Wearables have become something of an obsession in the current technology landscape, but many people don’t realize that people have been wearing technology for centuries. From the evolution of the original wristwatch to the launch of the modern smartwatch, technology has always been a huge catalyst for new developments in fashion. Here is our list of some of the defining technological endeavors in fashion history.
Of all wearables available today, certainly the most common and perhaps the most iconic has to be the wristwatch. The form factor is, in fact, still being adapted today for improved technologies and new use cases with the introduction of smartwatches. Legend suggests that the first instance of a wearable timepiece was a spring-driven watch given as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. However, it wasn’t until 1868 that watches became more mainstream among common folk.
The first documented device was produced by Swiss timepiece maker Patek Philippe for Hungarian royalty Countess Koscowicz. This is arguably the first true wristwatch—adorned with diamonds and ornate engraving, wristwatches of this time were worn merely as decorative jewelry by women. It’s a good thing the German military started mass producing timepieces for men one decade later, otherwise the watch trend may have died with Queen Elizabeth.
Today's pop singers love to fill their performances with high-tech laser shows and LED–studded costumes. However, these types of performances are nothing new, and in fact have been around for over a 100 years! With the mass commercialization of the electric light in the 1870s, a ballet company engineered a way to incorporate lighting into their costumes.
By concealing battery packs underneath their costumes, the girls were able to wear lights on their foreheads and throughout their skirts, displaying a light-up dance performance. The illuminated dance group became known as the Electric Girl Lighting Company, where they ended up offering girls to light homes in place of typical, stationary lighting—imagine being hired to wear lights and stand around in somebody’s living room. The 1880s were a strange time for the connected home.
With the creation of the more accessible plastic ski boot, the 1960s saw a boom in ski culture. However, these shiny new boots created more of a need for improved foot insulation to keep skiers warm: introducing the heated sock. These socks featured wires intertwined into the wool itself, which were attached to a battery pack in a small leather pouch at the top of the sock. The battery-powered contraption would heat the sock, keeping skiers comfortable enough to spend the entire day out on the slopes.
These socks also helped make popular the Nordic Fair Isle patterns that we still see so frequently today. This concept of interweaving wires into traditional fabrics exists today, albeit significantly smaller—and likely much safer.
Experimental fashion designer Diana Dew is known as the first designer to release an entire line of "electronic fashion." Dew created a collection of mod party dresses and belts featuring electroluminescent elements, which were made famous by Andy Warhol's "Factory girls." The technology consisted of plastic lamps sewn into the garments, which were connected to rechargeable battery packs. The dresses could light up and flash at customizable intervals using an attached control knob.
As Dew's fashion line became more popular, it saw its share of problems, including reports that the dresses exploded while being worn. As the 60s mod trend faded, so did Dew's fashions, and it is said she ultimately sold her work to the US military. Considering how some of her dresses wound up, it's unclear whether soldiers were wearing the garments or using them as bombs.
The Micropacer by Adidas was the first general consumer sneaker to incorporate a computer system. The Micropacer essentially contained a built-in pedometer which could measure steps and distance. This seems like it would have been a particularly appealing concept considering that, at the time, most Americans didn't yet own a computer at home.
However, with a $100 price tag equating to about $230 today, the luxury sneaker was considered an out-of-reach luxury for most buyers. A 1985 issue of New York Magazine read, "[S]ince runners can already figure out most statistics using some simple formulas and a $10 digital watch, the shoes' sole attraction may be snob appeal." Seeing as Adidas revived the design in 2014, it might just have been that the Micropacer was before its step-tracking time.
With the current craze of animated GIFs, it's surprising to find out that animated clothing has been around since the 80s. Lighting special effects expert Harry Wainwright was the first to create a fully animated shirt. The shirt was created with a fabric known as called "e-textiles," which is classified as any sort of fabric that has digital technology embedded into it. Consisting of fiber optic cables that could transmit light, the shirt displayed severals animated frames of a cartoon onto the shirt, much like an animated GIF would today. Inevitably, this technology went on to be used for costumes at Disney theme parks. We can’t wait to get our animated Mickey T-shirts for Lollapalooza!
With mobile phones fast becoming ubiquitous in the early 2000s, sending a hug became easier than ever. Thanks to The Hug Shirt, wearers of the shirt could record and send hugs to loved ones across the world. Using sensors woven into the e-textiles, the wearer can create a hug and send it to another user who also owns the shirt. Recording specifics like pressure and duration of time, the recipient would physically feel the transmitted hug through their own shirt. Surprisingly, this incredibly creepy idea was voted 2006's "Best Design of the Year" by Time Magazine.
Most of us are familiar with the line of Fitbit wristbands that track movement and help users reach their fitness goals by syncing with smartphones. However, in 2008 when Fitbit was first introduced, its first incarnation was a small pill-shaped device that could clip onto clothing and connect to a computer to transfer fitness data. The original device measured steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, activity intensity, and sleep—a wide feature set for a simple screen-less gadget.
Today, we have seen the Fitbit evolve into a number of tech-centric accessories, including the most common minimal wristband, a powerful smartwatch rivaling the style of the Apple Watch, and a line of fashion-forward bracelets and necklaces by fashion designer Tory Burch. Apparently, looking fashionable is a great way to get people moving around and strutting their stuff.
Although 3D printing has existed in some form since the early 1980s, 3D printers really became commercially available in 2009, spawning a craze for industrial designers to create never-before-seen products and designs. The fashion industry saw several designers producing accessories and shoes out of the plastic-based 3D printing, and designer Janne Kyattanen went as far as to offer templates to consumers so they could print their own garments. One such design printed a full bag of luggage complete with a dress, shoes, and accessories inside for the fashionista on the go. The intent behind this was to give jetsetters everything they needed for a trip without having to lug around their luggage. Unfortunately, it didn't take off, since 3D printers are expensive for private use and seldom available for free public use.
In 2014, design student Danit Peleg began creating materials using 3D–printed interwoven patterns to create a fabric-like texture. She went on to create a full fashion collection with ready-to-wear 3D–printed fashions, shoes, and accessories. The trend continues to be popular among designers, and in 2016 New York Fashion Week saw multiple high-end designers reveal 3D–printed collections on the runway. But is anyone actually buying these plastic printed frocks—especially when they can download and print the designs for themselves?
2014 was a very tech-centric year for experimental couture designer Anouk Wipprecht. Starting off the year, Wipprecht collaborated with Intel to create a futuristic dress that tracks emotions. The 3D–printed "Synapse Dress" contains a series of lights that change color depending on the wearer's mood. The designer released another 3D–printed creation called "The Spider Dress," which used Intel-powered sensors to track when personal space was invaded and extended spider-like robotic arms to clearly visualize personal boundaries.
The year ended with a bang when the Dutch designer revealed a metallic dress made entirely of aluminum, held together by over 600 metal rings. In an electrifying runway performance, Wipprecht donned the dress and had herself zapped with almost a half million volts of electricity, controlling lightning bolts with her hands. Apparently, she couldn’t get any models willing to walk the runway for her. Shocking!
One of the most recent exceptional fashion undertakings was again conceived in collaboration with Intel. Turkish fashion design duo Ezra and Tuba Çetin created a whimsical haute couture garment that is adorned with forty mechanical butterflies. The luxurious gown’s butterflies flap slowly, emulating real butterflies, and are also each equipped with an array of sensors. When approached by an external body or when prompted by a mobile device, the butterflies are triggered to fly off of the bodice of the dress, circle around, and land back on the dress where they started.
Like the Spider Dress, this piece of wearable couture creates another concept of personal space, as well as creating a naturally gorgeous visual display. We want one of these dresses immediately—just as long as it doesn't attract other insects!
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