PRINT November 1995


Shiny Clothes

THIS WINTER WE’LL FIND out whether the shiny fabrics of the spring and summer are going to make it on the streets as cold-weather wear or revert to a life as traffic-safety vests. Now that the original raver futurecult has filtered its way through the fetish cycle of the after-hours gliterrati to emerge in suburbia’s light of day, it’s safe to say that the synthetic look has all but conquered the weekend glamour market of every other bridge-and-tunnel clubber. Proven in the heat of the dance-floor battle against sweat, iridescent techno clothing now faces the test of other temperature extremes in a sidewalk paramilitary replay of the vintage astronaut suit’s exposure to the high-radiation climates of deep space.

Until now, these have been the kind of clothes you expect to be able to throw in the dishwasher. Or, as one label puts it, “Wear Until It Smells. Then Clean with Damp Cloth.” The revolution in textile treatments and simulated fabrics is on the verge of creating a veritable fashion wave. The Shining has colonized every possible wardrobe item: silver vinyl twinsets, spiky latex cardigans, cropped lurex sweaters, quilted gold vests, diaphanous bubble-wrap dresses, aluminized nylon micro-mini skirts, slick satin baby tees, chrome patent-leather hot pants, space-cadet combat boots, rubberized chiffon halter tops, rhinestone chokers, slinky polyurethane shorts, stainless steel heels, blue metallic flares, faux fur-lined snakeskin prints, transparent knapsacks, glitter-soaked mesh, spangles, sequins, and the latest plastic fantastic spawned from the labs—like Tencel and polyamide. But what is the social meaning of this shiny vogue (the dread question every culture critic sees coming)? No, it’s not a sign that people want free laptops instead of a welfare state. Neither is it a retro-chic memorial to the hi-tech surfaces of period fashion, whether it’s the ’60s futurist spacewomen of Courrèges, Gernreich, Cardin, Vadim’s Pill-inspired Barbarella, the pervy Emma Peel, and the SF legions of Amazonian alienettes, or the ’70s glittery trash esthetic of glam, cosmic funk, and early punk. We can only hope that this season’s hi-tech translation to kickass winter wear will vanquish the last vestiges of clueless super-waifery and reinject some adult intelligence that is slightly more belligerent than the umpteenth return of minimalist mod. Cyberutopians are already talking about bioefficient, self-cleaning garments that will eat dirt and perspiration. Smart clothes can’t be far behind, although they’ll likely be programmed solely to shop for matching accessories.

As the pioneers in high-altitude, antiradiation clothing with built-in bioinstrumentation, NASA has been in this business for a long time. The need for stable, pressurized suits led early space-suit designers to manufacturers of tires, women’s undergarments, and infant rubber products, while engineers looked to medieval armored suits for the articulated joints used on the Mercury program exoskeletons in the early ’60s. By the time of the Gemini missions, space suits featured a version of stainless steel cloth, containing many protective layers culled from the likes of DuPont—uncoated nylon, uncoated Nomex, unwoven Dacron, aluminized Dacron, neoprenecoated nylon, and oxford nylon. The Apollo suit employed 21 of these superthin layers and replaced the reflective, aluminized silver thermal meteoroid top with nylon white as early as 1964. The period of the glamorous silver exterior was thus rather short-lived, but its influence, in popular memory and fashion, has been far-reaching. The most recent suits worn on the space shuttle, with their own integrated life-support systems, are reusable, heralding the new waste-conscious ethos in garment design. But readers of Lillian Kozloski’s lavishly detailed 1994 U.S. Space Gear: Outfitting the Astronaut, produced for the Smithsonian, may be surprised to learn that most of the fabrics we regard as NASA spinoffs—Mylar, Dacron, Kapton, Nomex, Lycra, Kevlar, Teflon, and super beta cloth, among others—were commercially available products before they were showcased by the astronauts (only Velcro found its first use in space). Even when it works for real, the spinoff system is more valuable as handy propaganda for justifying the massive public expense of the military-industrial-aerospace complex. The permanent war economy, which has effortlessly survived the demise of the cold war, is often defended as the crucible of “comparative advantage” in matters of technological development. Remember the peace dividend? Forget It!

Between the Social Darwinist revival and all the talk about environmental security at the Pentagon, ecoconsciousness is increasingly being militarized: there are no longer any enemies, but environmental threats aplenty. That is why there are at least two tracks in expressionist ecofashion thought these days. One is the earth-tonal stronghold of gypsy bricolage, ruled by natural fabrics (viz. the hemp revival) and traditional, even “tribal,” influences. The other is the shiny haven of hi-tech responses to post-industrial survival. In staking their claim in the latter, the lords of polymerization have been trying hard to repair their ecologically incorrect reputation as demon scapegoats of pop environmentalism. DuPont boardroom fantasy life no doubt includes a Hollywood remake of The Graduate in which Mr. McGuire’s immortal advice—“ I just want to say one word to you . . . Plastics”—serves as a real turn-on for some slacker p.c. version of Benjamin Braddock. But the prevalent cultural image of ecotech salvation is not so much concerned with forging materials for sustainable environments as with providing personal security and safe passage through a video-game landscape of threats and obstacles. Hence the street deployment of the new fabrics and materials in the age of high-risk avoidance, where the goal of immunity against biochemical, biogenetic, and bionuclear threats is the order of the day. Protection is privatized and customized; to each their own titanium armature.

It’s easy to see the gendered merits of hi-tech protection and combat gear if the alternative is kindergarten dresses and teddy bears. But you have to wonder whether there isn’t a better way of addressing the ecological crisis in the realm of style. For one thing, survival is the lowest form of consciousness, and the military way, however tongue-in-cheek, is in the end quite alien to life-forms. The task for design is to reinvent our second skin so that it treats the world with respect and shames those who don’t. Materials do matter; there is an economy of resources. Labor is always relevant; the public is more and more scandalized by the international sweatshop economy. And the market in ideas has to be reformed so that ideas about the feasible future are as inexpensive as the current rage for recycling the past. The aim, of course, is to be both sexy and politically correct. Now whoever heard of that? So until then . . . shine on, you crazy nylon.

Andrew Ross contributes this column regularly to Artforum.