Vector 287: Fashion and SF

zero history gibsonBy Ricardo Suazo

Given that 2017 saw the launch of various SF blockbusters, when looking for the best of fashion one would be forgiven for turning to these highly visual, big budget productions. Wonder Woman, Blade Runner, Star Trek and Star Wars all made a return to our screens. However, the year’s most significant SF-related fashion events are to be found elsewhere. This is because in most cases the fashion references from these productions rely on a retro-futuristic vision, one which emphasises a post-apocalyptic, hyper-sexualised, Amazonian aesthetic.

An alternative would be to look to the catwalk, to the work of designers like Iris Van Herpen, Rick Owens or Comme des Garçons, all of whom share a reputation for futuristic, SF-inspired fashion. Whilst interesting, these proposals are not new, and certainly not representative of the mood in the industry. If anything, the fashion industry seems to be falling out of love with digital technologies. For example Hussein Chalayan’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection (shown in September 2017) was a commentary on how digital technologies can veil individual identity. This was only a year after the London-based designer showed a collection – in collaboration with Intel – which included accessories that could ‘read’ the wearer’s emotions and transform them into visuals displayed on a large screen.

The truth is, the best of fashion in SF in 2017 came neither from films nor from the catwalks of Paris, London, New York or Milan. Instead, it came from startups and technology giants in the Wearable Technology field, who are forcing us to re-think how we conceive the human body. In this space, fashion is less suggestive of cyberpunk or Matrix-inspired SF, and more reminiscent of near-future dystopias such as Black Mirror or Channel 4’s Humans – an aesthetic which insists on the innocuousness of the cyborg, often with an aura of artful temperance that is more normcore and humblebrag than it is minimalism. 

The term ‘Wearable Technology’ is often used broadly to refer to smartwatches, fitness trackers and VR gadgets. Whilst those have become mainstream in 2017, it is really connected garments that provide a reason for excitement. 2017 will go down as the year in which wearable technology finally moved away from health monitoring bracelets and chunky VR glasses, and gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘Make sure you wear something smart.’ It was also a year in which the influence of SF in scientific and technological research was undoubtedly demonstrated: once more, we see science fiction turn into science reality.

Perhaps the most popular application of connected garments is in sportswear which measures the wearer’s biometrics to provide feedback that can help improve athletic performance. Notable examples include Lumo’s smart running shorts, which provide real-time running coaching and feedback, Hexoskin’s smart training tops, which monitor the wearer’s heart, breathing, movement, and wakefulness, and Nadi-X’s vibrating yoga pants, which provide real time haptic feedback intended to help the wearer improve their yoga practice.

Getting even more up-close and personal, SKIIN promises to improve the wearer’s life through connected underwear. Their washable smart clothing can monitor body signals around the clock and suggest changes that may reduce stress levels and improve sleep quality. Measuring heart rate, posture, hydration, breathing and body temperature, SKIIN garments can connect with smart appliances in the home to control light and temperature or play music. In this specific case, machines get closer to the most intimate parts of our bodies. Their power stems from combining ubiquity with invisibility and from becoming one with the wearer by further blurring the distinction between man and machine. This corresponds to two of the boundary breakdowns which Donna Haraway cites in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’: animal/machine and physical/non-physical. The machines she refers to ‘are quintessentially microelectronic devices, everywhere and invisible’. There couldn’t be a better definition of ubiquity than machines in our underwear.

What is fascinating is how these uses of biometric data suggest the very opposite of the bodiless exultation seen in Gibson’s cyberspace in Neuromancer. Instead of a fleshless virtual reality, where the body is displaced by its data double, we may be heading towards a future where flesh itself is instrumentalised as a computational medium, a future where the body becomes commodified, not for its physical power – as suggested in Black Mirror’s early ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode – but for the data with which it is merged.

It is therefore not hard to imagine a future in which human beings will be classed according to their ability to extend their bodies and enhance their physical and digital self through the clothes they wear. This would create a world of haves and have-nots, perhaps not dissimilar to that described by Huxley in his Brave New World, in which Alphas, Betas and Gammas are immediately identifiable by the garments they wear. Instead of a hierarchy programmed from birth, the class system would be determined by ability to afford connected garments, or to produce ‘quality’ data about their environment, themselves or those around them. Fashion has historically been about emulation of the upper classes, but perhaps we are at the dawn of a new type of hierarchy shaped by fashion as an evolutionary force.

Whilst all these changes are significant, the most exciting development in fashion for SF is the commercial launch of the Google x Levi’s Trucker Jacket. The outcome of a collaboration between two giants, the technology uses conductive thread to turn an unassuming heavy denim jacket into an extended interface of your mobile phone, targeted mainly at bikers and cyclists. With the exception of Samsung’s short-lived NFC-enabled suit, the Trucker Jacket is the first mainstream connected garment, not aimed for sportswear.

The Trucker Jacket shows how interconnectivity can be woven into a garment without radically altering its appearance. Through the use of touch sensitive fabric, Google and Levi’s have transformed the garment into a peripheral device and enabled a new form of gesture-control (another nod to ‘Fifteen Million Merits’). Whilst not explicitly mentioned in the launch, it is not hard to imagine that in the future, the jacket will track and measure the wearer’s body in a way similar to those described above. 

From a SF perspective, perhaps the most interesting thing about this jacket is its uncanny resemblance to the elusive Gabriel Hounds garment described by Gibson in his 2010, fashion-centred book Zero History. This description could almost word for word be applied to the Google x Levi’s Trucker Jacket:

‘A very heavy denim shirt. She took it out and spread it across her lap. No, a jacket. The denim darker than the thighs of her Japanese jeans, bordering on black. And it smelled of that indigo, strongly, an earthy jungle scent familiar from the shop where she’d found her jeans. The metal buttons, the rivet kind, were dead black, non-reflective, oddly powdery-looking.’

In Zero History, Hubertus Bigend is obsessed with an elusive, mysterious American denim brand, which sounds very much like Levi’s in this case. In the book, Gibson demonstrates a deliberate knowledge of fashion and garment construction when referring to a ‘gusset’ (a pattern cutting term used to refer to triangular piece added to a garment to improve fit and movement). It is probably not a coincidence that the book revolves around function-oriented garments like streetwear, workwear and military clothing. This may be a hint as to where fashion is heading both in SF and in reality: towards a radical re-negotiation of the relationship between form and function. This could mean a far greater emphasis on how your clothes extend your body and your body’s capacities, and on what your clothes enable you to do.

This new reality raises multiple questions which SF may answer in the near future:

  • Is the capturing and processing of bodily data the next step in the journey to the achievement of the ‘perfect simulacrum’?
  • Who owns an individual’s bodily data once it’s generated and processed?
  • What does this mean for the human condition? Where does the body start and end?
  • Are we enabling a new form of exclusion through people’s ability to afford garments which enhance and/or expand their human abilities?

Ricardo Suazo is a fashion designer and research student at the at the Royal College of Art. His research focuses on the anthropological implications of garments becoming technodigital objects. 

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