The Little Black Piezoelectric Dress

What happens when high tech meets haute couture

On a Wednesday night in February, one week after fashion’s biggest names descended on New York for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, techy designer Diana Eng’s models were strutting a different kind of stuff: the Twinkle Dress, for example. As a striking brunette model slinked by, her flirty frock, embroidered with LEDs, conductive silverized thread, and microphones, lit up in response to tunes from a quartet playing homemade digital instruments. Off the runway, the dress’s microphones can pick up sounds from the wearer’s voice: when she speaks, she lights up in true diva style.

Video: Footage from Diana Eng’s electrified fashion show

Although labs around the world have been creating wearable computers for more than a decade, and spacesuits and military uniforms are technologically versatile, you probably won’t find them on the cover of Vogue anytime soon. But Eng is one of several up-and-coming technophiles who take fashion as seriously as technology. Her delicate silk chiffons stand apart from the hardware that makes up most of our gadgetry, yet they enable the wearer to make technology a working part of her wardrobe.

According to the designer Amanda Parkes, among the most important functions of technologically enhanced designer wear are power generation and storage. Parkes designed the Piezing, a dress that uses piezoelectric discs and film to harness the body’s movement for electrical power, which is stored in a battery near the belly button. (Piezoelectric materials use vibrations from movement to generate electricity.) The battery can then be used to charge a favorite device. Elena Corchero’s exquisite parasols and fans are adorned with intricate embroidery. But solar cells, conductive thread, and batteries give her old-school style a modern twist: Corchero’s Light Gown is a sexy nightie that turns into a night-light when hung on its charger-hook.

So what happens when these tools are part of our second skin—when instead of carrying our technology, we inhabit it, the way we inhabit a T-shirt? According to Andy Clark, a professor of philosophy and the author of Supersizing the Mind, cognition does not evolve solely from within our epidermal cloak. He argues that the tools we use also help shape our minds.

Take the M-dress, designed by CuteCircuit to solve the problem of digging through a purse in a dark lounge to find a cell phone. With a SIM card embedded in the dress’s tag, a microphone and speaker in the sleeve, and gesture-recognition software, the wearer can answer calls by simply raising her hand to her ear. There is no external device and no button to press—the movement alone activates a sensor that answers and ends calls. Our bodies become part of the communication tool, mediated by little more than fabric. “When our relation to something nonbiological is that close, and we’re secure in our access to information, then we feel the information is part of our mind,” says Clark.

If more designers can integrate their science with their craft (and resolve a few details like easy cleaning), we may see more garments that light up, make calls, and power our iPods. But their ware is not for the faint of wallet: on Corchero’s Web site, her Solar Vintage Parasol sells for £698 (more than $1,000).

The fashion industry would like to develop more technologically enhanced designs, says Parkes, but while some materials, like LEDs, are readily available, others are still in development.

Even if the materials problem is solved, some of these designs are as conceptual as traditional couture. The late designer Alexander McQueen once sent out a model covered in chain mail from head (and face) to toe. While this sort of design is meant to push the boundaries of fashion, no one expected women to roam the streets in full body armor. Instead, chain-mail-inspired designs—textured grays with stark silhouettes—hit the stores. We may not see Eng’s Inflatable Dress bouncing through Midtown, but her design may pave the way for garments that change from one form to another. After all, what fashionable shopper wouldn’t want two for the price of one?