During the summer of 2014, the Barbican staged its Digital Revolution – an exhibition that celebrated technology. From the humble home computer of the 1970s, to innovative special effects and interactive artworks of the present and future, it highlighted the way technology has come to immerse itself within, and drive, almost every aspect of daily life. Fashion is by no means immune to this convergence, and the show duly acknowledged this, by featuring garments by Studio XO for TechHaus, the technical division of Lady Gaga’s Haus of Gaga, and wearable technology by Pauline van Dongen. The examples on display went beyond wearable gadgets that are solely functional, such as sporting devices, and instead demonstrated how technology can be fused seamlessly with sartorial ensembles, breaking any boxy, plastic stereotypes and looking unmistakably like couture.
One dress from Pauline van Dongen’s Wearable Solar collection was especially striking. Smooth, cool leather moulds itself over the torso, joined by a simple, black, wool skirt that sits just above the knee. Generous, but form-skimming shapes prevent the look from being overly sexualized, and instead promote a strong, confident style, enhanced by elongated shoulders. One would be forgiven, from a distance, for presuming that the shining stripes made up of small squares that descend from each shoulder serve a decorative purpose only. However, the dress in fact incorporates 72 flexible solar cells, and is capable of fully charging the wearer’s mobile phone with just two hours of full sunlight.
This is just one example of new ways of thinking and working in the fashion industry, which are re-invigorating the existing model that has been in place for decades. The relationship between clothes and their wearers is changing: dress no longer must necessarily be worn passively. Rather, it is capable of responding, communicating, and even assisting. Furthermore, such developments create new links and dialogues between fashion and other areas, such as the energy industries.
Van Dongen asserts that this will help to restore sustainability, both in her work, through the clear environmental benefits of using solar energy, and, on a more general scale, by increasing the longevity of garments, on the basis that incorporated technology will raise their value (actual and perceived) and theoretically decrease their disposability. The implied sense of frugality and practicality maximizes the usefulness of something that is already a constant accompaniment in everyday life: clothing.
However, this infusion of technology into dress is not entirely new. For example, since the late-1980s the Cyber Goth trend has entailed distinctly future orientated and styled dress, incorporating technological elements such as LED circuits. However, it seems that the 2010s mark a new transition point towards usability and ubiquity within this phenomenon. Since the late 2000s, shoppers have been able to use digital representations of themselves to ‘try on’ makeup and fashion looks in a virtual reality environment, for example at Shiseido and Topshop. The launch of the Apple Watch in September 2014, blends design, function, and lifestyle, and Topshop Unique’s use of virtual reality to transport in-branch shoppers to the heart of its Spring/Summer 2014 catwalk show are two other uses of technology within fashion and design. It seems the Barbican’s crowning of a digital renaissance comes on the cusp of technology’s transformation of the ways we experience dress.