This dissertation examines how wearables ‒ garments that bring together electronics and digital materials with textiles ‒ can become integral to the everyday reality of fashion. It does so by reflecting on my practice as a fashion designer informed by the concept of ‘material aesthetics’. The starting point of this research is my first-person perspective as a design researcher who engages in a reflective analysis of her design practice and its outcomes. The work I discuss is created in the context of my professional design studio that has been running for eight years. On the basis of this work, I argue for the need to reframe the role of technology in fashion. The prevailing understanding of technology on one hand tends to focus either on its functional or instrumental value, or on the expressive qualities of technology as a matter of representation. This limited and fairly disembodied understanding of technology, sustained by the perceived divide between functionality and aesthetics, hinders the integration and meaningful role of wearables in the everyday lives of people. In this dissertation, I therefore call for an approach that is able to holistically tie together notions of material, embodiment and aesthetics.
These concerns have led me to turn to postphenomenology (a strand of philosophy of technology) as a theoretical lens to inform my analysis. Especially important to this research is that postphenomenology is grounded in an experiential approach based on an embodied and situated perspective. Postphenomenology doesn’t speak of artefacts in terms of functions and signs, but speaks of the way artefacts ‘mediate’ by influencing human experiences and practices. The theory of ‘technological mediation’ enables looking at the ways in which artefacts ‘coshape’ the relationship between human beings and the world. The postphenomenological understanding that artefacts mediate materially, turns the focus to their sensorial dimension and thereby extends aesthetics into what can be considered a material aesthetics. I show how the concept of material aesthetics can explain relations to wearables very well. With the help of this concept I examine my own work to see what role the garments designers design can play. Additionally, I am motivated to share my experiences and findings in ways that are helpful to designers in incorporating these ideas into their practice.
Methodologically, this dissertation presents a three-fold approach. First, it examines the designer’s intentions and inscriptions during the design process of three design exemplars: Solar Dress, Solar Shirt and Issho. These autoethnographic design journeys reveal the potential of a material aesthetics approach. It then continues by providing a material aesthetics framework for the analysis of artefacts, which introduces a vocabulary that allows my design exemplars to be described in a rich and more nuanced way. The second analysis shows that these wearables (Solar Shirt, Phototrope and Issho) do more than fulfill mere function; they shape human perception and action. The third analysis focuses on the situated perspective of the wearer and the observer, on the basis of a field study with the interactive running shirt Phototrope. Over the course of these three perspectives the understanding and role of technology in fashion is being described in increasingly nuanced terms.
Finally, based on a synthesis of the three perspectives (designer, artefact and wearer/observer) I offer a holistic view of the mediating role of technologies in fashion. It shows how human-technology relations are constituted through the complex dynamics between designer’s inscriptions, the emergence of the artefact and the interpretations and appropriations of wearers and observers. I then suggest and describe a material aesthetics sensibility for designers that enables them to make postphenomenological thinking an explicit part of the design process. To illustrate how they can anticipate mediations, I present an iterative designer-artefact-wearer/observer loop that shows the relation between the three ‘sources’ of mediation in design. Also, I discuss the role technology can have in reclaiming fashion as an embodied practice. Finally, I draw out several implications for designers and discuss the new design space that opens up when designers of wearables gain a material aesthetics sensibility.