As technology pushes boundaries even further, the fashion industry is determined not to be left behind. So can we expect a high-tech fashion future? Well, it's already here.
There was a time when the biggest expectation we had from fashion was that the clothes creased as little as possible. As technology increasingly intertwines with fashion, bringing fashion designers and scientists to the same drawing table, consumers' expectations have changed, quite dramatically in fact. Now, it's more than just about the style; it's about fascination in an almost science fiction sort of way. These pieces of wearable technology have been termed ‘smart clothing'.
Smart clothing is called just that because they do not simply cover our bodies. Rather, they are intelligent garments that actually work for us in some way or other. With the presence of embedded electronics, they will be ‘doing things', so to speak.
Just like Inspector Gadget
Electronics in clothing? Surely it must be bulky. On the contrary, some of the latest smart clothes are not only lightweight, but surprisingly stylish, no different than other ‘normal' clothes. Just how is this achieved?
In some cases, the electronic circuits are sewn into the garment, while in others, the circuits and other components are literally built from conductive yarn and thread that makes up the clothing.
With all these gadgetry, smart clothing can generally be divided into three categories:
- Passive smart: This is where the clothing ‘reads' the environment or the person wearing it. For example, built-in GPS, integrated breathing monitors and clothing that gives feedback about potential changes in weather.
- Active smart: This group of smart clothing not only ‘reads' the environment, but also reacts to it. These include clothing that change density depending on the temperature outside, and jackets that store solar energy that can be used to charge cell phones and cameras.
- Active very smart: Clothing that fall into this category has built-in computing and or intelligent sensing capacity. Examples include sleeves that function as keyboards for a small handheld device, clothing that can function like a PDA and shirts that can store information through a built-in fabric keyboard and send it via Bluetooth to a computer.
Apart from these robo-suits, other smart clothing utilise various materials to induce positive change for the wearer. These groups of clothing include ‘phase change' and ‘shape memory' materials. ‘Phase change' materials literally change aspects, such as their density, in reaction to the environment, in order to increase comfort or functionality to the wearer.
These clothes might become denser when it is cold, and more porous when it is hot. On the other hand, ‘shape memory' materials can change from a temporary deformed shape back to an original shape. They can preserve a comfortable and loose fit, regardless of changes in heat and moisture levels.
How does it help us?
These ‘living' garments have been created and developed to regulate body temperature, conduct electricity, fight bacteria and odour, repel insects or soothe dry skin. Others might integrate anti-perspiring or scent-releasing features, or even play music. One massive plus point for smart clothing is its potential to be used as a drug delivery system.
Medical bandages meter out the amount of a drug needed by the body and deliver it automatically. These would be a Godsend for diabetics, people prone to strokes, critical heart patients - basically anyone who needs a consistent dosage and specific times.
Though these types of life-saving smart clothing have yet to hit the mass market, others – albeit the less techy ones – are already easily available. Many textile manufacturers have begun producing fabrics threaded or plated with silver, copper, or stainless steel, metals which are all renowned for inhibiting and killing bacteria. Many more are offering garments that contain elements that reportedly keep out the high frequency electromagnetic radiation that is thought to be carcinogenic.
Is that even possible?
Then there are the futuristic ideas that, though definitely possible, will still leave even the best of us feeling a little sceptical. For instance, with nanotechnology and biotechnology, inroads are being made into clothes that are capable of changing colour, pattern, temperature, or even texture on demand.
In addition, students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been studying how nitinol, a material that contains a nearly equal mixture of nickel and titanium, changes shape during fluctuations in temperature.
With the application of a small amount of heat, a nitinol-based, long-sleeved shirt can become short-sleeved in seconds, while still being able to revert back to its original shape.
If you think that's impossible, wait till you read what Suzanne Lee, a senior professor at St Martin's School of Fashion in London and the author of Fashioning the Future, is envisioning. She foresees that, in the future, there will be such a thing as a ‘spray-on dress', made from a chemical formula that allows you to create a temporary dress from virtually nothing.
The chemical is sprayed directly onto the skin to form a cloud of non-woven cloth, which can be styled as desired. And even further up the ‘crazy' chain, some students at MIT have conjured up ‘epi-skin', a piece of jewellery made from epithelial skin cells that are cultured in the lab and grown in a test tube.
Yet, despite all these seemingly far-fetched ideas, many experts predict that smart clothing will eventually become a basic commodity, much like the blue jeans. Imagine that.