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Clothes make a statement electronically

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The urbanhermes team has demonstrated its concept with a messenger bag that includes a sewn-in electronic display. But the project is not about technology or accessory design. It's about creating a model for how we might integrate technology into our fashion experience.

"Other people are developing the underlying technology," Donath says. "So we're asking, what would I want to do with things that are worn? What would be the social mechanism behind it?"

Imagine subscribing to a daily - hourly! - feed of T-shirt designs. Or admiring a friend's plaid slacks and then turning your own trousers into instant tartan twins. Perhaps clothiers will sell designs without their customers ever having to step inside a store. Maybe advertisers will pay you to wear their brand on your sleeve. These are the sorts of ideas bandied about in Donath's group.

Even though it's still on the drawing board, "e-fashion" has already drawn criticism. "I can't imagine anyone I know wanting to change their jacket from black to red," says Valerie Steele, museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. To her, fashion is "not really a question of an image, but of proportion, volume, the silhouette."

"There's some limited potential" to fabrics with integrated electronics, says Ms. Steele. She sees greater potential in "smart fabrics that respond to temperature so that you are cooler in the sun and warmer in the cold, but they are probably less flashy things than what's being shown at MIT."

Indeed, the most successful examples of integrating technology and fashion are ones in which technology adds to the function, not the appearance, of the clothing. Textronics, an electronic textile manufacturer, for example, made a sports bra that can monitor the wearer's heart rate.

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