We often think of our clothing as a second skin, but fabric doesn’t react like skin does. Skin breathes. It shivers. It contracts. It’s constantly in motion.
Yet the differences between clothing and skin are much smaller when it comes to Caress of the Gaze, a unique, 3D printed garment from Iranian-American designer Behnaz Farahi that bristles under the gaze of the person looking at it. In appearance, it looks like a porcupine-quilled, exposed-midriff smock, or maybe a futuristic kind of Rorschach shawl. It was designed by Farahi last year as part of her residency at Autodesk’s Pier 9.
“It was inspired by looking at the behavior and properties of skin,” Farahi says. “The idea was to create an artificial skin inspired by nature, with enhanced functionality, which could function as an extension of our actual skin, while providing novel forms of interaction between our body and the surrounding environment.”
The garment works thanks to an embedded facial tracking algorithm, which can detect the gender, age, and gaze orientation of the person looking at the shawl. Depending on who is looking at it, and how, an interconnected mesh of Shape Memory Alloy (a material which “remembers” its original shape when transformed by actuators) causes the garment to silently and organically ripple, just like a real skin response mechanisms. For example, the shawl might shyly shrink under a judgmental gaze, or peacock itself in front of an appreciative look.
Farahi chose an onlooker’s gaze as the mechanism that triggered the garment’s interactivity to highlight the outsized role it plays in our social lives. A look can communicate respect, attraction, contempt, anger, affection, humor, and more. Depending on which look we’re on the receiving end of, our skin reacts as well, by blushing, or getting goosebumps, or heating up. Of course, in our every day lives, our clothing obscures a lot of the ways our skin reacts to these social interactions. The Caress of the Gaze, though, calls attention to these reactions.
“To me, the future of fashion lies in the promise of being dynamic and interactive with the wearer,” says Farahi. “Wearable technologies are changing our notion of what our bodies can do, allowing them to be augmented, enhanced, and expanded.” Because of this, the designer argues, fashion will increasingly become an interface between our bodies and our surrounding environments, eventually facilitating new ways of communicating with one another.
In addition to exploring interactivity in fashion, though, Farahi created the piece to show how 3D printing is enabling new types of garments. She says that without 3D printers, the form and morphology of the shawl, and the life-like mesh of moving quills, would have been impossible. It involves too many distinct moving parts to be practical. “I think advanced 3D printing will enable us to move [in fashion] beyond just imitating forms already present in nature,” she says, “to having a deeper understanding of their behaviors.”