by Sunena V MajuAug 10, 2022
Textiles, fabrics and garments instantly bring to mind specific imagery of loaded factories and people behind sewing machines, or models donning statement, (read) "unwearable" pieces. But what of its evolution? How have wearables advanced into the digital age? Does fashion have a role in contemporary expression, besides seeking to disrupt gender biases, besides being provocative or functional, at an inherent level, of covering skin? What underscores the human-garment interaction?
Technology and our experience of it, is largely loaded with questions and intimidation, but is also highly explorative and assistive. But can a technologically augmented piece of clothing help bring our anxiety levels down, make us aware when our mental health is slipping? Can objects and materials communicate to us our feelings, our moods, our dynamic shifts of being human and emotional? Far-reaching and seeking more purpose, the Emotional Clothing line by Polish designer Iga Węglińska is an experiential intersection of wearables and technology, where clothing doesn’t just garb the physical but is intuitive in its essence. Like the rest of her imaginative oeuvre, Węglińska regards clothing as sculpture, carried by and based on the human body. Her design process focuses on the form, as well as the emotions that are evoked when wearing it, emphasised by beliefs in “intellectual fashion”, fashion as an art, and fashion that gives its wearer a “feeling of singularity”.
STIR speaks to the young designer based in Krakow, Poland, about her two-piece collection, seeking answers to her study-led sensory prosthesis garments that “see” our patterns and responses to mental health, and how fashionable clothing can play a part in facilitating relaxation.
Jincy Iype: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in design.
Iga Węglińska: I am a Polish multidisciplinary designer and researcher and my field of interest lies majorly in the clothing experience. My journey in design began when I was 17 - I won two international fashion design contests, and one of them gave me a full scholarship for the School of Art and Fashion Design in the city of Krakow, some 650 kilometres from my hometown, where I finally ended up living and practising for 14 years. I am wholly fascinated by new technologies, how they intersect with our behaviours and lifestyles, and after my studies, I felt that I did not possess proper knowledge in that field. So, I decided to pursue a BA and MA in Product Design at the Industrial Design Department Academy of Fine Arts in the same city, to broaden my horizons when it comes to new materials and technologies, their junction and allied objectives, and finally did a PhD in new technologies in fashion.
My practice now focuses on merging the fields of fashion design and product design with research, new technologies and applied materials, within the dual realms of the physical and digital. Since 2014, my own design studio focuses on R&D projects, and since 2016, I lead a fashion design studio at the Academy of Art in Stettin, Poland, where I work as an assistant professor.
Jincy: What led to Emotional Clothing? What comprises it and its intention?
Iga: The design proposal is essentially a proof of concept. It is an integral part of my defending PhD dissertation titled Human–Object Interaction. Textiles – New Technologies. The design proposal of the doctoral thesis was based on the theory of The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, which assumes that material objects, such as diaries or personal computers (external paraphernalia that can record information), can take over some part of our thinking and can be treated as peripheral elements for the process of perception, and that our minds do not exclusively reside in the brain or even the body, but can extend into the physical world via objects.
Emotional Clothing consists of two polysensory silhouettes that employ the phenomenon of biofeedback, signalling psycho-physiological changes taking place in the wearer's body, such as body temperature, heart rate, galvanic skin response (changes in the skin’s electrical resistance caused by emotional stress, that can be measured with a sensitive galvanometer, as seen in lie-detector tests), or proprioception (an awareness of the position and movement of the body). Emotional Clothing acts as a sensory prosthesis by giving our bodies abilities it would not have without it. Secondly, it is a parasitic form as it cannot function sans the user.
The intelligent materials used in them are supposed to stimulate cognitive involvement and mindfulness – a “sense of taking part”. The designs act as a sensory prosthesis using unidirectional and bidirectional feedback – a direct response to stimuli – at the same time becoming a starting point for a new discussion on the function of clothing as its fundamental role in adorning skin. The suits could help people who become stressed or anxious to calm down, to practice mindfulness after seeing the items change colour or light up.
The Emotional Clothing suits basically become visual indications of elevated stress levels in our bodies, and helps to identify it immediately, which is the first step to slow down and take deep breaths to relax. – Iga Węglińska
The project was preceded by cognitive, sociological, empirical and pilot material research carried on a homogeneous group of participants with smart material samples. The doctoral dissertation was to show that the use of smart materials in clothing can play a key role in the development of the user's "sense of taking part" and can be used to broaden the experience of clothing, under the purview of human-object interactions. I interpreted this as a synonym of cognitive engagement and mindfulness.
As a designer and scientist, I focus on human-garment relations. After years of observation, I feel like we do not pay proper respect to our clothing, by not trying to find out its full potential in relation to other fields, especially technology. Fashion and its trends have trained us to think of clothing as just an aesthetic shell. Designers have a great opportunity to sensitise people towards newer forms, shapes, aesthetics, but also its usages and progression, which is something I try to follow within my work.
Jincy: How does the wearer react to the clothing?
Iga: The smart materials making up the long-sleeved, high necked suits essentially act as an alarm going off, to signal the wearer of what they are feeling and how their bodies are trying to communicate that to them.
The first form-fitting bodysuit reacts to changes in body temperature, by changing its colour from polythene black to pale translucent. It also monitors fluctuating heart rates by counting BPM from sensors attached to the wearer's finger, and proceeds to change this signal to kinetic visuals to the rhythm of the heartbeat, its tone pulsating from cold to warm, to inform the wearer to calm down.
The second one has a more balloon-like silhouette that measures the activity of sweat glands reacting to how stressed or relaxed the user is, by using a GSR (galvanic skin response) to send signals from received stimulus to an output. In this case, it is a string of light pink LED lights built into the suit that transforms from warm to cold, to inform the user to take deep breaths. It also uses proprioception by reacting to gestures, giving the user possibilities to control the movement (and direction) of lights set on the arms area.
Jincy: Why the focus on practicing mindfulness and keeping track of mental health?
Iga: The “sense of taking part” is a term used by Polish poet and 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Wisława Szymborska, in her poem Conversation with a Stone, where a human negotiates with a stone (implicitly with nature) to let him in, but the stone refuses every time. One of its arguments is the human’s “lack of sense of taking part”. For me, this term seemed perfect to underline a gap I saw in our usage of clothing, which has more power, but we have to create a conduit for it.
In my design process I focused on the form, as well as the emotions that evoked when wearing it. My goal was to stimulate cognitive engagement and mindfulness – the aforementioned sense of taking part. By implementing smart materials, visual interactions with garments take place that forces us to focus on our bodies, by showing psycho-physical changes taking place in real-time. That helped me to tighten the human-garment relations, reeling in the psychological sphere because it affects everything.
Jincy: What encompasses “sensory substitution” in the context of your collection?
Iga: What we need to know is that our brains do not categorise from which sense organ a stimulus comes from – it just reacts to it, regardless of the source. Sensory substitution is a situation, in which we have a damaged sense organ, and we provide our brain information about the stimulus from a different source (another sense organ), where the brain takes information from one sense, such as a touch, and relays its into another, like sight – to give you an example, we can “read” the Braille alphabet by touching it – our brain still understands it as reading, no different than when we read a graphic novel or a magazine.
With Emotional Clothing, the wearer’s body provokes multisensory changes in the form fitting garment. The clothing gives us a chance to “see our emotions” – sometimes even the ones that we are not aware of! Besides sensory substitution, we also get a synesthetic experience such as “seeing” our body heat or heartbeat.
Jincy: What are the garments made of? How do they operate and can they be recharged?
Iga: The garments combine electronics with passive materials. One of the silhouettes is made of self-moulded thermochromic material with integrated heart rate sensors and LED lights. The other silhouette combines GSR and gesture sensors with LED straps – all connected and integrated to the main fabric using conductive thread and conductive textile laminated on the fabric, which also serve as wires. The materials used in the designs constitute a kind of bridge between what our skin knows and the world of advanced technology.
Both silhouettes are connected to a rechargeable power source – small, flat batteries or power banks. At this stage, the project is a proof of concept, so it leaves a big room for improvement – it can evolve to be easily powered by solar panels integrated with textiles in the future.
I also intentionally chose the aesthetic of materials evoking association directly with human skin. Our skin also reacts to our emotions, by blushing, sweating, getting goosebumps. To underline these connotations, I used skin tone colours with soft and sticky materials. The only elements that stand out are the electronics.
Jincy: What comprised the research, development and testing involved to reach the final prototype for Emotional Clothing?
Iga: During my research I collaborated with chemists, psychologists, neurocognitive scientists, ergonomists, programmers, and technical engineers. I created samples of smart materials by mixing different textiles, liquids, inks, pigments, with sensors and tested various properties as well as the material’s reactions – both active and passive ones. The whole process was consulted with a specialist in the field of chemistry. After that, I consulted the samples with psychologists and neurocognitive scientists. Before I created my design proposal, I made tests based on the interactions of participants with chosen samples of smart textiles. My goal was to measure their level of agitation and hedonic experiences. The pilot research was purposely made on samples, to build a sort of a material library that can be implemented later to various objects or industries. At this stage, the design proposal is more conceptual rather than practical. The next stage of the design process will be implementing the research as a more “ready to wear” garment or accessory.
Jincy: Based on that, in the realm of wearable technology, do you see Emotional Clothing evolving into a greater purpose? Could they, perhaps, become assistive skin for people with special needs to communicate, or help in criminal investigative sessions?
Iga: The results of pilot studies can be implemented on other objects or industries like the medical sector, sports, alternative forms of energy harvesting, and army personnel. The wearable design shows a development potential in the field of non-verbal communication as well. The possibilities are myriad. The incredible advantage of my research is its development potential. It is scalable and adaptable.
What is worth mentioning is that almost any input and output signal can be changed to another reaction – not specifically visual – it could be auditory, binary. It could also improve human capabilities by reacting on stimulus out of reach for human sense.
Jincy: What feedback have you received? Are there any ideas here that you may continue to explore in another project?
Iga: It evoked extreme emotions – from fascination to frustration. The latter came from pragmatic recipients who wanted to see the possibility of practical at present. This is what I predicted when I intentionally decided to design an avant-garde pair of silhouettes and present the more poetic, conceptual, and alchemic layer of clothing. Right now, it is based on human-garment interaction. The next step ideally, will be broadening my research to human-garment-environment interaction studies.
Jincy: If there was a person, famous or otherwise, who you would love to model for this particular collection, who would it be, and why?
Iga: For all my designs, I would be honoured to have Björk on board. She consistently pushes boundaries with her own self and her art, and that would, I believe, best represent my ideologies.
Jincy: How would you describe your work in one word?