Whereas in previous decades fashion’s primary concern was brand identity, today the focus appears to have shifted to other values than luxury and consumption. New technologies have made possible personalised silhouettes and industrial production of single unique garments. What will these developments mean for the future of fashion? The article below by Anneke Smelik is part of the publication ‘Cybercouture: The Fashionable Technology of Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess’.
Anneke Smelik conducts research into wearable technology and slow fashion. She is currently working on the research project Crafting Wearables (2013-2018) and the publication From Delft Blue to Denim Blue: Contemporary Dutch Fashion (expected in 2016). She is the Katrien van Munster professor of Visual Culture in the department of Cultural Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Smelik studied Film and Theatre Studies at Utrecht University and received her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam. Following years of research in the field of visual media (film, television and video) she shifted her attention to fashion and the creative industries. On 15 October 2015 Smelik gave a lecture on cybercouture during one of Het Nieuwe Instituut's regular Lecture Nights.
The article below by Anneke Smelik is part of the publication ‘Cybercouture: The Fashionable Technology of Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess’. In: Anneke Smelik (ed.) Delft Blue to Denim Blue. Contemporary Dutch Fashion. London: I.B. Tauris, in press 2016.
One of the exciting new fields in the creative industry is the integration of fashion and technology. Wiring complex systems of microprocessors, motors, sensors, solar panels, (O)LEDs or interactive interfaces into the fabric, textile or clothing turns them into smart garments. Designers experiment with these ‘smart materials’ to create thrilling examples, like a dress that connects you to twitter, a catsuit that visualises your emotions, or trousers that change colour or measure your vital functions. I use the labels ‘wearable technology’ or ‘wearables’ interchangeably, but I actually prefer the term ‘fashionable technology’, following Sabine Seymour (2009), to bring the field of advanced technology more decidedly to the field of fashion. I reserve the term ‘cybercouture’ (Smelik, 2012) for the futuristic look of the performative and artistic kind of designs that I discuss in this paper.
Interestingly, Dutch artists and designers like Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen, Bart Hess, Aniela Hoitink, Daan Roosegaarde, Marina Toeters, Karin Vlug and Anouk Wipprecht and form the vanguard in the international field of fashionable technology. In this short paper I evaluate how the integration of fashion and technology changes the cultural value of fashion, especially in the transformative relation to the human body and identity.
Body and Identity
Smart materials and smart garments can be understood as protecting the body or extending its physical functions. Although cultural anthropology claims that clothes function first and foremost as decoration and adornment, clothes are also an extension of the skin, protecting it against nature and society. Within a context of technology this idea derives from media guru Marshall McLuhan (2002 : 129-30). In the beginning of the 1960s he already suggested that all technology is in fact an extension of the human body. As I explained in my (Dutch) book Ik cyborg (Smelik, 2012), we have now entered an age in which technology is not only a bodily extension, but also a physical improvement, enhancement and expression. We use technology with the idea that we can control, improve and enhance both our lives and our own bodies. By wearing it directly on our bodies, we relate intimately to technical objects and materials. Integrating technology into our clothes will therefore have an impact on how we experience our bodies and our selves.
The bodily practice of dressing is an important factor in constructing one’s identity. Dressing happens literally on the body, and fashion is thus an important way of performing identity in its many facets.
The body, then, is not a given, but something we can put in shape or dress up for what I call a ‘performance of identity’ (Smelik, 2011).
Identity can be likened to the performance of a constant dress rehearsal. Or, to put it differently: our identity is ‘wearable’. Technology is indeed one of the major factors in affecting our identity and changing the relation to our own body, and wearable technology even more so because of its closeness to the body. Wearables thus shift and push the boundaries between body and technology. Understanding identity as a bodily practice that is performed time and again, fashionable technology offers alternative and new ways of transforming identities. Exploring the wearer’s corporeal and sensorial boundaries, fashionable technologies enable the body to perform identity in and through smart clothes. In my view, therefore, cybercouture extends the possibilities and functions of fashion as an embodied performance of identity.
The idea that one ‘performs’ rather than ‘is’ one’s identity, refers to a constructivist notion of identity: rather than an unchanging essence, identity is a social and cultural construction that slowly transforms over time. Identity should thus be understood as a process of continuous becoming: not rigid and fixed from cradle to grave, but fluid and flexible throughout life (Smelik, 2015). Becoming is taken here as a practice of change in the way that philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari approached it. The continuous process of creative transformations is what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) understand by ‘becoming’ (Smelik, 2014). One does not just become, but one always becomes something else; life is thus a process of ‘becoming-other’, like becoming-animal in some of the fashion designs by Alexander McQueen or Jean-Paul Gaultier, or becoming-machine as we can detect in wearable technology.
Becoming, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a process of undoing the ‘organized, signified, subjected’ body. Becoming is therefore key to another of their innovative concepts: the ‘Body-without-Organs’; often abbreviated as BwO (1987: 161). The idea of the body-without-organs is to undo the organization of the embodied ‘self’ as a fixed form of identity. This does not mean that the body should get rid of its organs – which would amount to suicide – but rather that one should re-organize the way in which the body is given meaning (1987: 158). As fashion theorist Stephen Seely argues, “Of all art forms, fashion is perhaps the one most bound to a normative image of the human body” (2013: 258). This is of course most true for idealised images of flawless femininity and perfect female bodies. The notion of the body-without-organs can help to counter these normative images of what a body should look like (Smelik, 2015). As fashion often probes the limits of what a body can do or what it can become, the notion of the body-without-organs elucidates how designs by Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess reset the central organization of the body and render identity as a flow rather than as cast in a fixed form.
Pauline van Dongen: Wearable Solar Dress
Pauline van Dongen believes that wearable technology should move beyond mere gadgetry, by integrating the technology into the clothes to give it a social or communicative function.
Pauline van Dongen and I work together in the interdisciplinary research project Crafting Wearables, a cooperation between the Radboud University Nijmegen (Anneke Smelik), together with the Technical University Eindhoven (Oscar Tómicó Placencia and Stephan Wensveen) and the ArtEZ Fashion Academy Arnhem (José Teunissen). It runs from 2013-2018 and is financially supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Crafting Wearables aims at designing wearables that are robust, fashionable as well as commercially viable within the production chain. It brings together the different fields of fashion, technology, industry and academic scholarship by working with the following private and public partners: Philips Research, Textile Museum Tilburg, MODINT, Solar Fiber, Inntex, and Xsens. The two PhD’s are Pauline van Dongen as designer and Lianne Toussaint for the social-cultural perspective.
She conducts a meticulous research on the behaviour of experimental and high-tech materials, combining new technologies with traditional techniques to constantly renovate craftsmanship. Above all, she is interested in how to make her sculptural and artistic designs wearable by combining technology with industrious workmanship. Paradoxically, then, the example of van Dongen shows that technological innovation in the field of cybercouture is sustained by craftsmanship and workmanship.
Working closely with companies from the field of science and innovation, van Dongen seeks to integrate for instance solar energy or hardware into the fabrics and clothes. The integration of different kinds of expertise has been fundamental for the realisation of projects such as the dresses and shirt of ‘Wearable Solar’. The ‘Wearable Solar’ dresses contain solar cell modules that are made of flexible thin film solar cells. As the cells cannot be stitched, van Dongen worked with leather to create slits in a pre-defined grid, creating pockets for the thin films that are connected on the inside with thin electrical wires. This technology inspired the aesthetics of the dresses: by noticing the layered construction of the solar cells, she then created a layered garment, where the solar cells are placed in modular compartments that can be unfolded to reveal them to light or worn invisibly when they are not needed.
As becomes clear from her solar dresses, Pauline van Dongen’s collections create an aesthetic of technology. Her cybercouture shows the dressed body as a ‘becoming-machine’ (Smelik, 2015). The term becoming-machine was introduced by Deleuze and Guattari to indicate a new process of becoming (1987).
In this case, the becoming-machine of fashion designs suggests to engage affectively with the technology that surrounds us and vice versa, because clothing is always intimately related to the body.
Iris van Herpen: Form Follows Emotion
Iris van Herpen’s fashion designs are hailed as ‘futuristic, sculptural and experimental’, as put by fashion curator Bloemberg for an exhibition of her work in the Central Museum in Utrecht in 2011 and in the Groninger Museum in 2012 (Bloemberg, 2011: 7). Van Herpen herself refers to her designs as ‘organic futurism’ because they are characterised by new technologies as well as by detailed handwork (Bloemberg, 2011: 13). Like Pauline van Dongen – and Bart Hess, as we shall see below – craftsmanship remains vital to van Herpen’s work. Each garment, however much technologically designed and manufactured, is finished with the finest detail by hand. In other words, the fusion between technology and craftsmanship is paramount. For her, science, technology and craftsmanship should melt together into a fusion where they can enhance one another.
Bloemberg describes the designs as ‘avatar-like’ (2011: 7), and indeed most designs seem to find their inspiration in a science fiction or fantasy world that is closely related to science and technology. To understand the special and often alien designs of van Herpen, the term ‘becoming’ in its sense of becoming-other can again help (Smelik, 2014, 2015). Throughout her collections, the 3D printed designs seem to be made of wafts of smoke, falls of water, rings of twisted leaves, or folds of bones. In a unique play of endless loops, folds, waves, bends, curls, wrinkles and circles, baroque shapes open and close. Forms undulate and fluctuate. Materials ripple, waver and swing. Van Herpen’s sensitive visual language is not captured in traditional flowing fabrics like silk, satin, tulle or organza, but in hard materials such as leather, metal, plastic, synthetic polyesters and hi-tech fabrics. She succeeds in catching a wave of water in an intangible form, a becoming-water in ‘Crystallization’ (2011), or a becoming-smoke in a design from the collection ‘Refinery Smoke’ (2008). Dressed in van Herpen’s designs, the models cross the boundaries of what a body can look like and become in-between characters: between humans and animals in ‘Fragile Futurity’ (2008), between mummy and doll in ‘Mummification’ (2009), between skeleton and body in ‘Capriole’ (2011), between man and cyborg in ‘Chemical Crow’ (2008), between the virtual and material in ‘Escapism’ (2011) and between organic and artificial in ‘Hybrid Holism’ (2012) or ‘Wilderness Embodied’ (2013). In ‘Biopiracy’ (2014) the models are caught in things that look like spider webs. And in her designs for Quaquaversal (2016) the models seem to become-plant or become-tree.
Van Herpen’s designs invite the wearer to inhabit the freedom of co-creating the body into new shapes. In her experiment with form and matter she calls for a different relation to the, mostly female, body.
Looking at any one of her innovative designs one can see how the human body is invited to become dynamic, opening up to a multiplicity of lines, notches, gaps, holes and fissures.
Van Herpen’s style does not only derive from her talent and imagination, but is also made possible by new technologies. She is always on the lookout for new forms, materials and techniques, with which she then experiments in her studio. Her work is thus an example of the blurring of boundaries between fashion and technology in such a way that the designs point to a becoming-machine and more generally to a becoming-other—spider, cyborg, doll, mumy, water, smoke, plant, etcetera.
Bart Hess: Organic High-Tech
With his fascination for manipulating the human body, Bart Hess pushes the boundaries of textile design by extending the materials through other media such as film, photography and animation. His futuristic materials blur the boundary between textile and skin. He has dressed the naked, often male, body not so much in clothes, but in a range of textures like toothpicks, shaving foam, grass, pins and needles, earth, shards of plastic and even slime. To create the latter he mixes hundreds of small pots of slime that he purchases in children’s toy shops with latex, paint and other materials. Hess then pours the coloured slime over a model in the studio or during live performances. While the model stands dripping for ten or fifteen minutes, Hess takes pictures or makes videos of the slow slimy process. One of the more famous designs is his ‘Slime Outfit’ for Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way (2010). Here we find an image that expresses perfectly, if not literally, the becoming of an identity in flux.
This is a Body-without-Organs dressed almost beyond recognition; a body without a pre-ordained meaning or function.
As the slime drips down, the body reveals its constant state of flux, of transformation, of becoming. Slime is not particularly technological, but it shows how art can push the boundaries of what a body can become, unleashing normative ideas of what a body should look like. Bart Hess has also produced many high-tech images, for example in his projects ‘Pins and Needles’ (2014), where he adorns the body in pins, studs and needles, ‘Echo’, where he dresses the body in liquid glass (2011) or ‘Mutants’ where he clothes the body in latex (2011).
Bart Hess’ collection of photography, animations and live performances shows conceptual textiles that blur the boundaries between nature and technology in an effort to create new human/animal/cyborg-like figures. Hess manipulates in-organic materials, such as plastic, foil, silicone, latex and clothing pins, to create synthetic skins and furs, magnifying and exaggerating their characteristics. The result is an ambiguous mix of biological organisms and technological devices. This is quite a different kind of cybercouture: the ‘wearables’ in this case are not really wearable because they are often made of materials that are temporarily glued to or poured over the human body, but they do explore the corporeal and sensorial boundaries of the human body. What strikes the viewer is the suggestion of tactile qualities; it takes a moment to realise you are not looking at hair, fur or scales, but at a range of strange materials like foam, balloons, needles or toothpicks.
Despite the futuristic appearance of many of his works, there is, in fact, very little technology involved. He has created many images through traditional craftsmanship and basic photographic and video-editing techniques. The outlandish forms that he creates are based on painstaking manual labour, while the textures often suggest the possibility of organic growth in a high-tech lab. The paradoxical effect is that he thus points to the impossibility of such lab-grown materials. Bart Hess alters the appearance of the human body or the human face into fascinating forms beyond recognition. Again, the notion of ‘becoming-other’ of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) comes to mind: becoming-animal, becoming-cyborg, becoming-alien, becoming-fluid.
The Future of Cybercouture Is Now
As Deleuze and Guattari claim, “We are continually stratified” (1987: 159); and this is often the case for the field of fashion. The cybercouture of Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess, on the contrary, point to ways of de-organizing, de-stratifying and de-territorializing the human body. In their experiment with form and matter they call for a different relation to the female or male body. In morphing new silhouettes, they produce bodies-without-organs.
Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess share an intense love for craftsmanship; each of them likes to engage hands-on with the materiality of textiles and textures. In my view, the renewed focus on craftsmanship is intimately connected to the technological world we live in. As Richard Sennett writes, ‘[…] technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination’ (2008: 10). The artisanal qualities that are imbibed in craftsmanship bring the technologies within the grip of our hands, making the high-tech world more human and accessible. Where for Sennett it seems to be impossible or utopian for craftsmen to work with the machines productively (2008: 118), the Dutch designers are keen to combine craftsmanship with technology; it is not a question of one excluding the other—they go hand in hand. Here we can harp back to the original Greek meaning of the word techne: art, skill, craft. The focus on craftsmanship betrays a new interest in the materiality of matter in a high-tech world of virtual technologies (Barrett and Bolt, 2012). While van Dongen, van Herpen and Hess focus first and foremost on the materiality of textiles, as fashion designers they are also interested in the materiality of the human skin and body.
The notion of materiality allows us to focus on the actual matter of technology and how our – material – bodies relate, often intimately, to the technical objects that enhance our clothes and our selves (Rocamora and Smelik, 2015). There is no doubt that technological innovations will have a deep impact on the meaning and communication of clothes and fashion. If technologically enhanced clothes can measure temperatures, chemical processes or vital functions, sense movement and position, or have expressive qualities, they will change the relation of the wearers to themselves as well as transform the communication to and with others.
The fact that the garments are worn on the body increases the urgency to take into account the body’s materiality.
Perhaps fashionable technology can develop ways of integrating the body’s tactility and sensitivity into the design. This is where I think the futuristic designs of van Dongen, van Herpen and Hess can help us to shape and change our identities differently.
Moving in-between art, fashion and technology, Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess experiment with the ways in which we can shape our bodies or perform our identities. Clearly, they move us out of the comfort zone of our wardrobes into a fantasy world, where they take pleasure in confusing boundaries between human and cyborg, or human and animal, but also shift ambiguous borders between skin and textile, organic and technological, material and digital. Their cybercouture shares a futuristic outlook, opening up a horizon beyond conventional fashion. In their shared fascination for stretching the boundaries of the human body, they tempt the viewer or wearer to put his/her identity at play. This play with identity can be understood – following Deleuze and Guattari – as a process of ‘becoming’. More specifically, they push the boundaries of what a body can become. This is where the force of the notion of the body-without-organs comes into play. The designs by Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen and Bart Hess undo – tentatively and temporarily – the central organization of the body. The work of these designers thus shows how identity can become more fluid and flexible (Smelik, 2015). These three Dutch designers ask us to engage with the fusion of art, fashion and wearable technology, embarking on the transformative process of becoming. The strange shapes, forms, textiles and materials invite a reflection on new forms of both embodiment and human identity. By reshaping the human body beyond its finite contours, cybercouture offers an encounter between fashion and technology, opening up to a future world where garments are merged with human skin, body and identity.
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