Is Digital Clothing the Future?

Imagine a cleansing of the senses. Noses are exposed to the smell of trees due to programmes of reforestation, the acrid smell of diesel a distant memory. The sense of touch is exposed to organic, natural materials, a far cry from the synthetic substances humans are exposed to today. The taste of fermentation hits the mouth, probiotics set to work (Healthline). We see solar panels glint in the sunlight, able to absorb vast amounts of energy, power planes, and send cars gliding through landscapes. The sound of wind turbines moving through the air, the elements are given back their space on the planet.

aware_ writer Eliza Edwards explores one aspect of society which has the potential to be radically altered: the way in which technology, through the introduction of digital clothing, could improve the fashion industry, the world’s treatment of its resources, and bring an end to the pressure of conformity within the industry. This envisaged world presents potential challenges, secondary (emotional and anthropological) consequences of such a seismic shift in how we interact with one another and demonstrates a wholly new method of self-expression. 

A Time Before Digital Clothing 

Consumerism has evolved, from the development of new manufacturing processes during the Industrial Revolution, to the steady rise of capitalism over the 20th century, to the exponentially growing levels of mindless buying evident since the dawn of the internet and the 21st century. The world’s economic status quo remains dominated by a few monolithic companies who control not only the rhythms of our daily digital lives, but also our modes and methods of expression.

There have been indications that the fashion industry is changing. Despite struggling to keep pace with the technological advancements of other industries, with the invention of the 3D-printer and CAD CAM manufacturing, progress is evident. In a Levis supplier factory in Mexico an individual needs thirty minutes to sand down a pair of jeans, whilst a Jeanologia laser machine is able to achieve the same result in ninety seconds (Quartz News). Meanwhile, US-based start-up Sewbo are using robots to stitch single white T-Shirts together. These cutting-edge tools and advancements are problematic; as the robots struggle to work with this very fine material the “T-shirt is covered with a thin layer of plastic so the t-shirt is stiffer and easier for the robot to work with”. In the Levis factory more denim can be manufactured at a faster rate, and it contributes both to a process of automation driven redundancy, and exacerbates the world’s overproduction crisis.  

digital clothing

Clearly, the industry is not changing fast enough. An ideal future is one that promotes self-worth and interrupts the predatory cycle of brands and consumer, which feeds off the human capacity for insecurity. Real progress might manifest itself in an exploration of digital clothing, and a paradigmatic shift away from exploiting the earth’s resources. 


The Early Introduction of Digital Clothing 

Today, wearable technology includes Apple Watch, Google Glass, augmented reality apps, avatar based ‘games’ such as second life, and developments in cyborg reality. Most recently we have seen the sale of the first digital blockchain clothing for $9,500. The idea is to provide those whose identities exist predominantly on social media channels with the ability to wear digital clothing, without necessitating the manufacturing of more physical garments. The issue here is that the clothing cannot be worn in the real world, and therefore remains virtual and not physical, creating a tactile barrier to entry for any potential purchaser. The second, and often unspoken problem regarding blockchain technology is the enormous carbon footprint of each transaction, due to the processing power necessary in order to ensure each purchase is unique. One bitcoin transaction uses 288.51 kg of CO2, “The electricity used to complete a single Bitcoin transaction could provide electricity to a British home for a month.” (Digiconomist)

digital clothing

In the sphere of physical retail, Kinect for Windows created a screen for an augmented shopping experience, “The customers can touch real product samples to choose materials, accessories and colors. And they can see how a garment will actually look on them because they can view a realistic, 3D virtual image of the product they’ve selected.” (Surur) 

This concept of augmented reality-based personalisation, if developed in the home, would stop the need for the consumer to return an item after purchase – a significant waste of resources. CNBC reported in 2016 that, “Americans returned $260 billion in merchandise to retailers last year, or 8 percent of all purchases”. (CNBC) 


The Potential in Digital Clothing 

We have already stepped into the unfamiliar, utopian world of digital clothing, but I would like to explore its limits, and look to the horizon of digital fashion. Every individual would have the means to present themselves in digital clothing; their digital persona would be identifiable by others in the real world, in real time, through biomechatronic technology (for example, a chip, an antenna, contact lens, glasses, etc.). Each person would experience the world around them through this technology, viewing the fashion choices of others through a digital lens; clothes would appear superimposed, as augmented reality. Artists and designers would have access to an infinitely novel palette of materials, textures, and colour.

digital clothing

The physical clothes in existence today would remain in a circular ecosystem, repaired and upcycled when necessary; the wearer would be able to make a practical decision on the most appropriate clothing for each day, and the virtual clothing is purely motivated by aesthetic preference. According to a report by ShareCloth, the world produced 150 billion garments in 2018; 30% of these are never sold, and 92 million tonnes of textile waste are created by the fashion industry every year (Fashion United). Digital clothing would provide a solution to the planet’s critical state of overconsumption, saving the fashion industry from itself, and its chronic reliance on overproduction. 

The issues of social media – presenting unrealistic imagery of the human form – would dissolve, dramatically helping with the issue of body insecurities. Through this advanced technology, humans would be able to express individuality not limited by the cost of materials and, whilst elitist high-end branding would be certain to find its position within the market, ‘digital clothing’ leans away from fashion solely targeted at the super rich. 


The Future of Digital Clothing 

There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that our brains are wired to be attracted to novelty; advertising permeates daily life, and the invitation to consume punctuates each waking moment. To envisage a world in which trends don’t dictate the desires of a teenager, or a world in which all advertising is deemed illegal, is unrealistic. However, despite the shocking statistics, the fashion industry can be a powerful tool for societal and environmental change. Any production of new clothing, whether manufactured ‘sustainably’ or unethically, means further physical waste. Conversely, digital clothing might distort any individual sense of identity, put at risk our romantic relationship with the tactile nature of clothes, and fuel the deleterious effect of technology currently in evidence. A total embrace of technology may seem overwhelming and potentially problematic, given our current capitalist paradigm, but it may also – paradoxically – provide an artistically limitless answer. 


– By Eliza Edwards

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