The star garment of FIT’s Fashion and Technology exhibit—a blade-silver mini dress by English designer Gareth Pugh—is made of gleaming polyurethane. Though it appears to be laser-cut, each perfect inch-wide layer was constructed meticulously by hand. This tension—between space-age design and classic craftsmanship, or, as co-curator Ariele Elia simply puts it, “the future and the traditional”—flows throughout the show. The exhibit, now on view in the museum’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery, is not entirely chronological; it opens with Burberry’s 2011 holographic runway presentation before cartwheeling viewers back to turn-of-the-century elastic corsets in the following room. In this sense, the exhibition blends the historical and the modern in the same way many of the pieces do, while also displaying a laser-precise attention to detail that mimics Pugh’s dress. Each piece in the show pinpoints a specific, remarkable moment in fashion’s dialogue with technology, effectively contextualizing both everyday garments and avant-garde fantasies of the future.

From gowns made of cellophane and gelatin sequins to wools laced with fiber-optic thread, innovative materials constitute the focus of the 100+ item exhibition. At the entrance to the gallery, a video details how 3-D printers are capable of creating nylon chainmail. Later, a zipper on the back of a Schiaparelli dress heralds the age of plastics, and an original Keds shoe signifies the beginning of rubber-soled sneakers. Textile techniques—such as the signature Missoni zigzag weave and the Issey Miyake pleat—are explained in terms of machinery and fabric blends. Ultra-suede and lycra—often overlooked today, though once revolutionary—appear in the form of fitted gowns by Halston and Marc Audibet, while a televised commercial from the 1950s advertises the merits of a fast-drying rayon “wash and wear” suit (an article one can bathe in before wearing).

Pieces like these function not only as garments, but as time-stamped predictions about the future. As Elia points out, André Courrèges’ galactic resort wear—a PVC helmet, dress, goggles, and boots meant to be worn on a cosmic vacation—represents the common assumption in the 1960s that humanity was only a few short years away from space tourism. On a nearby platform, the metallic, iridescent aesthetic of the Space Race emerges in the form of a Thierry Mugler lamé evening gown, while a Jean-Paul Gaultier catsuit covered in a computer-generated print epitomizes the 1990s concept of “cyberspace.” Both forward-thinking and outdated (e.g. exaggerated shoulders, patterns reminiscent of an ancient Windows desktop background), these garments highlight the distinction between the present and how we once imagined the present would be.

Meanwhile, a video of the very first runway show broadcast on the internet—Helmut Lang’s Fall/Winter 1998 collection—demonstrates just how much the cyber-age has elevated the fashion show’s position in pop culture over the last two decades; now that nearly every show appears instantaneously online, runway fashion has become available to an infinite number of spectators and is now at the forefront of our popular consciousness. Holograms (which made their first mainstream appearance in fashion when Alexander McQueen projected a swirling Kate Moss in 1996) have extended the runway to an entirely foreign space, mixing the material with the immaterial and creating countless new ways of displaying garments and models. McQueen also incorporated robotic technology into his collections; on one wall of the exhibit a video of his Spring/Summer 1999 show plays in which model Shalom Harlow spins in a simple white circle dress. As she moves, two robots spray her violently with yellow and blue paint, both destroying the original garment and creating elegant, chaotic patterns. According to Elia, this was meant to symbolize the conflict between handcrafted clothing and modern manufacturing.The show concludes with more recent designs that represent “techno-fashion”—or, according to the curators, “clothing defined by its connections to 21st-century technology.” Here the viewer sees Pugh’s piece alongside devices that emulate a car’s turn signals, fabrics with patterns that disappear in high temperatures, glow-in-the-dark textiles, and a leather shirt (from American designer Mandy Coon) that was made by laser-cutting based on the musical patterns of a MIDI sound file. These pieces, by far the most transporting and exciting to the modern eye, offer the richest, freshest, most “hi-tech” predictions of the future… for now.

Kara Freewind

Fashion and Technology is on view at the Museum at FIT until May 2013.


Photos courtesy of FIT Museum, and Riot of Perfume