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Teens Explore Dressing to Impress


How do we use fashion to communicate who we are? In July, 15 teens explored this theme through a 2-day workshop entitled Experimental Fashion: Technology, Identity, and Environment. Starting with self-portraits, they explored how culture, expressed through fashion, informs how we communicate our identity and how we perceive ourselves.

The group began with a tour through Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, with research associate Terah Walkup facilitating a discussion with the teens on how portraiture and fashion from the late 1800s captured the contemporary moment, a snapshot full of fantasy and fiction of both the artist and the subject. The teens were then charged with envisioning headwear in which they could control what aspects of their identity might be revealed or concealed.


In the Ryan Education studios, teens used photography and drawing to design a headpiece concept that was capable of communicating, through technology, social messages to both the wearer and the observer. They worked with teaching artist Jessica Hyatt to combine technology and materials into futuristic, wearable mock-ups of their designs. They also worked in groups to compile their drawings and images into reproducible fashion zines.

To make this millinery come to life, the group learned some fundamentals about materials, shapes, electronics, and programming. As personal electronics and mobile devices get smaller and more ubiquitous, these objects are becoming more like our fashion accessories—think Google Glass. What does it mean when our fashion accessories are ‘smart’ with sensors and Internet access, like many of our phones.


I was especially excited to help develop the technology portion of the workshop. A couple years ago I embarked on my first fashion and technology project: the #TFF - a dress that flaps its wings and sings bird songs when I get a tweet on Twitter. These kinds of projects can be categorized as part of the ‘maker’ movement, which emphasizes project-based learning through collaborative problem solving and creativity. You may have heard about the Chicago Public Library’s new maker space initiative and other maker space initiatives.


To dig into these ideas, the teens learned the basics of electrical circuitry and sewed with conductive thread. They also learned how to program on open source “microcontrollers” called Arduino Lilypads. We used Protosnap LilyPad Kits from SparkFun Electronics to get up and running quickly. With just a little orientation, LED lights were flashing in complicated patterns, and noises buzzed and boomed out of vibrating motors and speakers. Several participants even had elements that responded to light or temperature sensors—quite a feat for a two-day workshop!


In these two days, the teens designed thoughtful and imaginative headpieces. For example, the image immediately above is inspired by her love of gardens (and is, in fact, a wearable garden) and the headpiece in the top image is inspired by telepathy. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is on view through September 29, so we invite you to take some time to fashion your own impression.