WASHINGTON – Speculation about future technologies is a staple of internet discussion, but the clothes of the future are seldom included. When I interviewed science fiction author Neal Stephenson recently, he opined that clothing was “pretty highly evolved” already and was unlikely to get any better. I am more optimistic.
A lot of current clothing innovations focus on gimmicks. There is a “Social Escape Dress,” which can “emit a cloud of fog when the wearer is feeling stressed.” Maybe that is fun, but what economic problem does it solve? And won’t it stress the wearer more? I suspect that the more durable clothing innovations will be more practical.
The first major practical problem is that clothes have to be cleaned, a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. To remedy this problem, imagine a futuristic closet with cleaning and dry-cleaning functions (the materials of the clothes themselves could evolve to make this easier and less dangerous). A wardrobe system that cleans itself would be a big plus for many people. While I don’t see this technological advance as imminent, neither do I see it as unreachable.
A second major problem with clothes is that they have to be stored. Urban space is currently quite scarce and expensive, a reality unlikely to change anytime soon. Easily foldable and contractible clothes and shoes will therefore be at a premium, but of course the question is how to get them back into proper shape with a minimum amount of effort. That again suggests a home device — far more efficient than the iron — to get clothes into proper shape, which in turn will allow for more clothes to be rolled up and put away. Cleaning your clothes and storing your clothes are closely related problems, and in my optimistic vision they will be solved together.
Further improvement will come to pockets. I don’t own one of the larger iPhones simply because it doesn’t fit comfortably into my shirt pockets. Pockets may become expandable and more flexible, and women’s clothes may develop a greater array of invisible pockets, or other methods for carrying around wallets, car keys and other devices. As it now stands, too often women feel they face a choice between looking elegant or having convenient pockets. That can and will change, and that is likely to benefit men too.
Current innovators are working on having our clothes perform some of the functions of the iPad or Apple Watch. Imagine a “smart garment,” arranged to receive and interpret speech, and perhaps to send the answers to my questions to my smartphone, or in some cases to answer directly through the movements of the garment itself, or through a visible band with a screen. My clothing could also notify me, through movements or twitches, whenever I receive information I have deemed relevant — a message from a particular person, say, or when the stock market goes up or down a lot.
I don’t want those innovations myself — if anything I wish to keep the internet more distant — but I also did not expect the Apple Watch would sell as well as it has.
What else? Phone-charging jackets could become much cheaper, although perhaps smartphone batteries will improve more rapidly. Or how about clothes that make you feel slightly warmer when the air conditioning is turned up too high? Biosensors are yet another direction innovation might follow, to warn about your heart rate, blood pressure or level of stress.
More prosaically, imagine everyone having custom-made and custom-fitted clothing, perhaps with the aid of robot tailors, and readily available 3-D body scanning devices. That will be especially useful for people of unusual sizes or shapes, or those with disabilities.
At the upper end of the market, it is possible to make exclusive fashion more affordable while still looking great. In a given fashion season the number of “in” styles could continue to expand, through the use of social media such as Instagram. That makes the market more competitive. Indeed it is already a trend that you can look “cool” and sophisticated without having to buy the most expensive dress from Milan or Paris. More market niches allow for the production of more reputation and glamour.
When I watch science fiction movies or TV shows, I am often struck by how bad and useless the clothes are. They rarely reflect significant innovations, and usually come in ugly colors and with too much Spandex.
Wearing clothes is something almost all of us do every day, for almost the whole day. The great stagnation in clothing needs to end.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.