Monday, June 30, 2008

Wearable Communications

I was in a record store several days ago and I saw something I hadn't seen since the 70s: T-shirt decals and the iron press for customers to order their own, customized T-shirt. It was fun to see such dated technology still in use and made me fondly recall the heyday of T-shirt decals. These Ts were really individualized communications that many people proudly wore and shared with all that could see them and their emblazoned chest. Upon reflection, I wondered why the Internet has not done more to revitalize wearable communications?

In the 70s, these decal Ts were a huge trend. While buttons that could be pinned to clothes pre-date this trend (I fondly recall my "Fonzie" button I had as a kid) they weren't clothes themselves. So these decal Ts may be the first case (that I know of) of overt communication messages on clothes.

Yes, all clothes say something about the wearer. But most clothes offer a more subtle, diffuse message (eg. what socio-economic or sub/counter group one belongs to, nationality, etc.) but not a specific message, such as decals enabled.

In the 70s, one could pick the style, size, colour and decal - and there was huge selection available, whether pop culture, artwork, humour or sexual sayings, travel destinations, politics, etc. These decals offered messages direct and easily perceptible by others.

Sure clothes with messages on them still exist (eg. companies, sports teams, pop culture, etc.) but it seems that they are not anywhere near as popular as the 70s and they tend to be more off-the-shelf or handed out en-masse (eg. everyone at a conference gets a T) and not made by an individual actively customizing their own wearable communication.

The website Threadless revamped this concept and added crowdsourcing. They allow anyone to upload their own proposed T-shirt art and then have the site's community votes on the designs to actually make it to production. But cool as this site is, I don't see much impact from it. In fact, I don't think I have seen anyone wearing their shirts (but then I may not be in their main customer demographic).

I looked to see if there was a website where one could upload their own artwork and get it made into a T-shirt. I'm sure there are such sites, but I couldn't locate one after searching for several minutes. Regardless, I would have thought the Internet would have enabled this kind of customized, individual production. I wonder if there just isn't a market for it?

Is this form of communication dead? Why did it die out? Did we replace clothes expressing individual identity (such as this) with collective identify via brands, such as the ubiquitous Tommy T?

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