Science fiction gives us many imaginative conceptions of what the future might be like. But reality usually takes a different turn: developments arise from directions that no-one envisioned (PCs, mobile phones, the Internet). Or conversely, attractive-sounding ideas turn out to be harder to achieve than we originally thought (flying cars, personal jet packs, cheap nuclear power).
Seemingly simple or banal-sounding ideas can often have far-reaching effects on society. Being able to send short text messages on a mobile phone created a whole culture of communication around that method, including the infamous “txt speak”, and a great many business models built around selling products via such messages.
Here I want to talk about something seemingly even more banal, commonplace, ordinary-seeming: clothing. How might future technological developments--plausible or otherwise--affect the nature of clothing?
Currently, we spend several tens of minutes every day getting dressed and undressed. Clothes have various kinds of fastening systems, mainly nowadays in the form of zips and buttons, that we learn to master as children. This fastening technology has evolved over time, too: the zipper was only invented in the 19th century. Before buttonholes, the buttons fitted through loops of cloth. Some clothing used laces (these days normally only found on shoes) instead of buttons. More recently we have snap fasteners and Velcro.
What’s the logical next step? It seems to me it would be to make clothing easier to use. Instead of fasteners that the wearer has to learn to manipulate, how about clothing that will fasten or unfasten itself? Perhaps made of a material run through with polymer fibres that can change their shape according to an applied electric field, with seams that will stick together like glue or come apart, again under the control of an applied field, all operated by the press of a button.
The wearer would start by putting on nothing more than a small, lightweight gadget resembling a belt or a collar. Operating controls on this would cause it to extrude the active fabric according to a preprogrammed design that specifies its detailed placement and shape, even the colour and texture, generating a full, custom-fitting outfit in just a few seconds. And pressing another button would cause the outfit to just as quickly disappear.
When it becomes so easy to put clothes on and take them off again, what will be the likely social consequences? Well, one good rule of thumb is, if you make it easier for people to do something, they will likely do more of it. Just as the motor-car made it so easy to travel about town, that people began living further away from city centres, leading to the growth of suburbs, so active clothing will likely lead to people changing their clothes a great many times a day.
The obvious functional use for active clothing is adaptation to the environment: thicker and more protective outdoors in colder weather, thinner, and perhaps more revealing, indoors. (And “Can I take your coat?” becomes a quaint ritual of the past.) Even while outdoors, if the weather changes, it is easy for the clothing to adapt: if it starts to rain, you just summon up a waterproof layer, no need to dash indoors to change or find an umbrella.
And there is functional adaptation to the activity of the moment. Decide to go for a swim? It’s easy enough for active clothing to turn into a swimming costume. And when you come out of the water, really advanced active clothing would not only turn itself back into a nice, dry suit of land clothes, but it would dry you off as well!
But of course there can also be non-functional, more decorative uses. If you could wear a different outfit every minute of the day, would you? Very likely you would. The outfit you were wearing at any particular instant could come to represent your mood, or become a form of real-time social communication in its own right. “Cloth speak”, anyone?
Another possible consequence is, given the lack of fasteners and the ease with which the outfit can be completely changed, there will be less need to get partially dressed. That is, you will be either completely dressed or completely undressed—for a better fit, the function currently fulfilled by a separate layer of underwear can be integrated into the outfit. Nudity nowadays is usually considered an embarrassing state to be in, in part because a nude person is a vulnerable person, unprotected from the elements, sharp edges on objects, and other such hazards, and it takes several minutes, with access to a suitable wardrobe, to become presentably non-nude.
But what if you could become nude or non-nude instantly, at the flick of a switch? If changing from one outfit to another required you to become temporarily nude in-between, would it be worth the trouble to go someplace private just for those few seconds it took to change, or would it become accepted to simply flick the switch right there and then in front of everybody, and accept a flash of bare skin as a regular fact of everyday life?
In short, it seems to me quite likely that advances in wearing clothes will also lead to advances in not wearing clothes.