the future of clothes?

(Image sources, clockwise: [1], [2], [3], [4]

When we talk about the future of clothes, we mostly focus on design. A futuristic style proposes a vision of the future, one that is usually optimistic about technological advancement even when it seems inadvertently funny or carries strange totalitarian overtones. The shininess of the fabrics suggests reaching out to the stars, and the regular geometry tries to take us to the sub-atomic level.

But apart from futuristic design there is also the question of how the clothes of the future would be made and that one is usually treated as a fairly straightforward one. The answer seems to be: almost entirely without human labor.


Image source [5]

Oh hi, Mr. Robot. Did you make those ladies’ dresses?

Here are two examples from two science fiction novels written fifty years apart: Leviathan Wakes (2011) by two authors writing under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey and Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel Return from the Stars.

Leviathan Wakes mentions clothes only briefly. All we learn, really, is that clothes can be a status symbol, as in the scene the clothes communicate the wearer’s wealth:

He wore a good suit, linen and raw silk, without the lines and folds that spoke of computer tailoring. (Leviathan Wakes, Orbit Books 2011, p. 408)

It’s very little to go on, but it seems like the alternative to “computer tailoring” would be tailoring done by a human hand, able to reach the folds and corners that machines can’t easily access? I can only speculate. We learn, though, that the norm is “computer tailoring.” Whatever it entails specifically, it doesn’t seem like there is any human work involved.

Clothes are a bigger deal in Return from the Stars. Lem’s protagonist is an astronaut who returns to Earth after over a hundred years of space travel in faraway galaxies. The world he returns to has changed significantly in many respects. Apart from new technologies, one of the first things he notices is how different the clothes are. He spends quite a lot of time trying to understand how the tight-fitting garments are produced and why they are so different from his old clothes, which he desperately tries to keep for as long as possible. Hal Bregg’s observations on clothes of the future he’s come to live in are very interesting and they crop up throughout the book. For brevity’s sake I’ll just cite a fragment of dialogue between Hal and a woman he meets early in the book. She works on an aspect of garment-making that Hal  can’t completely make out for lack of a shared vocabulary:

“Wait… then what exactly do you do?”
“Plast. You don’t know what that is?”
“How can I explain? To put it simply, one makes dresses, clothing in general — everything…”
“What does that mean?”
“Do you sew things?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ye gods and little fishes! Do you design dresses?”
“Well… yes, in a sense, yes. I don’t design, I only make…”
I gave up.
(Return from the Stars [1961], Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, pp. 30-31)

I guess that a reader in 2016 can understand the woman’s work as a form of 3D-printing, but imagine reading the novel in 1961 when it came out…

Why I’m sharing these quotes — apart from the fact that these images of clothes-making are interesting and the novels are worth reading — is because despite their differences they share a similar vision of making that is mostly mechanized, where a human maker (if there is one) is either an artist (Leviathan Wakes) or a person whose work does not involve great exertion (Return from the Stars).

That’s very different from today’s garment production, which involves a lot of physical labor… but it’s actually pretty much how most people imagine things are today. And it’s not so much a result of thinking about it intensely but, in a way, of the opposite. It’s not knowing much about how clothes are made that leads us to imagine large complicated machines with skillful robotic limbs and long assembly lines…

The reality, though, is neatly conveyed by Elizabeth Cline in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, for example, here:

Clothing, even when produced in a factory, is really a handmade good broken down into assembly-line steps. The sewing machine is more a tool than a machine, as it really just facilitates and speeds up manual work. (42)

I’m not going to pretend I was very insightful before reading Cline’s book. No, in fact, I had a very vague idea of what garment production was actually like. I didn’t exactly imagine it as purely mechanized with people just supervising production, but I didn’t realize just how manual the work is.

And while I love how much discussion there is about garment production in DIY circles, I wish that discussion made it out into the world more often. Maybe then we wouldn’t think the future is already here. And maybe we would imagine the future as having more tailors?

What do you think? How do you imagine the future of garment-making?


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