Given the hype around wearable technology like Google Glass, you might be surprised to learn that the wristwatch is still the most successful example of modern wearable tech. Over the past century, wearables have mostly been commercial failures. A new book from MIT Press explores this forgotten history.

Susan Elizabeth's Ryan's history, Garments of Paradise, begins in 1956 with Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress, a work that was both garment and performance. Electric Dress is an intersection between the two main tracks of modern wearable technology: fashion and computers. While these two tracks are often seen as separate, this history considers them together.


But by the 1960s, Ryan shows, computers were also beginning to be wearable. In 1961, Edward O. Thorpe had sought out Claude Shannon, and the two had collaborated on a wearable computer, consisting of a processor the size of a cigarette pack and an earpiece, that enabled the former to predict the outcome of roulette games. Later in the 1960s, ARPA funded the first computer heads-up display, a very early virtual-reality-type helmet and goggles, called the Sword of Damocles.


The 1960s and 1970s are of course famous for working high-tech materials into fashion, and this book includes some wonderful photos of Twiggy-style minidresses and hip-hugger pants lit up with electroluminescent panels. While these kinds of high-tech clothes enjoyed a brief successful mass marketing in the disco 1970s, the vicissitudes of fashion and the impracticality of high-tech clothes resulted in a short lifespan.

In the 1980s, wearable technology meant personal tech, and the Sony Walkman became another rare successful modern wearable technology. Ryan shows how the Walkman benefited from being an adaptation of a device that was already being mass-produced, from a hugely successful marketing strategy, and from a popularity of gadgets associated with "Japaneseness" in Western markets.

Tiny radios and portable cassette recorders—which you could carry from place to place, if not wear—had already been around for several years. One predecessor, for example, was a "stereobelt" built by Andreas Pavel, who several times challenged Sony (unsuccessfully) in court. But Sony endowed its device with cultural cachet.

In essence, Sony modified its preexisting cassette player (called the Pressman), added headphones, scaled it to pocket dimensions, and marketed it with the words "bridging the difference," aimed at emphasizing the "Japaneseness" of the project in a global market—where Japanese was associated with high technology and miniaturization.


By the 1990s, Ryan shows, wearable tech meant cyborgs. A group of self-proclaimed cyborgs started MIT's Borg Lab, (all Star Trek references intended). Thad Starner (far right in the picture), now a manager on the Google Glass project, along with a group of his colleagues, began experimenting with what he called "'the real personal computers'—as opposed to PCs."

Already in 1993 as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, Starner had begun wearing an actual computer, which he had adapted for the purpose, in his daily life. It was based on Doug Platt's 1991 invention, a 286-chip shoebox-sized "Hip-PC" with palm-sized keyboard and Private Eye display. Starner's system, built with Platt, was called the Lizzy, after the Ford Model T automobile nickname "Tin Lizzy" and was billed as "the first MIT general-purpose wearable computer." The same year (199) he posted "The Cyborgs Are Coming," a manuscript on wearable computers…on his door at MIT (he had submitted it to Wired magazine, but it was not published).


In the 2000s, cyborg fantasies had given way to "invisible interfaces," clothing which integrated technological function seamlessly, invisibly if possible. That invisibility is most evident in Susumu Tachi's invisibility cloak, but also in clothing that mediates the interface between body and environment more actively than traditional clothing. These wearable technologies include jewelry that releases aromas meant to calm and relax the wearer, or jackets that are themselves artificial environments, like a "Micro-Climate" sweatshirt including an embedded audio system and an electronic mask for filtering out environmental pollutants.

Ryan's examples are wonderful, but her study also considers why the integration of clothing and technology has been pretty minimal (materials cost, low demand). While thinking about the future of Google Glass, she offers a persuasive explanation of why the most successful wearable technologies have been smartphone peripherals rather than stand-alone devices.

The new devices do not aspire to visual complication or unconventional semantics beyond what their "customizable" interfaces allow. Indeed customization in digital devices is often a lie about personal modification (control) when choices are actually predetermined—although the devices might be hacked by individual users making unscripted changes.


Garments of Paradise is primarily aimed at an academic audience, and it includes frequent citations of philosophers and cultural theorists as well as engineers and designers. What's unique about the historical narrative it creates is its connections between the usually disparate histories of fashion and computing, using examples like Electric Dress to show the ways in which the two enterprises have continued to converse with each other.


Ryan's account gestures toward a future when experimental, interactive fashion, and wearable computers, are integrated, beautiful, and functional. But her history shows that we've been trying to achieve that end for quite some time, so we might be dubious about any of these innovations becoming widespread in our lifetimes.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter