Cybercouture: emotional jeans or a twittering sweater

By Anneke Smelik 

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could generate electricity with your jacket? Or load your mobile in the pocket of your jeans? Or wear a sweater that can send a tweet?

‘Wearable technology’ is the new trend in fashion. To create ‘wearables’ (as they are called), fashion designers and scientists wire complex systems of microprocessors, motors, sensors, solar panels, (O)LEDs or interactive interfaces into the fabric, textile or clothes. Designers experiment with these ‘smart materials’ to create thrilling examples such as a dress that connects you to twitter, a catsuit that visualises your emotions, jeans that change colour or measure your vital functions. This is what I call ‘cybercouture’. Interestingly, Dutch artists and designers like Pauline Van Dongen, Iris Van Herpen, Bart Hess, Daan Roosegaarde, Marina Toeters, and Anouk Wipprecht form the vanguard in the international field of cybercouture. It may all sound like the far future, but it is actually already happening – that is, in the lab or on the catwalk. But wearables hardly appear on the streets or in the shops. While the future of wearable technology has been announced time and again, the praxis lags behind.

The question then is how can we get beyond the stage of mere gadgets and gimmicks. At the Radboud University Nijmegen, together with the Technical University of Eindhoven, and the fashion academy ArtEZ in Arnhem, and six private partners, we have started an interdisciplinary research project, Crafting Wearables, to advance wearable technology to the next stage. The research project is funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and brings together people from fashion design, technology, industry, museums and universities. The goal is to develop ‘wearables’ that are robust, fashionable and commercially viable. A nerdy outfit may be technologically cool, but it should also make you look pretty, be easy to wash or comfortable to wear. Moreover, it should add something fundamental and functional to your full wardrobe and the many technological devices that you already own.

As the body of the wearer becomes some kind of interface, there are also some philosophical implications of cybercouture. We have now entered an age in which we use technology with the idea that we can control, improve and enhance both our lives and our own bodies. Technology is 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. By wearing it directly on our bodies we relate intimately to technical objects and materials, further blurring the boundaries between body and technology. Integrating technology into our clothes will therefore have an impact on how we experience our bodies and our selves. For example, will the t-shirt that monitors my blood pressure make me more aware – or even self-conscious – of my body? How will it affect my friendships if my dress reflects my emotions without me having to express them? It is certain that cybercouture offers an encounter between fashion and technology, opening up to a future world where garments are merged with human skin, body and identity. The research program Crafting Wearables allows the Department of Cultural Studies to explore how wearable technology creates a web of new, complex and dynamic relations between the human being and her body, technology, and society.

=> For information on the research programme, see: http://www.craftingwearables.com/

=> You can download Anneke Smelik’s chapter ‘Draagbare technologie: cybercouture en technomode’ from the book Ik cyborg (in Dutch): http://www.wearable.nl/e-fashion/gratis-download-hoofdstuk-over-wearable-technology-uit-ik-cyborg/

Image credits: Kate Perry CuteCircuit Catsuit for E.T. Live at the American Idol 2011 . Photos by katy-perry.net via: http://cutecircuit.com/media/