Right now, a beautiful couture dress is being allowed to fall apart at the Royal Academy in London. But it’s not a waste, it’s a science project.

To be more precise, it’s an example of how fashion and science are, at last, coming together in pursuit of future knowledge. Among the exhibits at Aware: Art Fashion Identity, which opened earlier this month, is “Say Goodbye”, the title of either one or two gossamer-light gowns made from what looks like finely slashed lace. The number depends on when the viewer visits, for by the show’s close at the end of January, there will be just one dress left, next to an empty wire coat hanger floating in a pool of water – the other one will have dissolved, thanks to a combination of heat and moisture. And this is simply a precursor of what is to come.

In March, the principal creators of the “Say Goodbye” dresses, scientist Tony Ryan and designer and artist Helen Storey, will reveal the first examples of Catalytic Clothing as part of an exhibition in Newcastle (at an as-yet-undecided venue); dresses whose surfaces purify the air around them. Though the work will initially be presented as pieces of art, the aim is for the science to be applied to affordable, available clothes. Seems unbelievable?

Precisely how the science behind Catalytic Clothing works remains strictly under wraps for now. But the information will be disclosed with the prototypes, and public opinion sought. “It’s about using textiles in a way that will have a positive impact on our respiratory health,” says Storey. “I wish I could tell you more.”

What she can say, however, is that the pieces will be a departure from her first experiments with disappearing gowns, trialled at a staged event in 2008 – dubbed “Wonderland” – where dresses were suspended over and dipped into massive goldfish bowls outside a busy Marks and Spencer in Sheffield and, due to their chemical compound, slowly dissolved. While the dresses were never intended for a racy striptease, the possibilities certainly got people talking.

They also highlighted another possibility: that detergent bottles, made from the same material (polyvinyl alcohol) as the dresses, could also “disappear” by “knowing” to reduce themselves to a compostable gel once empty.

While fashion has been meeting up with science for years – you could say the dating game has been going on since mathematicians Ed Thorpe and Claude Shannon unveiled the first “wearable computer” in 1966, which was pocket-sized, and could be incorporated into a shoe – it has often been an uneasy courtship. Results have tended more towards scientific excitement than fashion thrills: few stylish dressers have been enchanted by the 2004 invention of the “Skirteleon”, a skirt that changes colour according to your mood, or 2005’s “whiSpiral”, a shawl that plays recorded messages triggered by movement.

Of course, the fact that CuteCircuit’s M-Dress, launched in 2007, was a good-looking little black dress as well as one that functioned as a mobile phone (the SIM card was concealed under the dress label and you lifted your arm to your ear to take a call), added to its appeal. But suffice to say, fashion and science have, with rare exceptions, been an odd pairing.

As, you might say, are Professors Storey and Ryan. Prof Ryan is a brainiac who heads up the sciences at the University of Sheffield. Less expected is his embracing of fashion as science’s “Trojan horse: a beautiful manifestation of a deeply technical process.”

By contrast, Storey, professor of fashion and science at the University of he Arts London, was once better known for designing sassy dresses for Madonna and Cher in the 1980s.

Six years ago, Storey had become the go-to interdisciplinary designer for organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and pharmaceutical company Pfizer, she heard Ryan on the radio and got in touch. As he puts it: “As a scientist I never expected to be attending the opening of an exhibition at the Royal Academy that features some of my work. Art allows people to look inside science, and science allows art to address subjects in a different way.”

Take, for example, Turkish designer Hussein Chalayan, a fellow exhibitor at the Royal Academy’s Aware, who is known for his innovative fashion, having experimented with animatronic dresses previously. His “‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru”, an installation commissioned for Aware, features a dress based on Bunraku, a traditional Japanese form of puppetry.

Storey sees the fusion of fashion and science as serving to expose science to more worldly thinking outside the lab, while at the same time allowing fashion to stop relying on “periods of history” and look forward instead. Hence her attempts to encourage students from the London College of Fashion to work alongside chemistry students from the University of Sheffield with an open brief to “see what happens”.

Such thinking elsewhere has already led to EcoCradle, the brainchild of a young American called Eben Bayer who came up with the notion of growing packaging from mushroom roots as an eco-alternative to synthetic foams (once EcoCradle has done its job, it rots away), piquing the interest of the luxury industry.

“Fashion is a superb communicator,” says Storey. “This marriage of fashion and science has potential to do more for each discipline than either could achieve alone.”

Red lace, Joan of Arc – and security guards as interactive art

The first thing you see on entering the Royal Academy of Arts’ new exhibition, Aware: Art Fashion Identity, is a security guard wearing a navy blue suit, writes Alex Coles. So far, so normal – except he is also wearing a cumbersome harness with an assortment of odd objects dangling from it, including a teddy bear and a first aid kit. It turns out he isn’t just a guard; he’s also part of a work by the artist Lucy Orta.

Known for interactive, performance-based pieces that bridge art and fashion, Orta says that the eight harnesses included in the exhibition are “kits containing various objects that symbolise different states of emergency”, including “shortages of food and water or even loss of love and affection.” They are communication tools, she explains, “to trigger discussion with the public”.

Orta, professor of art, fashion and the environment at London College of Fashion, is also one of the show’s curators, and her desire to reveal the complex stories that fashion can tell about people and communities drives the exhibition.

An assortment of equally playful, thoughtful works by other contemporary artists is sprinkled around the galleries, including a series of costumes exploring national identity by Alicia Framis; a video by Gillian Wearing, featuring 26 people who attempt to remain straight-faced and motionless while dressed in police uniforms; and a newly-commissioned mural by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, based on 19th-century children’s dress designs.

Contrasting with these pieces are more politically didactic works by Rosemarie Trockel, Cindy Sherman and Yoko Ono – the latter represented by a film of her 1965 performance in Tokyo when audience members were invited to cut her clothes off to reveal her naked torso, thus transforming the passive viewer into active participant.

But artists who manipulate the language of fashion and costume make up only half of Aware. The other half is comprised of catwalk pieces such as an exquisite red lace dress by Alexander McQueen, inspired by the story of Joan of Arc; a photographic installation of clothes treated with bacteria and left to erode by Martin Margiela; and costumes constructed from plywood by Yohji Yamamoto. The point was to “test out more edgy ideas that perhaps wouldn’t usually comfortably fit within the Royal Academy’s remit,” says Kathleen Soriano, director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Indeed, Orta’s harnesses are among the most effective pieces in Aware, as it is clear the guards revel in the opportunity: they no longer just keep watch, but become a part of what they see.

‘Aware: Art, Fashion, Identity’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until January 30.

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