Downloadable patterns and shape-shifting shirts are the future of fashion

Downloadable patterns and shape-shifting shirts are the future of fashion

CultureJuly 13, 2018 By Will Brendza

Technology has a way of surprising us with innovations that quickly change the world. Twenty years ago, the idea of a universal device taking high quality pictures, managing calls wirelessly, sending mail, and surfing a web containing the world’s complete knowledge would have sounded absurd. Today, it’s commonplace technology. Right there in your linty little pocket!

Yet to the surprise of many, the next big threshold in technology will come from fashion. And it could help to save the planet, too.

Imagine a future where your wardrobe only contains a handful of garments — one pair of pants, a shirt or two, maybe a nice dress or a sport coat, and that’s it. You wear the same physical articles every day. And, the best part is, you’ll never wear the same color or pattern twice, nor will you ever have to do laundry.

“That is one of my favorite scenarios,” says Dr. Lucy Dunne, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and co-director of their wearable technology lab. “I think that’s definitely where we’re headed.”

Dunne’s research is focused on garment-integrated technologies. Which is to say, technology a person can wear unsupported for an extended period of time. “It’s on you, you’re not holding it, and it does something,” she explains.

That could be anything from a Gore-Tex ski jacket to a NASA space suit. Or, perhaps in the not so distant future, even a shirt where you could download different colors, patterns and designs — similar to your computer’s desktop today.

“For menswear that’s a lot more direct, because the clothing is simpler, the form isn’t going to change,” says Dunne. But for womenswear, that problem becomes infinitely more complex, she adds. So she’s also working with other designers to develop clothes that shape-shift and can contract to “hug” a person’s body.

“Changing silhouette or texture is royally hard, though,” Dunne admits. Still, she’s confident that these are challenges that can be overcome, given time.

The concept itself has extremely significant implications for both culture and the planet at large. Not only would our wardrobes need fewer clothes to achieve the same aesthetic diversity (and make travel packing easier and shopping simpler), but it would take a massive burden of waste off the planet.

Currently, 84 percent of all unwanted clothing in the U.S. goes straight into a landfill. With fashion constantly changing and updating so quickly, that’s an alarming number to consider. And it becomes even more troublesome when Dunne describes the redundancy factor.

“When we go into people’s closets and measure how much they actually wear, in some of the more fashion oriented female consumers, we measure around 5 percent of their clothing is worn once per month or more,” says Dunne. The rest is worn less than once per month or not at all.

Which illustrates two very stark truths: first, that the world of fashion is a horribly wasteful one. And second, that people don’t need nearly as many clothes as they own.

Enter color-changing, shapeshifting, self-cleaning clothing.

“Maybe in 20 years,” remarks Dunne. All of this is still very much in the developmental phase, and she says wearable technology comes in waves that usually take somewhere around two decades. That may sound like a long time to some, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a blink of the eye. (The final episode of Seinfeld, the first Harry Potter book and The Big Lebowski all turn 20 years old this year.)

“Just think of where technology was 20 years ago,” Dunne points out. “Think of the smartphone.” In our lifetimes, we will see these kinds of wearable technologies come to life. The question really becomes, what colors will you download?