fashion and technology

Fashion technology is missing from our productive future

‘Fashion and Technology’, original illustration by Becky Snare, 2013.


New technologies are advertised as making us more productive. They’re designed to make us into more effective human beings.

Think of social platforms that allow us to schedule updates and view multiple information sources at once, or mobile phones that act as communication device, music player and word processor. Or deodorants that let us sweat more, new formulas of makeup that stick around for longer, and bedsheets we don’t have to iron. Technology is marketed as saving us time, energy, money and the environment while making us better.

The same is true for fashion technology. An incredible number of technological developments in fashion have been to increase speed, complexity or usefulness. At the Fashion and Technology exhibition at FIT, New York, exhibits included a disposable paper dress, some early examples of machine screen-printing, manmade fibre garments and Arduino Lilypad inserts, used in garments like this bike jacket with built in indicator lights. All of these save time, money or increase our productivity.

On a mass scale, using technology to make things faster or easier results in greater profit, more flexible manufacturing and a more rapid revolution of production and consumption. The mechanisation of mills and garment factories makes fashion quicker (and cheaper). Sweat-wicking cloth and breathable fibres create a new sportswear arm of the fashion industry. Moving from structured tailoring to flat cutting (the art of cutting simpler shapes in fabrics with ease, like jersey) makes manufacture slicker – some might argue it also makes it easier to cut corners.

What I’m interested in is whether ‘non-productive’ technologies in fashion have a place in the future.

Representations of technology in the future echo current marketing: Microsoft’s ‘vision of the future’ video shows exactly how they see technology making our lives easier and more productive (well, at least for those with the cash). Thanks to Nick for sharing this.

Representations of fashion in these spaces are minimal compared to the plethora of electronic gadgetry that’s highlighted. In Toyota’s recent Hybrid Car advert, fashion appears with a woman  shown changing her outfit rapidly using external technology, helping her get dressed quicker. Fashion is productive.

In science fiction, fashion is pared back for productive aims, or echoes current mainstream fashion. In fact, the future rarely has fashion. It has the productive uniform (both in work and leisure) that doesn’t interfere with the continued work of humans: Star Trek, Space 1999 and Oblivion all use minimal garments to meet the basic fashion needs of humans (modesty, warmth and social standing). And that’s it.


But there are plenty of non-productive fashion technologies that could be represented. The technological use of non-fibrous materials, like wood, metal, leather and plastics, can be functional – but they can also be fun, revolutionary and purely decorative (see: printed vinyl umbrellas or Hussein Chayalan’s dresses). Electronics included in garments can be highly productive but utterly beautiful at the same time. These non-productive technologies are an essential component of fashion, because they cater for some of the phenomenon’s most difficult qualities: beauty, individuality and newness.

One non-productive case study is photographic printing, which I covered in a previous blog post. Two parallel developments – printing and cutting technology – made this process possible, where highly-detailed photographic images are reproduced on cloth in crisp detail, and garments constructed so the print itself forms a kaleidoscopic image. But as I argued before, this is non-productive technology: the process results in high levels of wastage from where the garment pieces are cut and the rest of the fabric is unusable.

alexander mcqueen

We don’t want to represent technology as unproductive.

Fashion technologies can be non-productive.

So when we choose to represent fashion in the future, either technology is shown as making fashion productive (choosing garments more quickly, saving time) or fashion itself is eliminated (with pared-back, productive ‘uniforms’).

But is any fashion technology really non-productive? It could be an environmentally-unsound frippery, but not non-productive. From a business perspective, if it makes a profit, then it must be productive. Fashion technologies are a fusing of the practical and ridiculous, and that’s where creativity is let loose. We’re able to mess around with metallic foil printing, rubberised skirts and holographic shoes because we have the technology and we want to play with it. And playfulness is the opposite of productivity: it makes a man, not a tool, of the creature.

The ever-producing human is a damaging myth that has the potential to rid us of one very human trait: creativity. Climbing a mountain because it’s there. Dressing up as a pirate because you can. Glitter.

Non-productive technologies in fashion allow us to play with technology in a flexible space for the sole aim of making something interesting (and maybe creating something productive on the side). It’s essential we represent fashion as part of our productive future so we avoid the trap of a future without creativity.

Non-productive, creative fashion technology is not the antithesis of the ‘technology = productive human’ message. They’ve sat alongside each other for decades – so when are we going to start  showing them both as part of our future?


Leave a Reply