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(un)Fashion

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Tibor and Maira Kalman's book (un)Fashion is the result of Tibor's desire to "catalog his giddy obsession with mankind's ingenious expression". With only a handful of words and hundreds of photographs of clothing and costumes from around the world, I get something different out of this book every time I pick it up.

The pictures are grouped into high-level categories based on:

  • parts of the body (eyewear, footwear, etc.)

  • type (accessories, underwear, uniforms, body art, etc.)

  • function (garments used to carry other humans, modesty, etc.)

  • context (work, play, death, etc.)
  • The variations within each category, as expressed through different lifestyles and cultures, are fascinating. "Work" includes photos of traditionally-dressed chimney sweeps in France; a Samoan businessman dressed in a shirt, tie and skirt; a Peruvian man carrying what must be a 150-pound fish on his back; and two French cocktail hostesses wearing black leotards and dresses made of translucent tiered serving plates holding tiny cakes. "Body Art" includes a picture of a tribesman from Papua New Guinea wearing traditional face paint across from a photo of a Nigerian soccer fan who has painted his face and chest with his team's colors.

    These and other visual pairings in the book probe questions of what is appropriate to wear, how we place value on clothing and accessories, and why we adorn ourselves. But if you're not in the mood to do any deep thinking, just toss the book on your coffee table and enjoy the beautiful pictures.

    Strangely familiar

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    The Carnegie Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibit called Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life. From the exhibit brochure: "Design is a paradoxical presence in our lives, both invisible and conspicuous, familiar and strange. It surrounds us but fades from view, becomes second nature yet remains seemingly unknowable. Broadly conceived as the world of human-made artifacts, design is literally everywhere. Despite this ubiquity, we seldom experience objects, messages, and spaces to provoke deeper questions about how we choose to live..."

    The projects in Strangely Familiar rethink the traditional role of design in everyday life. A few are particularly relevant to the topics of fashion and technology.

    The Transformables line of clothing from C.P. Company consists of protective rain garments that transform into items such as a tent, kite, or inflatable armchair. (To view the line, click through their homepage to the archive.)

    From the Fortune Cookies design group comes Felt 12x12, small gray felt squares that consumers can combine in ways that suit their own needs or styles. The group believes that "a designer's role in society is to create a framework, within which consumers can define shape and form for themselves." Watch their movie and see creations that range from aprons and hats to hot dog holders.

    The Placebo Project is an investigation into people's attitudes towards electromagnetic fields. The Nipple Chair has two protrusions in the back that vibrate when the chair is in an electromagnetic field. The 25 compasses set into the top of the Compass Table spin when a cell phone is placed on it. The Electro-draught Excluder, though it looks like it might protect you from electromagnetic fields, actually does nothing but induce strange behavior as you try to hide behind it.

    If you're not able to experience this fantastic exhibit in person, buy the book.

    functional clothing design

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    At ISWC I attended a tutorial entitled ìMaking Computers Wearableî. It was taught by Susan Watkins, who wrote Clothing: The Portable Environment (unfortunately out of print), and Lucy Dunne, a masters student in Apparel Design at Cornell. Susan and Lucy share an interest in functional clothing design and talked about the practical issues of integrating technology into textiles and garments. They covered topics such as weight and bulk distribution, heat and moisture dispersion, cut and fit of garments, frictional drag of fabric, the bodyís sensitivity to pressure, and other related topics.

    If youíre interested in this kind of thing, you might want to subscribe to a new d-list created by Lucy and Aaron Toney from the University of South Australia. Send an email with the subject ìsubscribeî to broadcloth at hhhh dot org.

    A few months ago Haven suggested to me that studying tattoos might give me some ideas about the future design of wearable computers. Turns out he's not so crazy after all...

    In the book Stylemakers: Inside Fashion, the authors talk about David Wolfe, one of Seventh Avenue's foremost fashion forecasters, and his ideas about tattoos. "Based on research from [the MIT experimental clothing laboratory], he predicts a future amalgamation of apparel and technology. 'Tattooing and body piercing are the first steps in this transformation,' he maintains. In less than a century, Wolfe predicts, fashion will be driven more by innovation provided by technology ñ heat-sensitive fabrics, holographic prints, computer-generated designs ñ than by traditional artistry. There will no longer be designers per se ñ only 'technicians,' he prognosticates. The very term 'designer' will seem archaic."

    Haven and the fashion maven might just be right...

    In 1997 Wired ran an article on a programmable tattoo that could be used as a medical monitor, sensing things like insulin levels.

    In a related vein, slashdot recently posted a link to an article about spray on computers. The spray is actually millions of tiny "semiconductor specks" that communicate with each other over wireless. Another medical monitor, the spray would "go on the chest and monitor the performance of the heart." They plan to get this working within four years.

    - articles from Haven

    I just saw an ad for Gateway flat panel LCD TVs. It said, "Your big fat bloated TV went out of fashion with, well, big fat bloated TVs."

    In The End of Fashion, Teri Agins says, "fashion, by definition is ephemeral and elusive, a target that keeps moving. ... Traditionally, the fashion system has revolved around the imperative of planned obsolescence." I doubt that original developers of CRTs were evilly plotting the introduction of LCDs 50 years later, though that's not to say that LCD manufacturers are above exploiting what now looks and feels like a dated technology.

    Agins also says, "Today, a designerís creativity expresses itself more than ever in the marketing rather than in the actual clothes. Ö In a sense, fashion has returned to its roots: selling image. Image is the form and marketing is the function." Technology companies can play this game too. Apple's Think Different campaign from a few years back is a perfect example of this, as is Microsoft's pairing of Madonna and XP.

    Such emphasis on design and marketing may not be surprising from companies that target the general public, but even Sun's mid- and high-end servers are designed with pretty purple details that remind me of running shoes.

    Exponential growth in performance means that systems from six months ago are on their way to the junk heap anyway. Their longevity will only decrease as they are more frequently designed and used as fashion pieces. Have last season's iPod or a cell phone that is too large? Better get shopping!

    What will the market look like when these devices are physically integrated into clothing?

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