Smart designs

Above, from left: Stella McCartney s/s 2013; Hussein Chalayan s/s 2007; Dion Lee Resort 2013

Though at this time of year it can seem as if advances in “heat-sensing/retaining/wicking” are the breaking news of the fashion world – as an exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York illustrates – fashion and technology have, in fact, been intertwined for more than two centuries.

New York-based designer Angel Chang, who is known for her colour-changing prints, light-up fabrics and self-heating linings, says: “Fashion is driven by fresh, new ideas and thrives on innovation. Fashion and technology, therefore, go hand-in-hand. The invention of the sewing machine and chemical dyes coincided with the birth of sartorial fashion in the late 19th century”.

The FIT exhibition, featuring 100 pieces from FIT’s archives, highlights some of the ways in which technology has influenced clothing. These range from machine-washable fabrics and the creation of the plastic zip to the artistic and sometimes revolutionary embrace of technology by designers such as Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Pierre Cardin, Elsa Schiaparelli and Hussein Chalayan.

“We have seen several shows that cover the 20th and 21st centuries but we have never really seen anything that goes back to the industrial revolution,” says Emma McClendon, who organised the show with curators Ariele Elia, Colleen Hill and Lynn Weidner. “This exhibition is more about the historical context and bringing things to light that people don’t think about.”

Indeed, says fashion historian and curator Akiko Fukai, “One of the most important figures in technology and fashion is the chemist William Perkin.” Perkin is regarded as the father of chemical dye, having discovered aniline purple in the 19th century.

Still, the show opens with a survey of landmark events in techno fashion (a term that refers to 21st-century developments such as e-textiles with digital components embedded in them, remote control dresses, electronic embroidery with LED technology and cyber couture – made to measure clothes via the internet). There is a video of Hussein Chalayan’s Spring/Summer 2007 Paris runway show, which featured five dresses automatically morphing through three decades of fashion, thanks to a computer system designed by 2D3D.

Alongside it is a video of Burberry’s 2011 holographic runway show in Beijing, as well as a 3D printed dress and bag by Dutch designers Freedom of Creation (who used a computer-controlled laser to sculpt the dress). It is a decade since FIT became the first museum to accept a 3D printed textile into its permanent collection when it acquired an earlier piece from Freedom of Creation.

Alexander McQueen s/s 1999

“The Museum at FIT is a specialised fashion museum, focusing on new directions in fashion – including 3D printed textiles,” says the museum’s director and chief curator, Valerie Steele. “This technology has been in use for about 20 years in the mechanical engineering and the industrial design field for the creation of prototypes. However, Freedom of Creation’s Janne Kyttänen and Jiri Evenhuis are the first designers to use the Rapid Prototyping technology to create textiles.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the older, less techy work in the show that is most powerful, beginning with the earliest piece on view: a man’s machine-knit knickers and coat (1780-1800), included to illustrate how the newly mechanised knitting machine allowed dressmakers to create a closer fit. A century later, Schiaparelli began incorporating plastic zippers into her designs. Two such designs are on display: a day dress, circa 1933, and an evening suit, circa 1937, made from strips of cellophane knitted together with wool.

Meanwhile, according to McClendon, “In the 1950s, the washing machine became a fixture of the modern suburban home. Designers responded to this new technology by engineering fabrics that could be easily washed in these machines.” Accordingly, a 1956 dress by Claire McCardell is shown with an advert for a Philco washing machine.

Pierre Cardin at FIT

Other examples of designers developing advanced materials include a 1968 dress by Pierre Cardin, made from Cardine, a form of Dynel fabric, which was moulded and heat-pressed into sharp, angular shapes. There are also two pairs of shoes made from Corfam – a plastic-coated material developed by DuPont to imitate a range of leathers. Indeed, McClendon notes, the 1960s were the heyday of plastic, as represented by a PVC coat from Yves Saint Laurent and a plastic and metal chainmail dress by Paco Rabanne. As Ariele Elia points out, however, without the cellophane experimentation that came before, none of these garments would have been possible.

“We think of 1960s as being the era of cellophane, but we also find it in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Elia. “There were even experiments with it as far back as the late 19th century.” In other words, this may be the age of technology, but it wasn’t – well, born yesterday.; ‘Fashion and Technology’ runs until May 8 2013

Next week: wearable technology

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