Zippers, Stitches, and GIFs: FIT Looks at Fashion and Technology

Jean Paul Gaultier jumpsuit, 1996
(Courtesy MFIT)

Outside the entrance to “Fashion and Technology” at the Museum at FIT, Hussein Chalayan’s Spring 2007 runway show plays on a loop. Animated by elegant, invisible robotics, the clothes begin to metamorphose through decades of fashion history. A chaste Edwardian gown sheds its corsetry, revealing a beaded flapper dress. A curvaceous ’50s silhouette shrinks into a ’60s shift. Chalayan’s lyrical, shape-shifting collection serves as the exhibition’s epigraph as well as its teleological conclusion. Told exclusively through selections from the museum’s costume collection, “Fashion and Technology” (on view through May 8) charts technology’s influence on fashion from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

Inside, a video loops Burberry’s 2011 holographic runway show with models bursting into thin air. Freedom of Creation’s 2005 3-D printed garment prototype sits in a glass case. After these expository frontispieces, you’re taken back to the Industrial Revolution. Spinning jennies, sewing machines, and synthetic dyes are shaking up the means of clothing production. A machine-knit men’s waistcoat from 1870 and a machine-stitched wedding costume are evidence of a nascent fashion industry. Cotton supplanted linin and wool as the fabric of our lives.

As one heliotrope taffeta day dress from 1860 can attest, the color purple — once reserved for monarchs and clergy — became available to the burgeoning bourgeoisie though the invention of aniline dyesWith the onset of Art Deco, we begin to see the deployment of technology as, not only a means, but an aesthetic. One jacket of avant-garde persuasion is decorated with zeppelins and skyscrapers. Newfangled substances like cellophane and Bakelite became the scintillating, confetti-like stuff of flapper dresses. Charles James and Elsa Schiaparelli married form and function by deploying the zipper as a decorative device. One forward-thinking (yet sadly anonymous) designer created an evening bag with an electric plug and socket as a clasp.

After the Spartan ethos of WWII, when fashion generally courted necessity rather than imagination (rayon became big during this era because it replicated the look of silk at a fraction of the cost), the space-age couture of Andre Courreges, Pierre Cardin, Emilio Pucci, and Yves Saint Laurent signaled a resurgence of formal experimentation. A trio of mini dresses from 1968 — a brown Courreges designed for recreational space travel, a hot pink Cardin made from three-dimensional embossed fabric, and a Harry Gordon photo print dress depicting a rocket launch — encapsulate the giddy excitement of the Space Race.

In the 1990s, fashion became infatuated with a new technological frontier. The celestial mystique of outer space became eclipsed by the vast cosmic Xanadu of cyberspace. Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Mad Max”-inspired spandex jumpsuit, with its biomorphic matrix of spots, is a pioneering example the now-ubiquitous digital print. Kenneth Richard’s iridescent vinyl mini skirt and belly shirt ensemble is the bottled essence of late-’90s cyber kitsch.

The exhibition brings you up to date with an outfit from Mandy Coon’s Spring 2013 collection. Inspired by the seismic motions of a MIDI audio file, the look is evocative of the much-ballyhooed New Aesthetic, an artistic zeitgeist based on the collision of the digital with the real. A reaction against retro-minded post-postmodern hipster culture, the New Aesthetic is a jamboree of pixilated, aggregative cyber-reality. Louise Gray’s 2012 dress, which lifts the pattern of a QR code as a graphic trope, fits neatly into the New Aesthetic’s vocabulary of 8-bit graphics, hash-tags, and animated GIFS. But, as critic Bruce Sterling has suggested, this vocabulary can be laden with spurious metaphysical claims and uncritical machine love.

The meandering trajectory of fashion has been paved by successes and failures. Some innovations have become time-tested conventions (see the zipper or the sewing machine), while others, such as the nylon wash-and-wear business suit, seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Though it was made in 1997, Simon Thorogood’s hooded gown is chillingly relevant. It’s evocative of a Jedi’s mantle and it was actually inspired by real-life “Star Wars” technology: the shape of pilotless aircraft drones. It is one of the few garments in the exhibition that gives pause to technology’s inevitable dark side. For all its intelligent curation and encyclopedic detail, “Fashion and Technology” misses an opportunity. The show’s tidy technological determinism doesn’t leave room for examination of the social, economic, environmental, and human consequences of mechanization, from cotton’s role in the 18th-century slave trade to the economic exploitation the drives fast fashion’s supply chains.

The future of fashion can simultaneously inspire curious wonder or Luddite horror. Clothes could be decked with LED lights, rigged with microscopic robots that monitor your heartbeat and check your Facebook. Garments could be printable from the comfort of your home. At the end of the exhibition, a screen displays backstage footage of Diane Von Furstenburg’s Spring 2013 show, recorded on Google glasses worn by the models and by DVF herself. The technology — a tiny computer that lives on your face — is creepy. The video’s content — mostly the backs of models heads — is boring. The glasses — a thin aluminum headband with nose pads — are ugly.

The Google/DVF collaboration cannot be further from the protean magic of Chalayan’s show. The two films bookend the possibilities of what partnership between technology and fashion might mean. It can remove the human hand from construction or lend a hand to skilled craftspeople, entrench neo-Brutalist design aesthetics or allow for formal experimentation, and produce cyborg-like disassociation or foster critical engagement 

To see images from the Museum at FIT’s “Fashion and Technology” exhibition, click on the slideshow. 

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