“Mediating Fashion” – Bernice Ong
As a pairing of researchers, Lianne Toussaint and designer Pauline van Dongen’s collaborative approach to the theory and practice of smart clothing demonstrates how a critical exchange of material knowledge and theoretical inquiry was crucial in their proposal, creation, and discovery of emergent relations between ourselves and the garments we wear. This dynamic formulation of new material patterns along with its technological potential is a recognition of how aesthetic culture can be viewed within environmental and new materialist discourses, and in doing so, transcend a basic use-value of clothing. However, the issue of fast fashion and its damaging ecological footprint is not one that can easily dis-align with the technological project of smart clothing. Technology is after all in constant development and while these experimental gestures may accord new agency to garments, I wonder about the extent to which such new affordances may find continued relevance over time.
Despite these reservations, I am still intrigued with the research directive that there is something inherent in the relationship between us and our clothing that could do with some reorienting. Smart fashion, as pointed out by Toussaint and van Dongen (2019), is most often used to maximize physical performance, efficiency, and productivity—that is, in service of our bodies. Rather than simply follow through this well-trodden path, Toussaint and van Dongen reappropriates this regard for optimization towards an awareness of environmental conditions. For example, van Dongen and the team’s design of the smart denim jacket Issho attended to the practice and concept of mindfulness which addressed the wearer’s embodied presence. On this point it made me wonder, how does the concept of embodied presence actually compare with a typical relationship with our garments?
Thinking through all garments as intermediaries between skin and air, my expectation has always been that clothing should provide the basic elements of protection, comfort, and warmth. Against the positive framing of embodied presence in smart clothing, I find myself feeling apprehensive about this emphasis on embodied presence within the framework of fashion as I would personally say that it is when these elements of ‘protection, comfort and warmth’ are threatened that we begin to become conscious of this over-body layer. For instance, I notice the cold in winter if I do not have a good jacket on, or if a little stone found its way into my shoe while taking a leisurely walk, I would most certainly be conscious of the discomfort permeating the sole of my feet.
As such, while I am excited by the potential of smart fashion as a developing cultural artifact that can provide one entry point amongst many others for building up a sensitivity to our environment, I am a bit less taken by the concept of sensory awareness. Rather, in thinking through the resources, labour, and waste that emerges from the fashion and garment industries, I hope that the research potential of smart fashion will grow into its own critical field in development studies that engages with and acknowledges not just the end-product and its uses, but also its processual build-up beginning from material resource, fraught economies, and sometimes unethical human labor.
- Van Dongen, Pauline & Lianne Toussaint. 2020. In Touch with the Now – Stimulating Mindfulness through a Smart Denim Jacket. ArtEZ Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts (APRIA), 1 (1): 112-119.