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Fashion as/is the Interface

After listening to an interview in the Podcast “New Books on Technology” with Stephen Monteiro, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal, about his book “The Fabric of Interface”, edited by MIT Press, something lit on my mind about this – and some other related – subjects.

In his book, he writes about the gestures, professions and crafts related to the fabric making that led to the development of interfaces and programming and how several previous terms and experiences were determinant for the evolution of the technological world. Such activities as touching the screen, scrolling, swiping, pinching are in every way familiar in the digital devices world, and yet they all previously existed in the textile industry before.

I’ve had heard about the way punching card looms set the roots for computer development, but the way he lays down some curious facts is astounding. He talked about how the textile industry players induced the evolution of computers, namely concerning the roles women played in the post-war years, driving them to become experts on their own in craft roles: manufacturing, labour-intensive skills, programming – due to the lack of men in such positions. Hence, the book talks about gender, as well. Either because of some tasks were natural in the familiar realm, or because women had to step up to fill in the jobs that were vacant due to the lack of men in the labour force. 

In my fields of study, I have been very keen to understand and study the way fashion – in its broader sense of wearable textile piece – has become an interface for humans, interacting with the systems they connect with. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the interface is either and both “a connection between two pieces of electronic equipment, or between a person and a computer” and  “a situation, way, or place where two things come together and affect each other”.

For me, both definitions can be used interchangeably, as I understand the connection as an interaction, and whether the interaction is between a person and a computer, a person and another person or between a person and a system in which the person is present, all intervenients are systems, capable of interaction, passively or actively. I understand the interface as a passive – or active –  mediator between two systems.

In this light, we can address the fashion garments as an interface, since the first time Men had to put on clothes… or animal furs. The garment was the mediator of interaction between the human individuals and the physical environment they lived in. Many centuries on, the garments had different interpretations, on the mediation significance, due to cultural, societary, military or religious motivations. If we refer to other cultures and communities, past and present, Incas wore ceremonial colourful dresses and headpieces to perform religious rituals and mediate the connection with the Divine, while Zulu warriors wore face painting and headpieces, with torso and leg straw pieces to go to war and frighten the enemy, and Tuaregues wear indigo died garments that protect them from the extreme heat of the desert. Sometimes, the traditional garment of a certain culture was imposed by foreigners, such in the Bolivian Cholita Pollera garment (Chola means “woman” in Spanish, and this concept meant mixed-race or, pejoratively, “halfbreed” or “civilised Indian”), imposed by Spanish colonizers and then embraced by Aymara women as a symbol of indigeneity heritage.

Zulu Warrior (bottom third from left) among other traditional garments from African Countries

In the centuries after, and depending on the country, the social position and role, wealth and religious or military influence, the traditional or agreed social convention mediated garment communicated specific and characteristic messages, such as which amount of respect, deference or attention one was entitled to receive, independently of who they were as individuals.

Only in the 20th century, the garments began to be understood as a visual statement of communication and displaying the personality of the individual that wore them. Finally, many millennia ahead, the human being was able to communicate their personality to another system around them, in a unique and singular way, through fashion, while the garment interface was still fulfilling its primary function – protection and comfort -, and societary functions were broadened – more and diverse urban tribes and groups in the same broad culture worn garments as uniforms to communicate their unity, their ideals and their lifestyle. Some examples could be the Hippies, as the subversion on the establishment and manifestation against war, the Black Panthers, as civil disobedience for equal rights, and the Yuppies, as a subversion of the subversion.

Black Panthers

Commercially, and with the creation of shopping malls and catalogue shopping, especially since the mid 70ies of the 20th century, we could add a new dimension to the interface garment: individualized fashion options improved and turned possible for each individual to communicate their personal intention, as well as the choices for the perversion of societary garment norms, which diverged more on the individual interfaces – mediating the relationship and communication with others – and the diversification of performance fashion interfaces for musical, cinema and theatre shows, now possible with new technologies available.

If we define passive-interface mediation as personalization for communication of who you are as an individual, we look at this as a static, yet emerging from your personality, non-interactive garment. It serves as a “barrier” between you and the other system and a “communication display” of who you are. Other people may “access” it to reach out to you. In this line of thought, all active-interface mediation would be made when and if there is a true physical – or logical – dynamic interaction with the systems around you, either person or environment. 

Some passive-interface mediation – that exists as an unchangeable object of individual communication –  can be achieved by personalization, either as a craft skill you apply to your own garments, or the 80’s knit sweaters we asked our grandmothers to make. In the 21st century, a new market trend was aiming at personalization of commercial projects, such as the massive customization Nike has implemented in 2009, with Nike ID, in which you could personalize the mass-made sneakers of your choice on Nike’s website.

When we talk about active-interface mediations in garments – that exist as a changeable object of individual communication and interaction -, we can point out some textiles that change colour, some water-repellent fabrics that interact with the physical elements, or some accessory gadgets that help you lock your door or pay your bills with NFC technology. In the sneaker field, some active interface mediation was made available with the impact-operated sneaker sole lights, for kids and teenagers, in which every step one took triggered a LED light on the sneaker heel. This is a broader definition of what the garment is about, but I think we can get closer to our skin and to who we are, individually.

The predictions for the future that western societies projected, from the 50ies on, set us in a very modern and technological future, namely in the garment scope. Nonetheless, apart from the active technological interfaces, like computers, smart home appliances, smartwatches, smartphones and smart cars, we are yet to have true active interfacing clothing or textiles and are still waiting for the innovations to come to market.

50 years ahead, we are still not reaping the benefits of the technological evolution we have at our disposal. 

What is keeping us?

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