XXII.3 May - June 2015
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Digitizing fashion—Software for wearable devices

Oskar Juhlin

There is an ongoing trend of digital devices being used in close physical proximity to our bodies, in the same position as our clothes. It started with the success of mobile phones, continues with the emergent use of smart watches and smart eyewear, and is leading to a future of smart textiles and organic user interfaces. These devices provide public visual surfaces with possibilities for endless variation of visual expression. With the emergence of wearable hardware, we foresee the need to develop fashion-oriented software, services, and applications. The question then arises of how, specifically, these devices should vary in their expression.

This trend started with the phenomenal success of mobile phones. The complex relationship between the use of mobile devices and the consumption of fashionable clothing has been identified and discussed in sociology and HCI [1]. Since we interact with mobile phones in close physical proximity to our bodies and clothes, we have a similar interest in their beautification. That relationship is likely to increase, given the growing interest in manufacturing and commercializing smart watches. This interest is visible among global technology companies such as Samsung, Sony, Apple, and Motorola, as well as small start-ups such as Hyetis, Pebble, and Martian.



On a general level, researchers in HCI have argued for a long time that we need to account for social contexts in understanding and designing computer use. For example, when the computer was placed on the desktop, the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) grew out of the insight that the design needs to account for not only an individual and a computer, but also people and physical objects in their surroundings. The concern with understanding computers in context has widened even further with the growing interest in understanding users’ experiences beyond how efficiently they handle tasks.


Now, with hardware increasingly worn on the body, we foresee a similar need to attend to a very different context of use. The physical proximity of mobile and wearable devices to other artifacts needs to be recognized as a new context. In close proximity to wearable computers we find the clothes we wear as well as those looking at our outfits. Mobile and wearable devices share their location with handbags, gloves, wristwatches, sunglasses, shirts, jackets, trousers, and other items. The mobile phone might be held in the same glove-covered hand that also bears a handbag. The smart watch competes with wristwatches for the position in between the arm and the hand, and is often covered by the sleeve of a blouse or a shirt. In the same way, smart glasses compete with traditional eyewear but are also situated millimeters away from cosmetic products and hairdos. The physical proximity between, on the one hand, mobile phones and wearable devices, and on the other hand, clothes, accessories, and shoes, underscores the need to understand new forms of computer experiences as being influenced by, or resembling, those in clothing and fashion.

That said, the fashion phenomenon is itself hard to grasp. It is a general term we use for the items we wear as well as a concept denoting social practices related to our experiences of clothes. HCI is not alone in the quest to unpack its meaning. In recent years, we have seen an escalation of humanistic research within “fashion studies” that engages with people’s experiences and relationships with clothes. We learn that people relate to visual appeal and to the beauty of their clothes [2]. They do it in such a way that individual items are experienced as part of a complete look or outfit, and account for their selections and display as a message sent to co-present audiences. Fashion scholar Yuniya Kawamura argues that we should not confuse fashion with garments, since not all clothing items are fashionable [3]. Fashion is rather the social and cultural institutions that make particular items or textiles desired. In a similar way, Elizabeth Wilson argues that fashion is an important driver of taste and that it molds our concept of what is considered beautiful [4]. Fashion is a form of visual art with the “visible self as its medium.” Like many other scholars in this area, she discusses the most salient feature in fashion: the continuous drive for change and variation. She does this by pinpointing its dissonances. The changing expression of what is seen as fashionable has to do with the evolution of aesthetic style, which reflects discords in society. Aesthetic styles are in themselves ambiguous and rooted partly in the continual change of expressions, where one style draws on the one before it, and in a sense provide a pattern in which one step reflects the previous step. But fashion aesthetics is also molecular and disconnected:

“Fashion, with its constant change and pursuit of glamour, enacts symbolically the most hallucinatory aspects of our culture, the confusions between the real and the not-real, the aesthetic obsessions, the vein of morbidity without tragedy, of irony without merriment, and the nihilistic critical stance towards authority, empty rebellion almost without political content” [4].

In order to generate fashionable wearables and the supporting software, we need to link design to both fashion thinking and its specific supporting institutions.

Fashion expressions sit uncomfortably between the private territories of our biological bodies and our selves as social and public beings. They are linked to change derived from a complex and modern society. In this sense, the connection between the self and the world, as expressed with clothes, is always ambiguous. Fashion is a means to express individual desires for independence or wishes to belong to a group, but it also becomes a social pressure for conformity, often formulated in feministic critiques of the beautification of the self.

When digital devices are wearable, we should not confuse making the device look “pretty” with the need to design for fashion. Nor should we look for quick-and-easy rules and guidelines in aesthetics (e.g., those provided by pragmatics philosopher John Dewey [5]), since fashion is fleeting and ambiguous. We suggest providing technologies that expose the design of digital devices to the institutional practices that currently mold our taste for clothes, handbags, eyewear, and so on.

As a way to explore fashion-oriented design of wearables, we conducted a study of fashion bloggers’ comments on mobile phones [2]. Even though such posts were few, those we found show that bloggers appreciate public visual aesthetics, accessories that combine with an outfit to create a look, and possibilities for variation in-between looks. Their limited interest in mobile devices might be explained by these devices’ restricted opportunities to create and vary visual aesthetics on surfaces other than the screen, which is normally turned toward the user and invisible to people nearby. The back of a device offers a look that cannot be altered, except by adding a cover. Similar to garments and other fashion objects, the backside of each item has a fixed color and shape, but with garments, variation is easily achieved by switching between different items. Garments and accessories are then easily combined and re-combined to create publicly visible codes that are transmitted as messages to surrounding people. The study points to the possibility of designing interfaces that extend social and visual interaction and to the way people vary their outfits beyond their current decorations.

As a next step, we investigated the possibility of creating desire by drawing on cultural institutions and practices that are common in fashion, specifically, by addressing a particular style [6]. The result was the concept of a shape-switching digital device whose shape could be changed in 22 different ways when selecting a new clothing ensemble. The shapes that the imaginary device could provide were presented as a series of 22 mock-up samples that are in themselves hard to the touch, and that vary in color and shape (Figure 1). It’s important to note that this exercise is a step prior to exploring the actual shape-switching device, in which we would focus more on digital functionality and usability issues. The concept was inspired by the emerging opportunities with organic interfaces, where the interface is conceived as being capable of transforming into a variety of shapes, either by manual selection or by some sort of automatic feature. The set was designed based on further studies of fashion-conscious people in Stockholm, emphasizing a local and historically dependent visual aesthetic. The shapes are visible both to their owner and to people in the vicinity. The making of prêt-à-porter samples by a designer is important since it accounts for the fashion design process.

We conducted a user study with five women, all with an aesthetic orientation toward the identified dressing style. They mostly participated in their homes by experimenting with selecting among the samples to see how they fit with ensembles chosen from their wardrobes. Their use reflects the intention of our design concept to change the shape of a device to fit with a person’s variation in dress. It also shows the importance of providing different ways to attach them to the body, since participants found various ways to carry the device, including attaching it to necklaces, shoelaces, brooches, and belts, as well as holding it in their hand.

Our design exercise was intended to draw on previous attempts to account for fashion practices in hardware design, and then point to the need to consider fashionable software and services. In mobile design, there have been explicit attempts to create designs that target a fashion-conscious market, people who are interested in their physical attractiveness and in their image. The industry has provided accessories and hardware designed for them and has marketed devices on fashion runways and in fashion magazines. With the advent of wearable computing, attempts to vary the aesthetics in hardware design are likely to multiply, such as with Intel’s recent collaboration with the fashion retail firm Opening Ceremony or the current increase in smart watch releases. Although the visual expression of such hardware is as fixed as that of a mobile phone, the position of its wearable screen points to a new type of software and services that account for fashion values.

The generation of such software demands new orientations and new collaborations between the field of human-computer interaction and fashion designers embedded in fashion institutions. We do not suggest a turn to design in general, product design, or interaction design. If design is defined as human shaping of the environment in ways without precAwedent in nature in order to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives [7], then obviously the design of fashionable wearables could be done by any designer. However, our challenge is more precise: to understand the use of wearables in the context of clothing and accessories. It has been argued that fashion design focuses on aesthetics, creativity, and innovation in the domain of appearances, and differs from product-design thinking, which emphasizes problem solving and a user-centered method to framing problems [8,9]. More important, fashion design is nested into institutional arrangements that as a whole create desire, beautification, and variation [3,4]. From an institutional perspective, fashion design and interaction design differ because they are dependent on different organizational arrangements. Fashion design has a long tradition and is based on rather stable organizations, such as those involved in coordinating color selection. In sum, in order to generate fashionable wearables and the supporting software, we need to link design to both fashion thinking and its specific supporting institutions.

We envision that future wearable computers will account for a consumer understanding of fashion when it comes to both hardware and software. Our computer interfaces and our garments are literally touching each other through the introduction of technology we wear on our bodies. It is time to unpack how to combine these areas of design in order to create desirable wearables. If we do not take on this challenge, wearable human computer interaction risks being dismissed altogether or marginalized as being too unstylish.


1. Fortunati, L., Katz, J., Riccini, R., Eds. Mediating the Human Body: Technology, Communication and Fashion. Erlbaun, Mahwah, U.S., 2003.

2. Juhlin, O. and Zhang, Y. Unpacking social interaction that make us adore–On the aesthetics of mobile phones as fashion items. Proc. Mobile HCI 2011. ACM Press, 2011, 241–250.

3. Kawamura, Y. Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Berg, Oxford, U.K., 2005.

4. Wilson, E. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Rutgers Uni. Press, New Jersey, U.S., 2003.

5. Dewey, J. Art as Experience. Perigee Trade, New York, 2005.

6. Juhlin, O., Zhang, Y., Sundbom C., and Fernaeus Y. Fashionable shape switching: Explorations in outfit-centric design. Proc. of CHI 2013. ACM, 2013, 1353–1362.

7. Heskett, J. Design: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2005.

8. Martin, R. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard University Press, Boston, MA, 2009.

9. Pacione, C. Evolution of the mind: The case for design literacy. Interactions 17, 2 (2010), 6–11.


Oskar Juhlin (@digifash; www.facebook.com/digifash) is a professor at Stockholm University in the Department of Computing and Systems Sciences. He is founder and former director of the Mobile Life VinnExcellence Center. He is also a founder of the new research-industrial network called Digitizing Fashion. He has an interdisciplinary background spanning technology and social science. oskarj@dsv.su.se


F1Figure 1. A display of switching options for an imagined singular device with an organic interface.

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