Throughout history, the fashion industry has experienced immense change due to technological advancements. The Museum at FIT’s Fashion and Technology exhibition (on view through May 8) analyzes how certain changes have impacted the industry in terms of both aesthetics and production.
Curators Ariele Elia and Emma McClendon sat down with The Creators Project and helped identify some notable events in fashion that helped change the landscape forever.
Vintage – Aniline dye
Dress dyed with aniline dye from 1860. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
According to McClendon,“Before the first synthetic aniline dye was invented in the 19th century, all colors came from natural sources. The first aniline dye invented was mauveine, or purple, and it was a happenstance discovery.” In 1856, 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin was doing experiments for his professor, trying to synthesize the anti-malaria drug quinine. “He realized from these experiments that he was producing a powdery purple residue from certain chemical combinations. Before his discovery, purple was incredibly difficult to produce. It came from a particular species of snail and took a lot of the tiny animals to create a large enough quantity of purple dye to dye an entire dress, and it faded really, really easily, which is why that color was reserved almost exclusively for royalty and members of the clergy. They were the only people who could afford it. Not only was this new aniline dye fade-resistant and cost-effective to produce, it also changed the social status of the color purple. It lost its stigma and associations of being just for members of the royal family, and thereby changed the entire cultural coding of a society.”
Cutting Edge – LED Clothing
Lilypad Arduino. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
The Climate Dress by DIFFUS. Image courtesy of DIFFUS.
The Climate Dress is powered by the Lilypad Arduino. Image courtesy of DIFFUS.
Twitter Dress by CuteCircuit. Image courtesy of CuteCircuit.
The Lilypad Arduino is a small programmable computer developed by Leah Buechley at MIT. "You plug it into a computer and code it, so that it can do a whole manner of different things,” explains McClendon. It can be combined with sensors, lights, motors, and other components and then stitched together with conductive thread. It can then be sewn into textiles to create soft, interactive garments. Depending on what it’s programmed to do, it can sense information about the environment using various inputs, including light and temperature sensors, and can respond with outputs, such as LED lights, vibrator motors, and speakers. “The Danish company Diffus designed the Climate Dress using the Lilypad and LEDs, and it actually senses the CO2 levels in the air around the wearer and lights the LEDs accordingly based on how much pollution is in the air. We’ve also been seeing more and more items in the last few years from the company CuteCircuit. They’re probably the best-known proponent of these LED dresses. They designed a few for Katy Perry and are the ones who created the Twitter dress, which actually streamed live tweets on it.”
Vintage – Knitting machine
Machine-knit man’s waistcoat and jacket from 1780-1800 (far left). Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
Jacquard dress and textile (right). Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
According to Elia, the oldest object on display in the exhibition is a men’s waistcoast from 1780-1800. "Instead of being made by hand, it’s constructed from a textile made using the knitting machine. The knitting machine was a natural evolution of technology not necessarily for fashion. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry was one of the most important industries that was pushing the revolution forward because it was the first to adopt these mass manufacturing capabilities.” Also on display is a dress made from jacquard knitting, which was the first system in which complex patterns could be mass-produced at a much greater rate and at a lower cost than previously. The Jacquard loom, first introduced in the early 19th century, used punch cards to create intricate patterns whereas, previously, a drawboy had had to sit inside the loom and lift and move threads according to the master weaver’s directions.
Cutting Edge – 3D Printer
Freedom of Creation dress and bag from 2005. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
According to McClendon, “3D printing is a fascinating field because it’s really exploding at the moment. It’s been around for a few decades, but it first emerged with product design and wasn’t really incorporated into fashion and textiles until the 21st century." Freedom of Creation, who created the dress and bag for the exhibition, was one of the first to experiment with laser sintering to create textiles which then, in turn, make dresses and bags. It’s important to clarify that the dress and bag were made using a bonded nylon powder that's still considered a textile.
"The items featured in the exhibition were made specifically for us in 2005, and the material has become quite brittle now after 8 years. But, in those 8 years, huge progress has been made in 3D printing with the materials that they’re using. And, actually, the Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen just debuted two 3D-printed pieces in her couture runway show in Paris in January.”
The first ensemble, an elaborate skirt and cape, was created in collaboration with professor/artist/architect/designer Neri Oxman from MIT’s Media Lab. It was printed by American 3D printing company Stratasys using Objet Connex multi-material 3D printing technology, which made it possible for both soft and hard materials to be incorporated into the design. The second ensemble is an intricate dress made in collaboration with Austrian architect Julia Koerner and 3D printed by Belgian group Materialise. Laser sintering was used to achieve the complex, lace-like textures of the dress.
“What’s really fascinating about the intricate dress is the fact that it’s flexible. Some of the research we’ve done says, ‘Well, these 3D-printed garments are great, but are they ever wearable?’ And so with Iris Van Herpen, it’s great that she worked with professors and engineers to create flexible fibers,” says Elia.
Vintage – Collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli and the Zipper
Schiaparelli dress (left). Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
According to McClendon, “In the late 1920s/early 1930s, the first patent that had been made for the notched tooth zipper expired, so there was a lot of competition between manufacturers creating new ones and trying to market them to new industries. One of the companies was Lightening Fastener, which was the big one marketing to high-end fashion designers, and their zippers were the most widely distributed zippers manufactured at this time.” In 1933, Harry Houghton of the Canadian division of the company offered designer Elsa Schiaparelli $10,000 (or the equivalent to approximately $175,000 today) to use their zippers in her clothing. “She used plastic zippers that were quite large, and she placed them in very prominent places like the center front or center back of her dresses and other designs. And they were often be brightly colored – a shocking pink or purple or blue and other colors.” Schiaparelli wowed buyers who came to see her 1935-36 winter collection, which featured the zippers as a deliberate design element rather than a hidden one that was thought of only in terms of functionality.
Cutting Edge – Collaboration between DVF and Google GLASS
Video recorded using Google GLASS by Diane Von Furstenberg.
According to McClendon, “We wanted to leave the exhibition open-ended versus definitive, so it concludes with four or five videos highlighting different projects going on, including the collaboration between Diane Von Furstenberg and Google GLASS.” Von Furstenberg was approached by Google co-founder and GLASS project lead Sergey Brin to collaborate on a runway show. “Google’s GLASS has a built-in camera, and fashion is considered so fast-paced and on the cutting edge that a company like Google would choose to launch with a fashion designer during fashion week. They’re the perfect match in that they’re speaking the same language. One is able to promote the boundaries of the other and vice versa.”
For Von Furstenberg’s September 2012 runway show showcasing her Spring/Summer 2013 collection, GLASS was not simply worn by the models as an accessory; the designer and her team were given access to several pairs themselves leading up to the show, and a short film was then created, taking viewers to pre-show fittings, backstage at the show, and down the runway itself.
The Fashion and Technology exhibition runs through May 8, 2013.