A century and a half ago Count Rumford suggested that the hygienic properties of clothing merited serious scientific study. Included in the aims of the Royal Institution was the instruction of the public in the proper practice of the domestic arts, particularly those relating to “the management of heat and the saving of fuel.” Among these the application of the laws of heat to clothing and fuel economy was specially mentioned.1 That these very subjects have now become the everyday practical concern of every citizen hardly needs emphasizing; and besides these topics there are in modern war, as Sir Leonard Hill has graphically described in his recent article,2 a considerable number of situations which call for the provision of highly specialized clothing.
The apparel industry has a big problem. At a time when the economy is growing, unemployment is low, wages are rebounding and consumers are eager to buy, Americans are spending less and less on clothing.
The woes of retailers are often blamed on Amazon.com Inc. and its vise grip on e-commerce shoppers. Consumers glued to their phones would rather browse online instead of venturing out to their local malls, and that’s crushed sales and hastened the bankruptcies of brick-and-mortar stalwarts from American Apparel to Wet Seal.
But that’s not the whole story. The apparel industry seems to have no solution to the dwindling dollars Americans devote to their closets. Many upstarts promising to revolutionize the industry drift away with barely a whimper. Who needs fashion these days when you can express yourself through social media? Why buy that pricey new dress when you could fund a weekend getaway instead?
Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect, historian, and educator based in Berkeley, California. His work spans a huge range of topics and scales, as his new and utterly fascinating book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, makes clear.
From the fashionable worlds of Christian Dior and Playtex to the military-industrial complex working overtime on efforts to create a protective suit for U.S. exploration of the moon, and from early computerized analyses of urban management to an “android” history of the French court, all by way of long chapters on the experimental high-flyers and military theorists who collaborated to push human beings further and further above the weather—and eventually off the planet itself—de Monchaux’s book shows the often shocking juxtapositions that give such rich texture and detail to the invention of the spacesuit: pressurized clothing for human survival in space.
Amazon isn’t synonymous with high fashion yet, but the company may be poised to lead the way when it comes to replacing stylists and designers with ever-so-chic AI algorithms.
Researchers at the e-commerce juggernaut are currently working on several machine-learning systems that could help provide an edge when it comes to spotting, reacting to, and perhaps even shaping the latest fashion trends. The effort points to ways in which Amazon and other companies could try to improve the tracking of trends in other areas of retail—making recommendations based on products popping up in social-media posts, for instance. And it could help the company expand its clothing business or even dominate the area.