printer friendly version of article
reflection : quintessence
View this article in flash requires flash 7 >
Fashioning the Uncanny
The Strange Temporality of Garments
by Sara Diamond
Clothing keeps time. I recall key events in my life by what others and myself were wearing.
In my dreams I enter unfamiliar rooms. I wander to the clothes closet and open the door. In the closet, dresses from my childhood hang. I pull one of them toward me and am overcome by the gestalt of touch, smell, then flooded with the surrealistic, cinematic quasi-memory of dreams. Will one dress whisper to another, sharing a secret of my early childhood with a mature garment from my teenage years?
A brilliant mathematician tells me that, when she is stuck trying to solve a problem, yet feels on the brink of discovery, she goes to her favorite clothing stores and stands at the racks, closing her eyes and stroking the different textures of the clothing. Suddenly a formula will spring to mind. She runs out of the store, back to her laboratory...
When you take a new lover, someone with whom desire is at that unbearable edge, are you compelled to take a piece of their clothing and keep it near you, inhale the trace of their presence? The clothing occupies the temporal space of reassurance until you see your lover again.
What is fashion itself as a medium, if not the balance of change and stasis, as style is recycled, invented, absorbed, and recycled yet again?
Clothing, jewelry, and the artifacts that we wear and carry are already timekeepers. Garments are continuous. There is the trace of sweat, a subtle persistent stain on a garment, its worn fabric where a handbag rubs, a stretch from sitting too long in a skirt. Garments have a history, and we along with them, of wear and tear. They continue to accumulate physical memory with or without our use. They are episodic. When they are upon us, they mark the time of each episode of their wearing, from the moment we don them to the moment we remove them. They express intervals. They can react to each shifting context - in simple terms, keeping us warm or not as we enter a room; exciting continual interest or failing to compete with other clothing bearers.
Garments are event based. Each specific encounter can be provoked, read, and clocked by a garment. We meet someone who makes us nervous and we sweat: we/the garment receives a complement. When we throw a garment away it continues its life and memory of us, without us. Second hand clothing, no matter how cleansed of the previous owner, carries a sense of their presence. It seeps through - this is another way of knowing someone else, a way that is not photographic, but bionic - hardly an organ transplant but something carried close to the skin.
This quality of temporality is worth remembering when we think of the potential of responsive and communicative fashion. For the technologies that we deploy - digital (carrying and communicating from signals), material (inks, threads), biometrics (measuring and responding to our biological rhythms), nanotechnological (transforming with the chemical nature of our bodies) - are all temporal media.
All of these media of marking time applied to fashion have the potential of shifting and enhancing forms of display, yet amplifying the communication capacity of fashion.
There is something uncanny but tremulously exciting in the possibility that our clothes, our jewelry, our ornaments might speak for us - and with others - in explicit ways, and as intuitive, quasi-independent systems. They might establish contact with other worn entities - a skirt I wear communing with your tie, perhaps both might blush. Or perhaps our t-shirt screens might light up with LED text message graffiti that a passerby sprays our way.
Part of the strangeness is in the human/machine division - the concern that something as personal as a garment might have a separate life: yet another entity to pay attention to, but so close to the skin, perhaps even under the skin. What is a merely cosmetic change, and what is more profound? Might we induce our skin-tone to shift color or pattern like a bodysuit? Could we grow fur? Retract it? What is the next generation of implants?
This is a field where the potential of "interactivity" is more than skin deep. How can we design with the excitement of "endogeny" - the potential of internal, evolutionary, and adaptive change in these materials and their expressions? For example, can we make ecologically viable garments that change their form, their fabric and expression, and allow for an economy of reprogramming rather than one based on the constant consumption of new objects? How can we combine endogeny with exogeny, the creation of new interfaces that communicate with and between systems?
Like most new technologies, at least some of the source technologies of the new fashion are the downstream results of military research. Others derive from nanotechnology and medical research. For example, RFID tagging (mobile technologies capable of communicating location and other detailed information about an object and/or its wearer) can be highly intrusive. There is a politics to how much surveillance we will allow and can afford. Designers have the responsibility of inverting and reworking these technologies, not simply applying and hence naturalizing these into the market.
Like most new technologies and the fashion industry, the manufacture of fabrics and garments occurs in the majority world, outside of the consumption regimes of wealthy consumers. What are the implications of these new mediums, their manufacture, consumption, and recycling between such contexts? What will be the interplay between materials, traditions, and expressions that span the old materials of fashion, and the new? Can form and function fit the needs of the majority (in terms of durability, affordability, cultural specificity, and beauty for example) rather than only the wealthy?
Might garments combine healing technologies as well as expressive ones? Can they do work on the side for us - warn us about our bodily conditions, provide us with medicines, help to straighten our posture and relieve stress - while remaining consistently expressive of a sense of our well being (or vulnerability if we prefer) to the outside world?
Rather than concentrate on the threat of wearable media, this issue of HorizonZero devotes its time to questions of form, functionality, and fantasy - that is, fashion.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.