Dec 192013

Performance is a major theme in fashion. Whether it’s the performance an office, a gender, or otherwise, the things that we attach to our bodies can contribute to a character we want to project. Performance also goes further. On the runways, the haute couture assemblies of many designers are almost unwearable. They push the boundaries of fashion and oftentimes execute daring physics-defying forms.

viktor+rolf spring 2010

VIKTOR+ROLF Spring 2010 Tulle collection excerpt

This second form of performance is what I took on in creating my project. I wanted to not only create something beautiful, but also something somewhat shocking. My vision is to create a piece that is more form than function, intended to awe. With this in mind, I conceived of the bird cage. It seemed achievable enough, but it was also a departure from much of the wearable technology explored in class. In contrast to the heavily automated and digital designs of many emerging media fashionistas, I wanted to create something passive (requiring no power source) that would have strong visual impact. The bird cage fit this bill: seeing people in cages is shocking and Faraday cages—structures with particular physical attributes—are passive shielding devices.

My goal was to create a structure that would passively neutralize cell phone communications while taking an anything-but-neutral stance on the issue of surveillance. I set out to create this oppositional attire using fairly few materials, but found that they would not necessarily have the desired impact. A couple of iterations of the design were constructed, each eliminating a few of the flaws from the last. My initial design required only copper wire to achieve the desired aesthetic, but after some research and rudimentary prototyping, I discovered that extra material (aluminum foil) would be required to manifest the bar shapes of the bird cage.
artist's sketch

Haute couture is literally translated as “high sewing” or “high dressmaking.” It is often denoted by its one-of-a-kind nature and high quality due to its legacy of commission-based work. My attempt at creating this project certainly fulfills the criteria in terms of uniqueness, however quality is lacking. From the outset, I struggled to find an adequate workspace in which to assemble my creation. The process of moving pieces from place to place resulted in significant damage culminating with the most destructive of all, the night before my deadline, in which case I actually managed to trip over the wires, breaking the connections, damaging the frame, and more than bruising my psyche.

I learned a lot, however. (As one often will getting [literally] tangled up in the complex world of fabrication.) One of my most important lessons was in the perils of not having a consistent workspace. To anyone setting out to create a project that requires working with wire, I strongly recommend not moving your work until it is absolutely finished and sturdy. If I attempt to recreate (or rather, re-attempt) my design, I will also make some significant changes to the design.

My primary concern in early versions of the design was weight. After all, this is a wearable piece; it has to connect to a person’s body. Despite this, I’ve learned that it would be worth adding several ounces more material in order to make the product more robust. Although delicate, tissue-paper clothing is surely impressive, the work environment required to produce it is also much more limited. Next time, I will attempt heavier construction.

I also struggled with the shielding that I hoped to achieve. With a voltmeter, I could have checked for conductivity gaps, but (alas!) I did not. In a better version of my creation, I would solder the contact points to ensure both steadfastness and conductivity. Faraday cages are constructed of complete circuits. Only when the circuit is perfectly connected does the shielding effect come into play. Gaps create wide openings which can be perforated by undesirable wavelengths of EM radiation.

Ultimately, I gleaned a far greater appreciation for the tremendous runway pieces that artists churn out season after season. With several weeks of planning and construction, I struggled with only one piece. To imagine creating twenty, forty, or a hundred such designs is overwhelming. Although some say that the “design” label is inferior to the “art” label, it must surely be acknowledged that the design process of creating structural wearables is intensive.

For now, my life in revolt will hopefully be lived outside of the entanglements of wires (tapped or otherwise), but perhaps that’s wishful thinking. Expect an updated construction of this project in the future.

Sep 122013
images of two garments showing regular light, dark, and infared signatures.

Adam Harvey’s Stealth Wear: “Countersurveillance 2013” via

Symbolic of the concerns rising in the United States over the NSA and flying surveillance cameras (or drones), artist Adam Harvey has created Stealth Wear: clothing that claims to conceal the wearer from drones, almost like a real life Invisibility Cloak.

Stealth Wear claims it can do this by utilizing a flexible, metallized fabric that uses fibers to reflect a human’s body heat and conceal his thermal signature. The metal in the fabric blocks the photos from being taken, as well.

Although the garments were originally created more as artistic pieces meant to create conversation over security and privacy in the public sphere, they are also being produced and sold to private individuals. There are three styles of the anti-drone Stealth Wear currently being produced: a hoodie (which actually only reaches the midriff), a scarf (meant to be a hijab), and a burqa.

However, the price points and styles of the pieces raise important considerations for this type of wearable technology—the hoodie is $350, the scarf is $450, and the burqa is $2,500. At this cost, only the wealthy will be the ones able to buy this technology—are their lives worth more?

These garments will be sold in a pop up museum shop like those mentioned in Fashion: A Very Short Introduction, and this type of shop suits this project perfectly due to its attention-grabbing nature and conversation-setting agenda.

The artist also said that he chose to design his Stealth Wear as a hijab and burqa because they act as a metaphor—just as the garments are seen by traditional wearers as “separation between man and God,” he designed the anti-drone versions to “provide separation between ‘man and drone.’” This cultural appropriation seems to make light of a garment significant to Islam, which reveals s a lot about Westerners designing for international audiences and about a lack of respect for sacred garments. Is this a political message or just a move to seem “edgy” and receive publicity? I would venture to say it’s more of the latter, which is something to really be aware of when recreating wearable tech.

As others have said, wearable technology won’t be wearable unless it’s fashionable; the overtly political and frankly, bizarre designs of the Stealth Wear render them both outlandish and impractical for popular consumption.

The artist said “Stealth Wear is (about) combining fashion with privacy, exploring how fashion can provide ways to adapt to a surveillance environment.” It’s easy to imagine a situation in which these items could become widely available and shift the conversation from “should we use drones?” to a victim-blaming attitude in which those surveilled are responsible for protecting themselves against searches, rather than focusing on governments changing their invasive policies.

Similar projects include the OFF Pocket (a phone sheath that prevents electromagnetic rays from transmitting data), CamoFlash (a clutch that uses LEDs to thwart attempts at flash photography of unwilling subjects) and Pixelhead (pixelated mask meant to confuse face-recognizing software). These projects clearly are meant to spark conversations about the intersections of privacy, surveillance and fashion in public space, and I’m interested to see what’s next.


Further reading:
Stealth Wear Aims to Make a Tech Statement
The Anti-Surveillance Clothing Line that Promises to Thwart Cell Tracking and Drones
Adam Harvey Launches Stealth Wear, an Anti-Drone Clothing Line