Clothes That Move: Why, and How?

In December, I gave an artist talk at Carnegie Mellon University’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. The talk covered both the mechanically actuated clothing project I worked on while in residency at the SFCI and some of my favorite examples of other work in the domain.

The video is now available at the STUDIO’s Vimeo account! Here it is embedded, and I’ve typed up a transcript below the cut.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the various projects I mention, I strongly encourage you to download the pdf version of my slides — almost all of the images are links to the creators’ sites and other information.



Good evening, ladies and gentlemen; nice to see lots of old, familiar faces and some new ones as well. Welcome to the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. This is the research lab of the College of Fine Arts here at Carnegie Mellon University, where we are dedicated to the support of atypical, antidiciplinary, and interinstitutional research at the intersection of art, science, technology, and culture. Here at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, we do a variety of different kinds of outreach, do events such as the one you’re about to see tonight, and also artist residencies, the results of which you’re also about to see tonight. About a year ago, we received a very helpful grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for their Art Works residency program which provided the funds for this residency and provided funds for a variety of different artists in residence to come to the STUDIO here in Pittsburgh and interface with students, develop new forms of technologized arts, explore the frontiers of what’s possible in arts and technology, and share their wisdom and experience with us at Carnegie Mellon. We’ve had a number of different artists vist as part of that series, and one of them is Lea Albaugh, who was a graduate of Carnegie Mellon in 2009 from the School of Architecture, where she did an interdisciplinary architecture degree and hung around with — I see some of you from the MTID or CoDe Lab, and she also worked in and around there, learning the use of electronics. Lea has a really strong long-term interest in wearable technologies and apparel, and tonight she’s going to be showing some of her mechatronic apparel that she’s developed here in her residency at the STUDIO. Without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce Lea Albaugh.


Thank you, Golan. After that introduction, I hardly need to say that this is “Clothes That Move: Why? and How?” and I am your host, Lea. I was originally going to title this talk “Actuated Wearables: Why and How?” because I thought that I could get a bigger audience that way. Because wearables are popular right now, right? You probably want to invest some money just looking at this slide. There’s things that you can put on your face, things that will look at you, things that you look at, things that know where you are, and things that know where you aren’t but should be. Tracking you in all sorts of ways. There’s some breathtaking work being done here.

But they’re not what I want to talk about today, because “wearables” is not a synonym for “clothing.” In fact, a lot of what the tech industry calls wearables are more like jewelry than clothes — small, rigid and cold, expensive, fragile. I went to the International Symposium on Wearable Computing quite a few years back, and there was a lot of snarky talk about how literally anything that could possibly be duct-taped to your arm was technically wearable.

Today I want to talk about clothes. I don’t think it’s useful to try to pin down a hard and fast definition of clothing or try to draw a hard line between clothes, accessories, jewelry, cyborg augmentations, whatever. But some qualities that might factor into the gestalt are that clothes typically cover some or all of your body, and that they’re generally made of materials that are flexible enough to make that not totally uncomfortable.

We generally make clothes out of “textiles,” which is a word that refers to materials made out of fibers. It can be broken into categories like: woven, like the denim in the upper corner; knitted, like the jersey in your t-shirt; or non-woven, like felt. We also have the word “fabric” to include materials like leather or sheet rubber.

Okay so if we make clothes out of textiles, it would make sense that we make augmented clothes out of e-textiles. The e-textiles movement is a subset of the maker movement, and concerned with the shoving together of electronics and textile techniques. The term generally encompasses everything from the couture runway to elementary school workshops. If you type ‘e-textiles’ into your favorite image search engine of choice, here’s a sample of what you get. A lot of really beautiful work, right. But you might also notice that they have something in common.

LEDs! All of those projects were made with LEDs.

It’s easy to see why LEDs are so popular. They’re inexpensive; they’re hard to break. They’re pretty darn foolproof; about as foolproof as you can get with hardware. They do not require a lot of power, which is great for a wearable because any time you need power, you need batteries, and batteries are heavy. There are a lot of people working in e-textiles, such as Limor Fried, Becky Stern, Leah Beuchley, the Kobakant team, and they’ve made it extremely possible to purchase cheap kits, read their tutorials, and basically get off the ground running very quickly with LED projects and clothing. This is a page of the most recent ten tutorials on You could make any of these in a weekend if you wanted to, and I would recommend that you do, if you’ve never done anything like this before. And lighting is also just magical — those pictures I showed you before were completely beautiful.

But! Clothing, right. Let’s look at the clothing here. We’ve got a lot of different things going on. As you’ve noticed, probably, in your lifetime of wearing clothing, there are a lot of factors that make clothing different from other clothing. It has a shape — in costume design, we often refer to the word “silhouette” to talk about the general outline of a something. You see the one in the upper right is sort of rectangular and boxy whereas the one in the upper left has sort of a pinched, hourglass shape; right off the bat, you see that. There’s also the actual fabric, of course: is it stiff, does it drape, is it waterproof, or is it permeable? Translucent, opaque? There’s all of these things, and of course there’s also, what color is it? There are a lot of options in a clothing designer’s palette. And LEDs give us a way to change exactly one of those options. A really cool one of those options, but still.

So I’m going to show you a couple of videos of my work.

[The first video is “Clothing for Moderns: At the Office”]

I want to point out that my friends are all very good actors.

[The second video is “Clothing for Moderns: Cocktail Party”]

I cut that off a little early but you get the point.

Let’s talk a little about the design decision behind this work.

The first thing that was important to me was to be working with real fabric. I wanted to see how much I could mix some of the oldest technologies — woven fabric out of natural fibers, wool in this case, hand embroidery and vintage manipulation techniques — into these space-age fictions.

Another major aspect of this project was the decision to use myself as the model. When I first proposed this project, I intended to borrow some models from the School of Drama, because they’d be professionals and it would be possible for them to look “neutral,” which actually means very attractive in a very specific way. For various reasons that I won’t get into, I ended up gravitating towards using myself as a model instead. (I’m going to blame the Cindy Sherman show at the MoMA.)

Sewing clothes for yourself is technically tricky, because you really need a dress form or dummy. I have this duct tape version of myself. It doesn’t squish like I do, so I still end up constantly trying on works in progress. Sewing for yourself is also intimidating. But it’s also an act of radical self-love. Clothing that fits is a true luxury. And! Oh. I skipped that slide, that’s so sad. I have a bra shot of myself in this slide. Anyway, the joke is that for once, I was really happy about much space I have to shove a servo into. Later. Download the slides.

So the design phase of this project. I was thinking about augmentations. This is a common theme for wearables, because all clothing is an augmentation. I’m wearing height augmentors today, and we’re all wearing warmth augmentors, uh, whether we like it or not, and often we also wear things that help our vision, and a lot of the time, we’re wearing things that are intended to augment our social standing. So I like the idea of doing social augmentations, to Win Friends and Influence People.

But I wanted to do it with a feminine twist. Which sounds like a weird thing to say about a fashion project, because we think of fashion as a feminine pursuit. But let’s take a little diversion into some other cool high-tech fashion projects.

Project in the middle: the opaque panels covering her skin go transparent when she is sexually aroused. The project to the right is activated with sound: when you clap your hands, the bra flies off! The same artist has a project in which you pull down a zipper and the room lights dim and disco music comes on. Project on the left: the panels on her corset correspond to physical locations around the town, and when she moves around, and when she moves around, the corresponding segments go transparent. Don’t get me wrong — these are really really awesome projects. They’re technically impressive, and they’re beautiful, and sexual agency and gender empowerment are very convoluted concepts. In the corset project, the male gaze is very much the point of the project; it’s conceptually about data vulnerability. These are all very evocative projects. But as I said, I was making a project for me, to put on my body, and I didn’t want to make a project about being vulnerable.

The title of my project is “Clothing for Moderns” and it comes from this book, which is my absolute favorite vintage sewing book. It was written for the emerging young woman of the late 1940s, and she’s going off to college and she needs practical advice on how to win her way in the world. You know, via her clothing. A lot of the specific advice is just as classist and body-negative as you get in today’s magazines, but the goal is empowerment.

Shoulder augmentation for empowerment is an old concept. We’ve all see this before. But 80’s powersuits are actually about camouflage: the point is to dress like the boys so you can be acknowledged by them.

So I went one fashion cycle earlier, and I took the shoulders from the 1940’s. The shoulder trend of the 40’s was directly influenced by Katharine Hepburn, who as you may know, was the original Hollywood gender badass. She used her chiffon as a weapon, and I wanted to do that as well.

So here’s my old hollywood glamour, right here.

The other project, the one at the cocktail party, is a concept I’ve had for a very long time, because it’s something that I kind of think we’ve all wanted to do before. You know, go to a party, and just.. kind of… disappear? You know, maybe? Sometimes? And the aesthetic themes of this fell into place pretty quickly as soon as I decided it was going to be be a cocktail party. Also went I went fabric shopping, I found this amazing wool crepe and this even more amazing metallized silk, and basically between the two it pretty much screamed that I had to go 60’s mod.

So those were the visual aesthetic decisions. There were also some structural aesthetic decisions to be made. A major structural aesthetic decision to be made with any wearable project is how you’re going to handle providing power to it. The choice basically breaks down into whether or not you want to be tethered, meaning that you’re plugged into a wall, or into a cable of some other kind. As I said, part of the appeal of LED projects is that you don’t even need to think about this; most LEDs draw little enough power that you just use some batteries and don’t think twice.
Even though this ended up being a video project for me, I wanted the flexibility of not being tethered. So for the blooming collar project, that was not actually that big of a constraint; I just used two batteries; you can see them in that picture. There’s a smaller battery powering the microcontroller and there’s a bigger one powering the servo. Pretty straightforward.

Untethered pneumatic shoulder pads are a bigger constraint, since typically pneumatic effects get their power from air compressors. Even a portable air compressor is not really a wearable air compressor. So I offloaded my compressing. I used cartridges of compressed CO2. These are 12g cartridges, which is the size that is usually sold for emergency bike tire re-inflation. So they’ll inflate a bike tire, at bike tire pressures, which is still not a whole lot of air. A single cartidge would give me two or three of that shoulder inflation effect. It’s not enough for a whole day of intimidating your boss if necessary. But if you have a boss that’s easily scared, you know… It’s a compromise solution. It’s more portable than an air compressor but the performance is much more limited. I imagine this system as something that you could use for a stage effect, like Lady Gaga or Rihanna. And in this case I’m also using a high-pressure solenoid valve. This one is marketed as “micro-mini,” but it’s not really that micro or mini. So these elements are not hideable, and they do influence the visual aesthetics.

So that’s enough talking about my project. I want to talk about how you’re gonna make your project. That’s the goal here, right? We’re all gonna make something like this when we go home today? Yeah. Okay. Some of you.

I’m not going to give specific advice about which microcontroller to use or how to power a solenoid, because that stuff is very project-specific. There are also a lot of great tutorials on the internet. This is a video from about a hand-knotted motor. It’s probably the most impressive little motor I’ve ever seen. We’re not going to talk about how to built this, because you can look at their website.

I’m happy to answer your questions, Twitter or email, any time you’d like, but I’m just going to give some general advice today. It all stems from one basic tenet of wearables: that it is difficult to build things for squishy meat bodies.

A lot of engineering practices are founded on the idea that you want predictable, repeatable motions with very little mechanical slop. You want things to line up, and you want precision tolerances.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, a particularly epic historical struggle on this topic, “Fashioning Apollo” here is a book about the culture clash between NASA, who basically can’t build anything that hasn’t been rendered in isometric three times over, and the bra seamstresses at Playtex and Warner that they commissioned to make the Apollo spacesuits, which were the first soft space suits to be made. It’s a good book.

But for you, today, I have four pieces of advice. Let’s take them in order. Right off the bat, one way you can save yourself a lot of effort is to build on top of shoulders. They’re the least squishy part of the body. You can also use hips, heads, I guess wrists.I really like shoulders because they’re very expressive. You can get fear, you can get confidence, flirtation, aggression, all of these things from shoulder movements — and also they’re right next to your face. So there’s a lot of expressiveness all in general.

Here’s a project that builds on top of shoulders. [Video says: “This is something that you can use to be more expressive with your body in a way that you weren’t necessarily born with.”]

This project is near to my heart because it’s superficially a lot like my own shoulder project — big flappy shoulder things. Something that’s very different about it, though, is that it’s actuated with a servo, so they have fine-grain control over exactly how much up those shoulders are. Specifically, it’s triggered with electromyography, so she’s got electrodes on her muscles and on the bony part of her elbow, and when she flexes her muscles, that determines how forward the shoulder pads are.

This is a project out of the Social Body Lab, as you see up there, and they’re a group of interdisciplinary artists — artists, makers; I have a friend who works there and she said that most of the people in the lab come from an artist or maker background — but the approach is actually very scientific. They call themselves a lab, and they actually are approaching this as a research project. Apparently they actually have four of those Monarch devices, that’s the flappy shoulder one, and they’ve gotten four people together in a room at the same time, all wearing them. The footage of this is not online, and that breaks my heart, but maybe someday in the future. But so the point is they want repeatable, predictable results, and one way to get that is by mounting on shoulders.

Here’s another, similar project. And this one, we’re mounting on a head. This is a hat that responds to the amount of energy being put off by your cell phone with sort of a startle response. And I believe it’s also actuated by servos.

Okay, so that’s straightforward. But, you know, what if you don’t necessarily want to build on shoulders? Okay, alright, I guess, if you must. Another thing you can do is use manipulable structures.

When I say manipulable structure, I mean a structure that can be induced to change its shape in an interesting way by applying forces that are much more simple.

So one of the examples that often gets brought out is that of the miura-ori, which is an origami structure designed by a Japanese astrophysicist. Its original goal was to be able to pack solar panels into a very small area, and be able to unpack them with just a linear force. It’s easy to get a linear force out of just one motor; it’s much harder to get an unfolding force out of just one motor. But if you use a clever structure such as this, it is possible.

One designer who uses a lot of deployable structures, which is how she refers to them, is Diana Eng. She has a line called Fairytale Fashion, which is both a clothing line and a series of tutorials. A lot of her tutorials are about how to take inspiration from nature and incorporate them into your own work. So this is a miura-ori-like structure that she pulled out of a flower: the buds open in that direction, and you see she’s incorporated it into a hood that she’s wearing on the righthand side of the screen.

You’ll notice, by the way, that biomimetics, that is, making structures that mimic the shapes we find in nature, are very popular in clothing technology, partially because, why not cheat? Why not take inspiration from nature that’s already done the work for you? And partially just there really is that strong draw toward having other people’s bodies influence your own body, having other animals, drawing things in that way.

Here’s another folding structure. This one’s very similar to the Social Body Labs project I showed. This one’s not actually actuated by a motor, but it does use folds to compact a rather elaborate shape into a much smaller area.

My own work draws a lot from The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolf. You should get a copy of this book. It’s amazing. The book catalogues various surface manipulations that have been formalized by millenia of vernacular craft to provide particular surface and structural characteristics. For example, you’re probably familiar with quilting. Quilting is a method where we take several layers of fabric and batting between them, and we sew to create pockets to keep the stuffing in. The sewing helps it be a warmer surface because it keeps the stuffing from shifting around. And it also has a decorative quality, as you’ve probably noticed.

Another family of textile manipulation techniques, and one which I’m personally completely in love with, is smocking. This is a family of techniques where you use embroidery over pleating, and it creates a surface which is elastic sort of in one direction. It has gone out of favor recently because it’s a lot of work, and we have better ways of making stretch fabric. But it’s beautiful.

In my case, I used a honeycomb smocking technique in which the fabric is folded into pleats, and then you alternately pin together the pleats with stitches. My fabric was that medium-weight wool that you saw before, interfaced with a fairly heavy interfacing and lined with a metalized silk. So when it’s all pleated up and smocked together, it’s very resistant to drooping, in this direction, but it’s very flexible around the cylinder, in this direction. Because of that, linear forces pulling downward as you saw in the video tend produce that blooming shape, but it has enough restoring force to tend to uncurl back upward when I’m not pulling down on it.

I’m not the only one to play with smocking. Here’s an example that uses North American “direct smocking,“ in which stitches pull together sections of the fabric in a pattern. So instead of pleating in advance, you sort of pull as you’re sewing. And this piece actually uses muscle wire for those tucks, so it can be selectively tightened. I don’t have a video of this; it’s very sad.

And lest you think that this is all totally divorced from real, wearable clothing, here’s a picture of some actual English crinolines from 1872. Crinolines were western european undergarments that gave shape to women’s skirts. Variations on this shape have been popular in fashion cycles for forever; but in this particular go-around, they were made from light spring steel in a lightweight cotton casing. I think these basically beg to be actuated. If somebody can get on that?

Okay, so that’s how you’re going to make your predictable structures. Failing that, you could just: Be okay with unpredictability. I’m a fan of that method as well.

So this is a dress by Anouk Wipprecht. The dress itself was 3d-printed in flexible plastic, but that’s not the important part, right. The important part is the cool swirling mist that is generated by the dress. I find the use of fluids quite compelling in a wearable because it harmonizes with that whole squishy meat body thing instead of trying to fight against it. Fluids can evoke anything from Gigeresque body horror to sort of a fantasy unicorns in the mist thing like we’re seeing here, so there’s a lot of creative directions you could take this.

I particularly like this project because it reminds me of one of my favorite buildings, which is Diller and Scofidio’s Blur pavilion for Swiss Expo 2002. It’s basically the same thing, but smaller.

Here’s another project harnessing fluids; in this case, she’s using air. And she’s is getting a very large shape effect from a very simple mechanic. It’s not electromechanical at all — as you can see, the air is just being pumped by her feet. And at a certain point, that bustle get so unwieldy that she has no choice but to sit down. There she goes. It’s not going to support her for very long. The youTube comments are all about how it’s not a very good chair. She’s now forced to begin the cycle anew. In this case, I think that the complete unpredictability and unwieldiness of this dress is perfect for the narrative she’s going for. And there you have it.

This is a project by Lucy McRae, body architect, one of my heroes. In this project she’s running colored liquids through this giant mass of tubing that’s surrounding the body of Robyn, who’s a singer. I realize here that we’re kind of back in the realm of just projects that change color, which is something that I was saying that I’m a little bit down on. But if you think about it, if you put yourself in Robyn’s shoes, this is actually something where it’s got to feel like something, because half of her body, half of her dress is full of a heavy liquid, and the other half is not. There’s got to be a constantly shifting gravitational force on her. I like to imagine that if you had localized pumps and some sort of little sacs or something, you could actually play with that as a pressure-ful wearable. I actually started down this path a little bit; I cast a bunch of weird silicone horrible alien egg sacs… I ended up focusing on the chiffon instead. But so, future work: weird silicone alien egg sacs.

I’m not playing this video with the sound on, because we would all have the song stuck in our heads for the next week. It’s a really good video though. Download the slides; click on it. That brings me to the point that this is, fundamentally, a video work. This is specifically a music video. Robyn is a musician and she commissioned Lucy McRae to make this thing for her cool alien fictional fashion narrative. Which brings me to my last point, which is that, failing shoulders and structures and unpredictability, you can also make video art. This is something that I did. Not that the other things failed, or anything. But you know, if they had, it would have been a viable solution.

And when I’m saying “Make Video Art,” it’s actually just a flippant way of saying, consider your medium. One of the big challenges of wearables is that they are fundamentally a site-specific installation, on squishy meat bodies, and that can make it very challenging to display. I know that I personally have no interest in standing around in a gallery all day. So the work that I made ended up becoming a video installation because they’re dresses for me, even though I did design it to technically be a real time non-tethered installation.

And now I’m actually… this is a weird segue because I’m going to show you some things that totally ignore this advice and are totally real-time pieces. But they have some ways of mediating this.

Okay. This is Hussein Chalayan’s Spring/Summer 2007 runway show. It was actually shown in October 2006 because that is how the fashion world works, about six months ahead of time. And of all the projects I’m showing you, this is the project that is most personally meaningful to me. I found this on the internet, probably in spring/summer 2007, and I think it has a lot in common with what I’m striving for. So this is a runway show, this is real time, that’s a professional model on a closed course. There’s a lot of engineering going on here. There was an entire separate engineering firm brought in to make those rigid corsets, essentially, that are going on here. The whole point, this is overengineered so it doesn’t have to be a video work. There are also some other design decisions which help it not fail. The overall narrative arc of this show is that we’re seeing the fashions morph across the decades, so here we’re seeing roughly early 1900’s to roughly 1920’s, it’s all very interpretive, of course, but he takes it all the way through I think 1960, and that’s over a progression of five different dresses, and each one has four or five different little animation sequences. So even if you lost an entire dress, or one of them lost one of the animations, it would still be an extremely impressive show. It’s also extremely impressive because I haven’t seen any other fashion designers do this since. 2006! 2006, everybody.

This is another Anouk Wipprecht piece. This is called DareDroid, and I haven’t seen a video of it, but from the writeup on her site, it’s a live performance. You go up to her and she’s gonna dispense some juice in that little cup in the center of her corset, and if you’re willing to play Truth or Dare with her, she might add some alcohol. So it’s very much participatory. All sorts of things could go wrong. One of the mechanisms that’s part of the narrative is that if you get too close to her, the entire system shuts down. Which I think is a great cover, if there are any possible malfunctions.

This is… I didn’t intend the sound to happen… this is another piece with both video and live iterations. The text on the site says that it’s “an interactive skindress that expresses excitement […] It breathes; it shows a pulse through its veins on the hips and […w]hen approached it responds by increasing its pulse rate through the veins as if it’s excited. It’s now up to the visitor to respond to this excitement. Upon contact the suit will show it’s vulnerable side.” This is probably the most extreme example of the biomimetic theme in wearable projects.

And I have one more project that I want to show you, and it’s in many ways completely unlike the others. A lot of what I’ve shown has been about youth and beauty, hope, possibility augmentation. That’s partially my own interests and it’s partially the biases of a fashion-driven medium. But here’s a project that does exactly the opposite. This is the Age Gain Now Empathy System, and it’s a series of bodily interventions which age you, essentially. So on her head and neck, she has a system that keeps her from turning her head, she has smeary, yellowing glasses, she’s wearing extra pairs of gloves, she’s got shoes with an uneven sole, and she’s got those heavy bands that keep her elbows and knees constrained in a fairly tight way. The purpose of this project for the people who built it is to be an empathy suit; it’s for designers to wear to test-drive their products that they’re designing for old people. Mysterious old people. It’s not actually intended as an art project — this is a project out of an MIT research lab that’s intended to help designers. But I actually think that this, among all the projects that I’ve shown you today, is probably the most haunting work of art, and part of that is that it’s going against this grain of augmentation, of constantly ratcheting up abilities. There you have it. So I’m going to leave you with that question that I implied earlier, which is, what are you going to build?

And of course, I’d like to thank you all for coming, and I’d especially like to thank the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Golan and Marge and Linda, for hosting my work here with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and also their own Frank-Ratchye Fund for Arts at the Frontier. Thank you.

| Machine, Speaking, Textiles