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The Science of Fashion



Written By: Karl Boecklen, Museum Educator

Have you seen the fashion at the Cummer Museum? And what have you seen?

einsteinIs their more to fashion than meets the eye? Can we dissect it into a system of parts, determine cause and effect, test it, and duplicate the results? Is fashion a product or a producer, do the clothes make the person or the person make the clothes? How much of fashion is art? How much is science? I do not know.

mr. rogersMy understanding of fashion is simple, mostly, dress for the weather. When cold, a wool button down pocketed sweater à la Mr. Rogers or Albert Einstein does very well. I guess this is utility over art. The science of the sweater is in the trapped air that produces a thermal insulation, and in the loose fit and properties of the material that allows moisture to escape (wet clothes will conduct heat away from the body more quickly than dry clothes). As far as for materials, wool is a very good natural fiber, as over a billion sheep worldwide will attest to.

microscopic cross section of wool fiber

Wool fibers are very interesting in their properties and along with modern spinning techniques have one of the highest insulation to weight ratios. In other words, a very warm sweater can be very light in weight; and perhaps less bulky and more stylish. Being hygroscopic (attracting moisture), wool will absorb moisture vapor from the skin and release it out into the drier air. Wool also tends to be mold and mildew resistant and reduce body odor.

When the wool fibers do get wet, the water is taken inside the fiber and away from the body. In addition to keeping the body (and the fiber as a whole) dry; this action is actually a chemical reaction that releases heat. The breaking of a hydrogen bond of the water molecule binds the water into the structure of the wool fiber thus generating heat. This heat is captured in the air pockets formed by the many fibers. Interesting enough, when the moisture releases, it takes up heat away from the air pockets.

sheepSo, on a cool damp night, the wool fibers take up moisture from the air and create warmth amongst the many fibers. As the sun rises, warming and drying the air, moisture is released and the heat stored in the fibers with it. Not a bad system that works, both, for the herd of wooly sheep posing on the hillside and those outfitted with the latest style of Mr. Roger’s sweater.

Though this discussion supplies some revelations behind the choice of materials for a piece of clothing, and enters into the realm of fiber and textile science; it does not say much about how it connects to fashion. And fashion is what is happening at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.

The Cummer Museum has stepped into the world of fashion with two of its latest exhibitions; Icons of Style: Fashion Makers, Models, and Images, exhibiting until January 4th and Best Dressed exhibiting until February 8th, 2015.

Icons looks to the runways to see the interconnected roles of fashion’s makers, the models who wear their designs, and the media that disseminate those looks to the world, while, Best Dressed highlights historical works that explore the significance of clothing and fashion.icon dress

Well, fashion is one of those things that most of us know what it is when we talk about it, but, we can’t tell you what it is when asked. The question of whether fashion is art has always been debated but a strange consensus seems to occur. Art is not only in the piece of clothing, but in how it is presented or worn.

Arguments aside that question whether fashion is art; these two exhibits express what has been said and repeated, that fashion is where art, culture and history intersect; a push and pull of elements where art can be derived from fashion or fashion can be an outlet for art.

I am willing to take this one step further, in that science is as much of culture and history, in that science is a system of studying, testing, and experimenting on things in nature; science exists at this intersect as well.

dr seussIt intersects when humans first decided to adorn their bodies with the patterns of nature they saw around them. By experimenting with plants and soil, they created dyes to color themselves with unique designs that connected them to nature and each other. Perhaps like the Sneetches of Dr. Seuss, the possession of these designs implied a certain status or currency of being.
As weather and migration dictated, clothes came about. Molecular biologists say this was at least 100,000 years ago citing that is when body lice that live in the seams of our clothing, diverged genetically from head lice that live on the hairs of our bodies.

Developed by availability of resources, purpose, shared stories, technology, status of the individual or group, and expression, clothes and fashion evolve to people’s needs and whimsy. But, what does fashion do to people? Surprisingly, fashion may be able to push back and change us.

Next time, clothes might actually make the person.

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Director of Art Education

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