“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.
Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.
Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.
Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.
To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.
Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.
As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.
“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.
Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.
In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.
Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.
Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.
Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.
The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!
Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.
Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.
Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.
Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.