Consider the zipper. British author Arthur C. Clarke is famous for noting, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the zipper certainly qualifies. Over 100 years old, the zipper revolutionized clothing by providing a magical way for materials to be fastened with ease. Even when a zipper jams, it seems more like bad luck than a mechanical malfunction.
Nowadays, zippers are pretty uninteresting (except to NASA and Speedo USA, who combined forces to create more aerodynamic zipper seams for the LZR swimsuit that helped swimmers shatter records at the Beijing Olympics). But clothing technology continues to evolve: From Gore-Tex and Under Armour to no-wrinkle shirts, it’s not hard to find textiles that play a huge role in marketing, fashion and athletics today.
But recently a new trend has been sending shocks through the industry: electricity. (Terrible pun acknowledged.) The use of electricity in fabrics has led to advances into the realm of the previously impossible. Recently, for example, companies like Hexoskin and VivoMetrics have sensors built into shirts, allowing users to track biometrics like heart and respiratory rates. Combined with wireless communications systems like Bluetooth, these “smart shirts” have potential uses in everything from athletics to the military to remote monitoring of the elderly. Now your grandpa’s shirt can tell you if he has fallen and can’t get up.
Electricity can be a medium for self-expression in clothing, too. French electronica duo Daft Punk is famous for wearing helmets featuring complex LED effects when they perform — but now, companies are starting to put LEDs into ordinary shirts, allowing a custom logo or message to light up in the dark. Light-up shoes for grown-ups, anyone? London-based CuteCircuit takes this a step further, connecting LEDs (as well as a camera, microphone, accelerometer and speaker) inside a shirt to your phone and the Internet to light up your shirt with changeable, programmable images. That’s right: Your shirt can now display live tweets. Human technological innovation is complete!
CuteCircuit even argues that this is the next logical step in creating self-identity. The T-shirt, it claims in a promo video, is “the original canvas of personal expression. … The status update before the status update existed. The original ‘like’ button.” But although CuteCircuit wants you to be seen and to advertise both your own creativity and their product, sometimes that’s actually the opposite of what you’re looking for.
So-called “invisibility cloaks” — fabrics that, connected to a computer, capture images of the environment on one side and project it onto the other side — render the wearer transparent from a particular angle. (Research is under way on invisibility cloaks that use “metamaterials” to bend light around objects Harry Potter-style; so far, though, everyone who wears them has remained awkwardly visible.)
We’ve seen heart monitors, we’ve seen fashion statements, we’ve seen invisibility — and now a new dress by designer Daan Roosegaarde brazenly combines all three. The “Intimacy 2.0” dress turns sheer when your heart rate spikes, resulting in either an erotic experience with a romantic partner or a less-erotic late entrance to that lecture you just ran across campus to get to. Who said technology didn’t have its risks?
And, of course, no discussion of fashion tech would be complete without a mention of Google Glass. The nonprescription eyeglasses connect to the Internet and let you perform many tasks you used to have to pull your smartphone out for — photo taking and sharing, messaging, even navigating around a strange city. No longer will you have to use your iPhone to accidentally walk into lampposts as you text. Perhaps the sneakiest part of Google Glass is its marketing: So far, users have had to apply just for the opportunity to drop $1,500 on a pair. Google is breaking into the luxury and status market. But, let’s be honest: Google already knew if you were into that sort of thing or not. In a way, Google’s user profiling has eliminated some opportunity for self-expression.
Are these new outfits enough to make up for it? Will expensive eye-phones and chameleon clothes become the zippers of the future, or just another pair of light-up shoes? That, like all trends, is up for the cool kids to decide.