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Fashionable Technology

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. 

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. 

Bibliography

Barrett, E. and B. Bolt (eds) (2012) Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts, London: I.B. Tauris.

Bloemberg, N. (ed) (2011) Het Nieuwe Ambacht: Iris van Herpen en Haar Inspiratie (‘A New Craft: Iris van Herpen’s Inspiration’), Utrecht: Centraal Museum.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987 [1980]) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, B. Massumi (trans), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, M. (2002 [1964]) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London: Routledge.

Rocamora, A. and Smelik, A. (2015) ‘Introduction’ in Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: I.B. Tauris: 1-27.

Seely, Stephen D. (2013) ‘How Do You Dress a Body Without Organs? Affective Fashion and Nonhuman Becoming’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 41: 247-265.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books.

Seymour, S. (2009) Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science and Technology, Vienna: Springer.

Smelik, A. (2011) ‘The Performance of Authenticity’ in Address: Journal for Fashion Writing and Criticism, 1 (1): 76-82.

Smelik, A. (2012) Ik Cyborg: De Mens-machine in Populaire Cultuur (I Cyborg: The Human-Machine in Popular Culture), Delft: Eburon.

Smelik, A.  (2014) ‘Fashioning the Fold: Multiple Becomings’. In: R. Braidotti & R. Dolphijn (eds), The Deleuzian Century: Art, Activism, Society, Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi: 35-49.

Smelik, A.  (2015) ‘Gilles Deleuze: Bodies-without-Organs in the Folds of Fashion’ in A. Rocamora and A. Smelik (eds), Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: I.B. Tauris: 165-183.

Temporary Fashion Museum
Guus Beumer
EventArchitectuur
Maureen Mooren
Moniker

This project is part of the programme track Things and Materials and the folder Material innovation.

Fashion has quietly renewed the very idea of renewal by constantly selling the past as a future, thereby framing current reality. This contrasts sharply with the idea that renewal always stems from technological innovation.