One of the most frequent questions asked to fashion researchers, critics and commentators is if it is possible to create genuinely innovative designs. Yet the answer to this dilemma is pretty simple: while it is true that fashion follows cycles and some trends tend to come back after a few decades, fashion is also bound to reinvent itself through innovative ideas not necessarily developed by designers, but by engineers, scientists, biologists, and other professionals.
At present many of us may be imagining a not so distant future in which people will go around in uniforms fit for astronauts or in robotic armours, but techno-couture is not just that, as an exhibition currently on at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York also shows (please take note if any of you will be there in the next few days for New York Fashion Week).
“Fashion and Technology”, organised by Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon, curatorial assistants and co-curators of the event, takes a step backwards to the mid-18th century, trying to spot the very first progresses in fashion technology by looking at the early innovations introduced during the Industrial Revolution and in particular the Spinning Jenny, the Jacquard loom, and the sewing machine.
Among the highlights of this section there are a machine-knit coat and knickers ensemble from 1780-1800, a 1860 afternoon dress in purple and black silk taffeta made with synthetic analine dye, a wedding dress from 1866 that uses both machine and hand stitching, and rare celluloid accessories.
A jacket from the late '20s decorated with skyscrapers and zeppelins introduces the fascination Art Deco had with futuristic designs, geometric forms and new means of transport (View this photo).
Small parts that revolutionised the way we dress are also analysed: the zipper is explored through a Schiaparelli design from the early '30s (View this photo) and a Charles James evening dress that features a spiral zipper.
Techno-Surrealism appears instead in a black leather clutch characterised by a geometrical shape with an electrical plug as closure (1935-45).
While the Second World War brought new experimental synthetic materials on the market, the second half of the 20th century, saw the love affair between fashion and technology reaching infinity and beyond thanks to Emilio Pucci, Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges, and Pierre Cardin, the prophets of a new dynamic style inspired by the optimism of space flights and space discoveries.
Courrèges' collections usually featured close-fitting garments structured around a pure shade he called "optical" white; Pierre Cardin and Rabanne experimented instead with moulded fabrics - the Cardine and the Giffo.
Cardin, who favoured angular silhouettes, often employed structured fabrics and eventually patented his “Cardine” textile, a synthetic wool substitute that could be vacuum-formed into 3D shapes and bonded.
These garments almost mimicked in some cases space uniforms, but the fascination with the cosmos inspired a few years later Thierry Mugler's designs in reflective silver lamé that seemed to sculpt the female body giving it robotic forms, almost providing a wardrobe for characters out of William Gibson's novels.
New materials are explored through Issey Miyake's textile experiments developed with Junichi Arai, and through the designs of Yoshiki Hishinuma who combines synthetic materials, such as polyester and polyurethane, in his garments characterised by a rubberised look.
Cyber space may have been the inspiration behind Jean Paul Gaultier's 1996 jumpsuit in multicoloured nylon and spandex with Op-Art cyber graphic print and sci-fi moods re-appeared in Prada's S/S 2008 collection and in Gareth Pugh's creations, but the new millennium brought cutting edge innovations including digital technologies, sewable electronics, smart textiles, LED lights and 3D printing techniques that have radically redefined fashion or devices such as the LilyPad Arduino that are pushing forward the creativity of both designers and fashion fans.
Catwalk shows have also been revolutionised and the exhibition includes a recent video of Burberry’s 2011 holographic runway show and of Hussein Chalayan's S/S 2007 catwalk featuring his iconic mechanised garments.
But the tech fun is not over as the event also offers an interactive area: iPads allow visitors to see detailed views of the objects on display or to visit the exhibition website and comment about your favourite item or share links to social media networking sites.
What fascinates you the most about the main theme of this exhibition?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: Fashion and Technology have had a long relationship that dates back at least 250 years; however, while most people are familiar with the current state of fashion and technology, many don’t look back to see its rich history. Many inventions like the zipper, synthetic materials, and the internet are taken for granted, so we thought it was important to shed some light on how revolutionary these inventions were at the time and show how they have vastly changed the world we live in today. In recent years, there has been a heavy focus on the interaction between the two fields. There have also been a number of scholarly publications such as Techno Fashion, Fashion Futures, Supermodern Wardrobe, and Fashioning the Future. For Hussein Chalayan’s Spring/Summer 2007 runway show, he collaborated with the animators from Harry Potter to create mechanized garments and accessories, eg., a dress that changed its silhouette by raising the hemline to a hat that converted into two different styles via a remote control in the back. This presentation was the perfect melding, showing how technology can be implemented into fashion while also considering the aesthetic of the garment.
Can you take us through a virtual tour of the exhibition?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: There are over 100 objects on view in Fashion and Technology from the museum’s costume, accessory, and textile collections. The exhibition begins with a video showing Hussein Chalayan’s Spring 2007 runway presentation, which featured garments sewn with robotic elements that made them move and change – seemingly by themselves – as the models walked on the runway. This video is projected on a large-scale screen at the entrance to the gallery. Once inside the exhibition, the introductory gallery highlights the current interplay between fashion and technology with a 3D printed dress and matching bag from the Dutch design studio Freedom of Creation, a video projection of Burberry’s 2011 holographic runway show, and four iPads featuring an interactive timeline of objects in the exhibition, and various fashion apps, such as Style.com and Dior’s apps. After the entry gallery, the next room goes back 250 years and shows ensembles and accessories from the 18th and 19th centuries that highlight different innovations that occurred during the industrial revolution, such as the invention of the Spinning Jenny, jacquard loom, sewing machine, and aniline (synthetic) dyes. The exhibition then moves forward chronologically into the 20th century and highlights pieces that pushed fashion in new directions, from the introduction of plastic and synthetic fibers, to the use of zippers, to the later introduction of the internet and sewable electronics. The exhibition then culminates with a video that showcases currently developing projects in fashion and technology, still in prototype form. We wanted to end with this video to leave the exhibition on an open note. Since fashion and technology are continually evolving at such a rapid pace, we wanted to end the exhibition by looking forward at what might come next. This video includes clips of Google’s latest project, Google Glass, Suzanne Lee’s cutting-edge “BioCouture”, Dr. Leah Buechley’s LilyPad Arduino, Bare Conductive Ink, and CuteCircuit’s TShirt OS project.
Did you find it difficult to select the pieces?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: Narrowing down the objects to put in the exhibition was difficult. There are so many great examples of Fashion and Technology, especially from the 1960s and the 21st century, it was a challenge to choose which were the best examples. One aspect that helped us solidify what objects would be included in the exhibition was to frame it into four themes. We explored how Fashion and Technology have engaged with production, function, aesthetic, and materials. Production deals with how inventions such as the jacquard loom and sewing machine helped develop the garment industry. Function shows how inventions like the automobile and bicycle influenced the garments worn when interacting with those new technologies. Aesthetic illustrates how fashion designers implemented technology into the aesthetic of their garments, like Jean Paul Gaultier using cyberspace as inspiration for his 1996 collection. Lastly, material refers to the developments in the material used in fashion.
Which are your favourite pieces on display and why?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: The aniline dye dress because it shows the switch to synthetic dye that we so often take for granted, so the democratisation of a colour; and the LilyPad Arduino that shows the current trend among tech developers to create DIY technology that people can work with individually to create objects that fit their individual needs.
Among the new technologies on display – such as garments that can play music or monitor the wearer's heartbeat – which one do you feel will become available to us relatively soon?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: One piece on view in the exhibition is a jacket by the German company Infineon Technologies that is wired to function as an MP3 player. The jacket has a control panel on its left sleeve to skip and play tracks through ear buds that emerge from the jacket’s collar. This jacket dates from around 2004 but we’re already seeing similar products on the market – particularly in the realm of athletic wear. Athletic wear is where we will probably first see products entering the mass market that monitor the wearer’s heartbeat and perform different functions; already we have sneakers that have computer chips integrated into them to monitor and record the wearer’s workout.
There are quite a few contemporary Dutch designers who are creating forward-looking pieces incorporating wearable technologies: do you have any pieces in the exhibition by any of them?
Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon: We have a 3D printed dress and matching bag from the Dutch design studio Freedom of Creation on view in the exhibition, accompanied by a video detailing the 3D printing process. The dress and bag were made specifically for the Museum at FIT by Freedom of Creation in 2005.
Fashion and Technology is at the Muset @ FIT, Fashion and Technology, Fashion & Textile History Gallery, New York, until 8th May 2013. For further information about the tours and talks linked to the exhibition, please click here.
18th-19th century garments: (L to R) Machine knit man’s waistcoat and coat 1780-1800, cotton dress c. 1820, Jacquard woven dress c. 1844, wedding dress featuring machine and hand stitching, ensemble with a moiré finish c. 1860, purple aniline dye day dress c. 1860
Afternoon dress, purple and black silk taffeta using synthetic analine dye, circa 1860, England
Charles James, evening dress, black velvet, green satin, circa 1955, USA, gift of Robert Wells In Memory of Lisa Kirk.
Detail of zipper, Charles James, evening dress, black velvet, green satin, circa 1955, USA, gift of Robert Wells In Memory of Lisa Kirk.
Clutch, black leather, red plastic, electrical plug and outlet closure, 1935-45, USA
(L to R) Ensemble by André Courrèges c. 1968, pink paper dress 1968, dress by Cardin 1968, plastic disk dress by Paco Rabanne c. 1965, jumpsuit by Emilio Pucci c.1960, PVC coat by Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent) c. 1964.
Pierre Cardin, dress, fuchsia “Cardine” textile with molded 3D shapes, 1968, USA
(L to R) 1960s space age inspired ensemble by André Courrèges c. 1968, paper dress featuring rocket print, 1968
(L to R) Ultrasuede® dress and skirt by Halston c.1975, pleated dress by Mary McFadden c. 1977
Thierry Mugler, evening dress, silver metallic lamé, c. 1979, France
(L to R) Dress by Issey Miyake Pleats Please 1997, printed blue vinyl ensemble by Kenneth Richards 1996, cyber space inspired jumpsuit by Jean Paul Gaultier, Autumn/Winter 1995
Yoshiki Hishinuma, dress, black sheer polyester/polyurethane, fall 1999-00, Japan
Jean Paul Gaultier, jumpsuit, multicolored nylon and spandex with Op-Art cyber graphic print, 1996, France
(L to R) Ensemble by Prada featuring animated video by James Jean, Spring 2008, Cube coat by Max Mara, 2010, photo print dress by Akris, Autumn/Winter 2011
Prada, ensemble, green silk twill with multicolor print, spring 2008, Italy
(L to R) Ensemble by Gareth Pugh, Spring 2011, QR code patterned dress and tights by Louise Gray, Autumn/Winter 2012, ensemble by Mandy Coon, Spring 2013
Holographic runway show for the opening of the Burberry’s Beijing flagship store, April, 2011
LilyPad Arduino, circuitboard, 2007, USA, Photograph courtesy of Leah Buechley
Hussein Chalayan runway show featuring mechanized garments, Spring 2007
Freedom of Creation 3D printed dress and bag, 2005
All photographs courtesy The Museum at FIT, New York.
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