Clothes are the most intimate artefacts that touch our skin. They mediate almost all of our interactions. Every day our moving bodies are shaping and being shaped by what we wear. The sensations that unfold during this dynamic mutual shaping inevitably influence our well-being, whether we are conscious of it or not. My ongoing practice-based PhD research collaborates with people on the autism spectrum, with heightened sensory responses, who can become overwhelmed by these sensations. The project sets out to explore how fashion designers can design everyday clothing for sensory nourishment. As designers we are always crafting sensations. However, existing design practices do not always allow space for the conscious consideration of their impact. Through phenomenologically design driven research I will explore fashion design processes that craft sensations, through bodily-material experiences, that support the wearer’s well-being.
Clothing is a powerful medium given its inherent immediacy and intimacy. Yet its contribution to the wearer’s well-being is often overlooked because they have become so ingrained in our mundane everyday life. Therefore clothing’s transformative potential is relatively untapped. This potential was evident in a 5-month pilot project, from Sept 2019, in which I developed a therapeutic textile with people on the autism spectrum. I observed that for some participants, with heightened sensory responses, the sensations generated from their clothing’s materiality can be overwhelming: its textures, its construction, the inhibiting manner in which it moves with their body. It was concluded that fashion must attend more carefully and explicitly to autistic sensory experiences with clothing; it’s potential to disable and, more importantly, enable the wearer. This is the motivation for my practice-based PhD research.
At the core of the problems in dominant fashion design practices is that the visual language used and static conception prioritises the seeing of clothing over the feeling of them. This ignores what Höök calls a designer’s great responsibility to care about “the kinaesthetic-tactile experiences we build into our systems (...) sometimes causing pain, sometimes causing pleasure.” 1
Theoretically, my research takes a phenomenological approach to get to the essence of these lived experiences. We make sense of our world through our bodies. We use design to shape our world. Our bodies are also continually shaped by those designs: they encourage certain movements, aesthetic experiences, practices and responses, while discouraging others 1. Pauline van Dongen describes the wearing of clothes as “a reciprocal expression”; our moving bodies are constantly shaping and being shaped by what we wear 2. Richard Shusterman’s somaesthetic theory describes how “the beauty of our movements and of the environments to which our actions contribute are how a person derives their “energies and significance" 3. In other words, the sensations that arise from these reciprocal expressions influence the wearer’s well-being. Therefore, it is vital that the wearer’s lived experiences with clothing are examined in order to understand how the future designs we craft can support their well-being.
The methods that I will use in my practice-based research are heavily inspired by Höök’s soma design methodology which places the moving body at the forefront of the design process 1. The moving body and the materials it interacts with are considered as active agents in an assemblage 1 4. Both agents continuously act on each other. They have the potential to fight against each other or “harmonize- aesthetically and somatically” to support the person’s well-being 1. In addition, the soma design process embraces the mind-body connection and its contibution to well-being. It acknowledges that our muscles, sensory organs, nervous system, emotions and empathetic engagement with others are all connected 1.
Within the field of HCI, Höök encourages the exploration of these connections through four reflexive prompts. Through the lens of fashion design practices I have reinterpreted those prompts to frame the four phases of my project. Firstly, Lived Experience consciously explores the inherent qualities of clothing materiality with my participants. Slowing Down examines the effects those material qualities have on their moving bodies: physically, emotionally and socially. The dynamic mutual shaping that continues between the material qualities and the moving body are complex, therefore, Iterative Testing is required to consciously craft supportive bodily-material dialogues. Finally, Mutual Shaping evolves within the user’s everyday life with the design. The design is never finished; the user finds new meanings, social contexts change, the material itself wears. My intention is to expand upon Höök’s methodology to facilitate a more inclusive and participatory design process.
Still in the first phase of my project, I am presently exploring how my participants and their existing clothing speaks to each other. I deploy wardrobe studies centred around garment-led interviews and participant-led performative engagement with the garments 5. Skjold explains that this establishes a dialogue that includes the participant’s sensory experience of dressing and secondly negates the need of a professional fashion vocabulary 6. I consider my participants as the experts of their lived experiences, they have dynamic kinaesthetic-tactile dialogues with their clothing every day. My role as a design researcher is to translate their dialogues through my expertise in clothing materiality, fabric composition, and how clothes are constructed. My knowledge helps me probe deeper into the qualities and details of the clothing that causes them pleasure or discomfort. I am cultivating my participants’ somaesthetic sensibilities as well as my own.
This collaborative dialogue between experts through clothing will continue into the iterative design development phases. A participant described how their clothes “either become my best friend through adventures together or an insistent enemy that I can’t wait to shake off when you get home”. Like any friendship or conflict, these relationships evolve over time as the wearer and clothing mutually shape each other. I intend to utilise the time and space that my PhD allows to map these changes with a focus on their effect on the participants’ well-being.
Inclusive design is often talked about in terms of providing everyone with access to the same physical experiences but it often misses opportunities to provide the same emotional experiences. A fashion design practice that consciously crafts sensations through considered bodily-material experiences could provide a real opportunity to design inclusive emotional experiences that support the wearer’s well-being. Bruggeman writes that “many bodies and materials in fashion need to matter more. They need more love, care and attention.” 4 People on the autism spectrum, with heightened sensory responses, would benefit from this love, care and attention. However, I do not approach their needs as special but rather amplified universal needs. Autistic experiences are the starting point of my research but I believe that the application of the insights gained can have a wider benefit for all wearers of clothing. The amplified sensory experiences of people on the autism spectrum also need to matter more. They have always had to develop great self-awareness around the sensations that can disable and enable their well-being. Fashion has a considerable amount to learn from them. All wearers of clothing can benefit from sensory nourishment.
Höök, K. (2018). Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design. MIT Press.
Van Dongen, P. (2019) A Designer's Material-Aesthetics Reflections on Fashion and Technology. PhD thesis, Artez Press.
Shusterman, R. (2008). Body conscious-ness: A philosophy of mindfulness and som-aesthetics. Cambridge University Press.
Bruggeman, D. (2018) Dissolving the Ego of Fashion: Engaging with Human Matters. Artez Press.
Fletcher, K. and Klepp, I. G. (ed.) (2017). Opening up the Wardrobe: A Methods Book. Oslo: Novus AS.
- Skjold, E. (2018) Making sense of dress: On sensory perspectives of wardrobe research. Artifact: Journal of Design Practice, 5(1), pp. 4.1-4.15.