the age of plastics, but we have much earlier examples of plastics from the 19th century and also the early 20th century that show that it was much earlier than the 1960s that plastic was being used in these cutting-edge ways. We actually have a suit from the 1930s — a couture suit that is knit with a cellophane fiber. We thing of cellophane as being cling film that you put on food and leftovers, but in the 1930s it was a material being used by couturiers. It just shows that materials have different applications throughout history. They might be thought of as very high end and very cutting edge at one time even though we now don’t think of them in such a way.

Julia: Are there any materials used historically that might come back? Is cellophane going to be back in style anytime soon?  

Emma: There have been certain interesting things like cellophane where initially it was used by courtiers. We see it used later on with plastic fibers being woven into Japanese textiles in the 1980s. So you see these things kind of coming back and falling in and out of prominence. An interesting thing that surprised me when I first started studying fashion history was the use of exposed zippers back in the 1930s. We now think of them as being something that is edgier and not something associated with couture, but in the 1930s, everyone from Elsa Schiaparelli to Charles James were incorporating them into their designs.

Julia: Do you see any good opportunities for applying technology to fashion — something that hasn’t been explored, something you were surprised you didn’t encounter?

Ariele: Today, there are a lot of engineers working with fashion designers. A lot of the technology that they’re applying is first applied to the medical field. With fashion, it gets applied more for an aesthetic purpose. But they’re doing a lot of other things like e-textiles and smart textiles, and weaving microchips into different garments, so I think there are a lot of interesting things they’re doing with problem solving.

Julia: What’s an e-textile?

Ariele: It could do everything from reading the wearer’s heartbeat to sensing emotions to changing colors. They’re doing a lot of development in this — it’s been going on forever in the military, even using GPS within garments.

Emma: At the most basic level, an e-textile is a textile that is woven or knitted with fabrics that can conduct electricity. They’re electronic.

Ariele: A good example we have in the exhibition is a jacket from Infineon Technologies. It can answer telephone calls, it can play your MP3 player — it’s a good example of how they’re literally wiring garments with these different wires and technologies.

Emma: And a “smart textile” or a “smart garment,” at its most basic level, is anything that responds to the environment around it — so it seems to think. It will respond to heat, it will respond to pollution, or it will respond to light or a phone call or a heartbeat. It can be programmed to have an interactive response.

Julia: What technologies have had a biggest impact on how regular people get dressed in the morning?

Emma: One thing that has had a huge impact on what you and I and everyone gets dressed in is synthetic materials. Hands down, that’s the thing that I think people take for granted — how much of our clothing is synthetic, and how it’s facilitated fast fashion, and how it’s enabled so many developments, from extremely high end ones to extremely low end ones. The impact has just been so far reaching, on so many levels.

Julia: Is that mostly in America, or is synthetic a global trend?

Emma: It’s worldwide. Everyone, from the most avant garde Japanese textile designers to the fast fashion, cheap discount stores that you see in this country are incorporating synthetic materials.

Ariele: One of the great examples that we have is French designer Marc Audibet. He had woven lycra — and he mixed lycra with cottons and these very generic fabrics but he did it in a really, really beautiful way. He had these wonderful, elegant garments that you wouldn’t really expect to have stretch. He created a bi-stretch material that stretches in two different ways. Instead of having a complete lycra garment, he really mixed it into fashion.

Emma: Now if you look at so much everyday clothing that we wear, if you look at a lot of the content labels, you’ll see that there is 2% elasticine. That really was entirely made possible by this designer Marc Audibet. He was really the first to introduce this notion of a semi-stretchy garment, not an entirely stretchy garment but a garment that looks like a normal garment but has this slight amount of stretch to make the ready-to-wear fit a lot better.

Julia: Is the development of new technology in the fashion space picking up or slowing down? That is, were the big innovations recent or far in the past?

Emma: They’ve been huge in the past and they’re going to be huge in the future. The point of this exhibition in a way is to show that it’s not a 21st century phenomenon; it’s a continuous interplay that we’re only going to see evolve in future years.

Ariele: I think what’s interesting is that the public is starting to pick up on it now. There are a lot more books that are being written about fashion and technology — especially textiles. There are a lot of eco-things that people are trying to create and limited resources and really thinking about the future.

Julia: The online blurb about the exhibit says you are trying to explore whether technology pushes fashion forward or backward. Did you reach a verdict?

Emma: I think that it is a mutually productive relationship. When we wrote that blurb, one thing we were thinking about was that certain technological innovations in the fashion industry and outside of it have not always had a positive impact. Aspects of the fashion movement and copyright issues that arise with designers that are related to how accessible images of fashion and design are online, immediately after they appear on the runway. That is something that the fashion industry is having to grapple with — the notion that someone can be at a show and Tweet a picture of it before the show is even done. That picture can be sent to someone in a corporate office who decides to knock it off and sends it to a factory in another country to then have mockups made and to then have things on the shelf in a matter of weeks — before they’ve even been put into production by the designer that created it in the first place. We’re not saying that these are negative or positive things, but as technology becomes an increasingly present aspect of our daily lives, I think it’s important to be aware of those changes and to consider whether they’re positive or negative and to consider the impact that these technologies have on how we interact and do business.

Julia: So, the negatives you considered had more to do with communications and intellectual property than the fashion technology itself?

Ariele: Well, there are a lot of failed innovations, too. Think about how many thousands of dollars [some companies have] put into something that’s failed. Or if you look at some of the materials — some of the materials will make it throughout the future of fashion and some aren’t as successful.

Emma: Synthetic materials can be extremely volatile as they start to break down, and a manufacturer doesn’t necessarily know how a material will break down 50 years from when it’s manufactured.

Julia: Finally, hat are some of the specific highlights of the exhibit for each of you?

Emma: There are so many! I think mine is probably one of the smallest things in the exhibition. It’s something called the LilyPad Arduino. It’s a sewable microcontroller board developed by a professor at MIT. It’s really tiny. It’s just about two-inches or so in diameter and it’s circular. It’s basically a sewable circuit board that you can just sew into a garment with connective threads — threads that conduct electricity. With this device you can program a garment to do just about anything you want it to do — from lighting up a light bulb to playing a song to sensing the air pollution around you. It’s an amazing device, and what makes it even more amazing in my opinion is that the professor at MIT, Leah Buechley, who developed it, designed it so it could be used by anyone. She designed it as a do it yourself toolkit that is sold online with instruction manuals. You and I can pick up this piece of very cutting edge, advanced technology and go online and after reading for about 20 minutes start to create our own wearable electronics that maybe solve problems of our own. It’s sort of local solutions for local problems.

Ariele: To balance it out, if you go back in history, we have a dress that is an aniline dye dress. It’s this really, really brilliant purple. It’s from 1860. It’s really quite amazing. When we go into our collection and you go to that section, you can see all these really brilliant colored dresses and bodices. Those were the first synthetic dyes. Previous to that, the materials weren’t really taking to the dyes very well. With the synthetics, you could really achieve these very, very brilliant dyes. They were fade resistant. And it’s interesting because they were created by accident…It was a chemist and he was doing an experiment. He created a purple byproduct. Through a series of different experiments, they realized it could be applicable to textiles. Later on, during the 1860s, you see these really, really brilliant colored dresses. You see them in pinks, and in browns, and in purples and different colors.

Emma: The purple is a really interesting from a social point of view as well because before they developed these synthetic purple dyes, purple was so difficult to make naturally. It was reserved for royalty and high, high up members of the clergy that were incredibly wealthy because it was so difficult to make. So it really kind of democratized a color in a way. 

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