The Genteel
September 28, 2020


Katy Perry's CuteCircuit light up dress at the Met Gala 2010. Source:

A few hundred years ago, wearable technology made its most enduring entrance onto the fashion scene via the watch - first in pockets, then on wrists. Since the 1500s, however, no similar invention - from roulette-predicting shoes, to lip-reading glasses - has followed with the same success. But a new frontier on the tech-fashion scene might not be so far away.

Most [wearables] are designed for the aesthetic of 'technology,' which is very different than the aesthetic of 'clothing.'

Indeed, for centuries, the gap between "wearable" and "technology" remained vast. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the hype around "wearables" - as they are called in the industry - surged, with the promise of attainable, tech-inspired fashion reaching an all-time high. In the wake of such grand expectations, everything from light-up dresses, to battery-charging t-shirts have hit runways, red carpets and clothing racks. Still, nothing has really met initial expectations or had watch-like staying power.

Professor Lucy Dunne, who teaches wearable technology and apparel design at the University of Minnesota, explains: "Since [the '90s] we've been working through the trough of disillusionment where all of the big, difficult obstacles to achieving the lovely visions…of wearable technology have to be worked through." After all, until now, wearables certainly haven't been the overnight success that many thought they would be. 

In fact, apart from our almost unnecessary (thanks to cell phones), but stylish watches, virtually no widely embraced wearable exists. The closest example is in the world of sports, where it has become commonplace to use (and even depend on) smart clothing in order to achieve optimal performance. Products like Nike+ not only allow runners to monitor speed, time and distance but communicate to the world that the wearer cares about staying fit - or at least pretends to.

Vega Zaishi Wang's "Into the Deep"
bioluminescent collection.

Beyond athletic gear, the necessity for fashionable, wearable tech has even started to impact the medical industry, a market in which form has traditionally taken a backseat to function. The shift toward attractive garments means that keeping style in mind can actually be critical to improving a product's efficiency. Says Jacobo Crespo, whose company, Nuubo, produces a t-shirt that transmits patients' vital signs, "For our product to obtain the best results, it's important that users actually want to wear the garment, allowing us to capture their real-life data, not just data when we require them to wear it." When it comes to how their product looks, he adds, "We'd like to think people would wear our shirts with or without the technology."

More than just for function, we have also seen the inclusion of technology for fashion's sake alone. In such cases, tech is less - if not at all - about utility and serves more as a new medium for designers to play with. Recent years have brought chinese designer, Vega Zaishi Wang's Into The Deep bioluminescent collection; Anastasia Radevich's innovative boots lit by fibre-optics; and Hussein Chalayan's LED dresses. While artistic, the incorporation of technology in the name of design has yet to make mainstream impact.

Indeed technology, despite its punctuated forays into fashion, hasn't quite resonated on a universal level; at least not to a point that we simply can't live without it. Explains Dunne, "Long-term acceptance of wearable technology depends a lot more on what it has to offer users than on the prevailing fashion trends." That is, as trends fade, the goal is that wearables could become a normal part of our lives like other gadgets. After all, she says, "You wouldn't say that the personal computer 'trend' is likely to end anytime soon."

Google's "Project Glass" glasses.

So what's holding up full-fledged wearable tech popularity? From closing the gap between fashion and tech, to making functionality more feasible, there still exists a disconnect between science and style. Because, observes Dunne, "Most [wearables] are designed for the aesthetic of 'technology,' which is very different than the aesthetic of 'clothing' or 'people.'" 

Perhaps it's also that no single technology has proven so fundamental to our wardrobe that we feel the need to fully incorporate it into our garments, much less reinterpret it in new, fashionable ways. When it comes to what we wear, Dunne defines it best: "Expression is arguably the most important function of clothing today - and arguably one of the key reasons we wear clothes at all." 

Dr. Sabine Seymour, founder of Moondial (a wearable technology lab and studio), adds, "A garment needs to be aesthetically pleasing to serve a psychological and social function." This, ultimately, means that technology's inclusion in our attire must be vital and seamless to the wearer, while also conveying individual style.

And that might not be such a tall order. While the recently buzzed-about Google glasses don't scream style, some predict a new wrist version of iPhone's Siri has the potential to replace our antiquated timepieces, serving all our tech needs and with good looks to boot. Until then, however, our watches remain the first and only true reminder that a successful marriage between tech and fashion is entirely possible. Whether other technology makes the same crossover appears just to be a matter of time.



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