Fashion smarts

"Wearable computing" combines style and technology

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:07:21 PM

In Joanna Berzowska’s world, the phrase “change your clothes” takes on a whole new meaning.

The artist and researcher, a professor in Concordia University’s Department of Design and Computational Arts, is a pioneer in “wearable computing,” developing techniques for making clothes out of “smart fabrics” and “soft circuit boards.”

Her creations, most recently dresses that change colour, texture, and even shape while on the wearer, are equal parts fashion, art and cutting-edge technology. In a real sense, she designs and builds electronics, but as she says, “I want to get away as much as possible from wires and hard components.”

It’s a new field, but it has generated much interest. One company has already developed clothes that can remotely monitor the well-being of athletes or the elderly. More speculatively, the U.S. Army foresees uniforms that could adapt to their background in a perfect, ever-changing camouflage.

But, says Berzowska, “I come from this traditionally female, feminine point of view, where clothing is about expression.” And the products that come out of her XS (Extra Soft) Labs have a more artistic bent. “Kinetic dresses” with hemlines that raise and lower on their own. “Memory-rich clothing” that shows where and when it has last been touched. An “intimate memory” shirt with a flower-patterned series of LED lights activated by a whisper in the wearer’s ear.

It’s whimsical, playful stuff, the kind of thing you might expect from a woman whose academic road began with a degree in design art—and another, simultaneous, in pure mathematics.

And for Berzowska, it’s often cutting edge work in a literal sense. The materials themselves are not exactly traditional – one thread she uses, for instance, was developed to protect spacecraft from electro-magnetic radiation—but the things she does with them are as old as civilization: spinning yarn, weaving cloth, printing designs on it, and, yes, cutting and sewing.

Not to mention laundering. Because at the end of the day “smart” clothes go into the washer and dryer just like the dumb ones.

Joanna Berzowska’s research into electronic fabric was supported by SSHRC’s Research/Creation Grants in Fine Arts program.