Clothes Make a Statement Electronically ; Researchers See a Day When You'll Update Your Style with the Click of a Mouse

Article excerpt

Fashion changes faster than ever today - but what if you could change your style at the speed of light? That's what MIT researchers envision if they can link clothing design to the Internet. In their scenario, consumers won't have to wait for new designs to be fabricated and distributed before they can be bought and worn. Instead, consumers will have instant access to new designs and the ability to display them on the clothes and accessories they already own at the push of a button or the click of a mouse.

"People are moving information around much more quickly now on the Web," says Judith Donath, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's Sociable Media Group in Cambridge, Mass. The MySpace generation's tendency to express their opinions, interests, and preferences online, plus its instant access to news and culture blogs, means that what's hip changes rapidly.

"In music, for example, how long a song is a hit is changing very rapidly now," Professor Donath says. When anyone can find out what her friends are listening to and download the latest hit in seconds, music trendsetters have to move fast to stay on the cutting edge.

Donath and her colleagues recently unveiled a new project called "urbanhermes" designed to apply this lightning-fast exchange of information to the fashion world. To these scholars, fashion is just another medium for communicating information, a way to show your place in the social hierarchy. "What you're trying to convey to others is some form of status," Donath says, "but the form of the signal changes. The dress you had to wear in the '90s to be fashionable is very different from what you'd wear today."

At the moment, fashion as a medium for communicating taste cannot change as quickly as electronic media do. You can only wear one outfit a day, and most of us have a finite supply of clothes. Clothing and accessories that can change their "look," however, could make physical fashion as dynamic as Web culture.

The urbanhermes team has demonstrated its concept with a messenger bag that includes a sewn-in electronic display. But the project is not about technology or accessory design. It's about creating a model for how we might integrate technology into our fashion experience.

"Other people are developing the underlying technology," Donath says. "So we're asking, what would I want to do with things that are worn? What would be the social mechanism behind it?"

Imagine subscribing to a daily - hourly! - feed of T-shirt designs. Or admiring a friend's plaid slacks and then turning your own trousers into instant tartan twins. Perhaps clothiers will sell designs without their customers ever having to step inside a store. Maybe advertisers will pay you to wear their brand on your sleeve. These are the sorts of ideas bandied about in Donath's group.

Even though it's still on the drawing board, "e-fashion" has already drawn criticism. …