Everyone just calm down — as far as I know, I’m not getting hitched anytime soon. Though I’m not the type to daydream about a long-distant fairytale wedding, I have to admit that I did find a dress that provoked certain . . . stereotypically girly thoughts.

My very talented friend John, who edited Curiosity Aroused and hosted the live recording of the SGU last August, is friends with the guy who runs ITP. That’s the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, and it’s basically what happens when engineers and artists have babies who grow up and go to grad school. John attended the students’ spring show to see what was going on, and he sent me a few projects of interest. One caught my eye immediately: a lovely silk organza dress with butterflies on it that flap their wings to the beat of the wearer’s heart. I know, I was overcome with joy as well.

It turns out, the butterflies also incorporate the proximity of surrounding people to properly time the wing flapping, and they’re modeled after real species. It doesn’t get much cooler, to me: it’s a gorgeously wearable style that incorporates science, technology, fashion, and a pretty cool philosophy that might make you think more about how we interact with the world around us.

The inventor’s name is Alex Reeder, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about my new to-die-for dress. Our e-mail conversation is after the jump!

REBECCA:

Hi Alex,

A friend of mine attended the most recent ITP and told me about your butterfly dress, and I love it! I run a web site for sciencey geeky chicks at skepchick.org, and I’d like to post about it. I looked over your blog and just have a few questions I was hoping you could answer. Most important is how much is it? If it’s not for sale, have you considered making more? I mean really, I would get married just to wear it in front of others.

ALEX:

Hello Rebecca,

Thanks! I’d love if you’d blog about it. I am thinking about making the dress on a commission basis, or perhaps a limited run of 3. I really would rather people wore and enjoyed the dress. How much? With no deep thought I imagine around ~5k, and that would include maintainence when required. That said, before I start selling I need people to wear and give me feedback! ;) I do plan on making another one or two – now the fabric is very wedding, I’d like to make one which is more informal, to enjoy on a stroll through the park.

REBECCA:

How does one volunteer to test-run the dress for you? I’m a size 8, hint hint. :D

ALEX:

;)
I’m in Tokyo right now, but when I get back to New York and into the swing of things I’ll let you know!!

REBECCA:

What was the biggest technological challenge, and what was the biggest fashion challenge?

ALEX:

Technological and fashion challenges really overlap. Technologically keeping everything small: the battery, flapping mechanism, and so on, so they fit into the dress without impacting aesthetics was difficult. Hiding the technology was a must for me, so that means layering fabric to cover the electronics. What fabric has the lightness of a butterfly, is beautiful, and can be layered as well? It took awhile to find what I was looking for.

REBECCA:

How did you get interested in merging fashion and technology?

ALEX:

To clarify, I’m not so much interested in “fashion” (industry/designer to consumer top-down structure) as I am in transforming the clothes we wear, what they mean to us and how they effect our relationships. My background is in technology, although I have always loved couture. The key which linked everything together for me was Despina Papadopoulos in a class at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (The Softness of Things). What can be more fun than rethinking how we treat this skin always draped on our bodies? What can we make it do? What do you want it to do? Not to do?

REBECCA:

What’s your next project?

ALEX:

I’m working on two collaborations with fashion designers, one in New York, another in Tokyo. Beyond that I haven’t decided… Perhaps something involving collars, perhaps architecture… We’ll see!

REBECCA:

Thanks Alex!

ALEX:

My pleasure.

(pic is from Alex's site, click to go see more!)

The pics are from Alex’s site. Go find out more there!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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31 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jen
    May 20, 2008 at 11:27 am —

    I’m generally anti-girly as well, but I also enjoy things like this. I’ve always followed Diana Eng, the contestant from Project Runway, who does similar things with fashion.

  2. Profile photo of nmorgan
    May 20, 2008 at 11:29 am —

    Oh nos! Rebecca getting married would mean that all my dreams are dead. All. Dead. Still, cool dress.

  3. Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
    May 20, 2008 at 11:38 am —

    Ha ha, see? If I do ever decide to take the plunge, what better way to keep my core single male geek audience than by wearing a totally geek-tacular dress?! It’s the perfect plan.

  4. Profile photo of Lyc
    May 20, 2008 at 11:41 am —

    Though out of curiosity – what is behind the seemingly overiding desire for an extremely expensive bit of fabric (with a few gew gaws) that may get worn once or twice for a few hours and then shoved in a box with mothballs? Guys can get away with a rent-a-tux and not seem out of place, so why the difference with girls wedding dresses?

    And on the same topic – fashion show designs. The outfits word by the models often seem to be rejects from a jumble sale or escapees from a demented circus and yet command collassal prices. Does anyone seriously consider wearing those things?

    Sure, some clothing while looking nice is not practical, but why does the ‘want factor’ (and cost) increase with the ‘ridiculous’ factor?

  5. Profile photo of Rav Winston
    May 20, 2008 at 12:05 pm —

    I’d wear it! (provided it came in “Extra Huge,” that is.)

  6. Profile photo of ddr
    May 20, 2008 at 12:39 pm —

    It needs a utility belt.

  7. Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
    May 20, 2008 at 12:50 pm —

    lyc:

    Though out of curiosity – what is behind the seemingly overiding desire for an extremely expensive bit of fabric (with a few gew gaws) that may get worn once or twice for a few hours and then shoved in a box with mothballs?

    That’s easy enough to answer — it’s a desire to be beautiful. Blame Cinderella or whomever, but women (in the US at least) are generally conditioned to look forward to that one perfect day when they’ll be absolutely drop-dead gorgeous at the center of attention. Even if I don’t see me doing the big expensive wedding, I can certainly understand the sentiment.

    And on the same topic – fashion show designs. The outfits word by the models often seem to be rejects from a jumble sale or escapees from a demented circus and yet command collassal prices. Does anyone seriously consider wearing those things?

    Very few people would consider wearing couture right off the runway. The crazy, expensive couture in the big-name fashion shows isn’t meant to be worn on the streets. It’s actually meant to establish and keep up a brand name by showing off wild creativity and pieces that might influence a designer’s ready-to-wear collection.

    Hope that helps!

    ddrIt has a utility belt. That’s what monitors your heartbeat to control the wings!

  8. Profile photo of TheWireMonkey
    May 20, 2008 at 12:51 pm —

    How weird, I was just thinking this morning as I walked my dog how cool it would be to incorporate things like energy capture and other electronic-y stuff into clothing (among other things, I sew a lot and have made several wedding dresses–I agree that responsive butterflies would be an awesome touch). I was wearing a somewhat flowy skirt that was flapping and swirling in the wind and with each step I took. How much energy could one capture from that? What about solar-cells? I think a nice headband from photovoltaic cells might look pretty cool. I mean, it would probably be more theoretical than practical, but still cool. I love the idea of the butterflies responding to heartbeat. Imagine the possibilities for athletes and dancers?! A little decoration on a shirt or dress would be incredibly fun while out on the town. The flirting possibilities (it responds to others’ heartbeats as well…) are endless

    I saw some interesting things at the Design and the Flexible Mind show at the Museum of Modern Art, but I know precious little about electronics.

    Women’s clothing seems especially suited to this, as there is a lot more (cultural) flexibility in what we can wear. I love that this dress flies in the face of the conventional “tech wear” that always seems to be androgynous and slick!

    Wow, you really hit the girly button on me–look at all those exclamation points!!!

  9. Profile photo of Tina
    May 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm —

    TheWireMonkey (#8), the headband thingy sounds really bright. ;)

    I know we’ll be passed cell phones and mp3 players in a few years, but there will always be a need for chargers and batteries. A throwback to solar powered (florescent light powered, hah) calculators for more advanced tech might arise.

  10. Profile photo of Gabrielbrawley
    May 20, 2008 at 2:05 pm —

    When are you going to have more Curiosity Aroused up on the websight. I loved that show and really want more.

  11. Profile photo of SteveT
    May 20, 2008 at 2:54 pm —

    Cool dress! Love the butterflies!

    As someone who has spent the last 13 years working on flexible electronics R&D, it’s great to see how it can unlock the creativity in some people.

    As for power generation/harvesting, that’s a tough issue. Solar cells are pretty wimpy when it comes to powering things beyond your basic calculator, unless you go for really large-area cells. Sadly, battery technology has not kept pace with the rest of the advances in electronics. It’s pretty medieval in comparison. I’m very curious as to the power source for this dress and how much power the sensors and actuators draw.

    And don’t even get me started about how hard it is to make something like this washable!

  12. Profile photo of TheCzech
    May 20, 2008 at 3:05 pm —

    First group hugs and now wedding dresses. Can unicorns be far behind?

  13. Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
    May 20, 2008 at 3:09 pm —

    SteveT, check out Alex’s site for the nitty gritty. He says the butterflies have enough power to flap continuously for 4 hours . . .

  14. Profile photo of TheCzech
    May 20, 2008 at 3:32 pm —

    …but I have to admit, the flapping butterflies are very cool.

  15. Profile photo of SteveT
    May 20, 2008 at 4:20 pm —

    Rebecca, thanks for the pointer. I checked out his step-by-step series on how he created the dress. Very informative! I am continuously amazed at how much can be done with a simple pager motor!

    If he’s using the type of battery I think he is, it’s similiar in size to what would power a Palm PDA (or the like). Not horribly bulky, but I sure wish we could figure out a way to make them significantly smaller and still retain the same power capacity. Unfortunately, the more power you pack into a small package, the more like a grenade it can become, with all the associated negative “BANG!” effects.

    In a way, people like Alex have to be as creative in power use/management as someone designing a robot for a Mars mission.

  16. Profile photo of Rav Winston
    May 20, 2008 at 5:15 pm —

    If he can use coloured led lights to illuminate the butterfly wings, and paint patterns with them, it would definitely go way past “cool” to ice cold!

    And then we could market it at Cyberdog!

  17. Profile photo of alcari
    May 20, 2008 at 7:22 pm —

    I’ve always thought about a dress made completely from semi-flexible displays, like e-paper or oled screens. Maybe a followup ;)

    A moving dress is awesome though, better not show this to girlfriend, she might propose on the spot.

    “It has a utility belt. That’s what monitors your heartbeat to control the wings!”

    But does it hold Bat-shark repellant?

  18. Profile photo of Improbable Bee
    May 20, 2008 at 7:33 pm —

    Is anybody else here the right age to remember that short-lived fashion trend of T-shirts that changed color according to the wearer’s body heat? I’ll never forget seeing a kid and his girlfriend come out of a secluded practice room after a rather serious makeout session during the lunch hour, and the ensuing hilarity when everybody realized that his entire shirt was a different color from when they’d gone in.

    And Rebecca’s right about the dress and why we want them. I tend to live in jeans, T-shirts, and Converse sneakers — my main concession to fashion is cool bracelets and necklaces from all over the world, courtesy of the fair trade store downtown. I’m a classical musician and therefore have to dress up frequently for performances, but even then I tend more toward long and flowing and not particularly noticeable, rather than high fashion.

    That said, my wedding dress had lace and a full skirt and a poofy slip underneath, and I spent HOURS sewing over a thousand tiny pearl beads onto the lace after my mom made the dress itself. I don’t feel any particular need to follow fashion conventions as a rule, but I figured I only got one shot at being a princess for a day, so I was going to run with it.

    Sure, maybe it’s just a result of societal conditioning … honestly, I don’t really care if it is. Having one day in your life where you can look like the best version of yourself is pretty damn wonderful.

  19. Profile photo of Lyc
    May 20, 2008 at 8:02 pm —

    @ Rebecca

    Thank you (and on re-reading my own words I wasn’t being factitious), but I still can’t wrap my head around it.

    I can understand the desire, but the colossal prices commanded for fancy wedding dresses seems to far outweigh any benefit of them -especially if that ‘one special day’ turns into 3-4 special days as is sadly all to often the case these days. And wearing one to a special event just seems like a guy wearing one of those silly oversized blinky-LED bowties to the event at a considerably higher price.

    The same with the supposed creativity of big name fashion – I understand they are not meant to be worn on the streets, but how does something that looks like it was ‘designed’ by a demented monkey advertise anything other than “is this girl/guy kidding?”. Guess it’s a male thing. :P

    Imagining the clothing equivalent of “Heath Robinson” (Rube Goldberg) machine is rather easy – sheets of fibre optics woven into cloth and LED lasers to you can have all sorts of patterns rippling across the fabric, ‘muscle wire’ to extend feathery ‘wings’ as the ceremony goes on, an integral cooling suit when the celebrant keeps raving on for hours, holohgraphic beads sewn into it, etc. Construction is of course considerably harder but if practicality is a secondary consideration then the sky is literally the limit.

  20. Profile photo of writerdd
    May 20, 2008 at 8:18 pm —

    I bought a low key, inexpensive lace dress at Sears and then return it and had my grandmother’s wedding dress altered to fit me. (It had fit me when she gave it to me when I was 18 but by the time I was 28 and getting married, I had to have it altered. Sigh.)

    I actually didn’t give a crap about the romantic Cinderella wedding day. I just like old stuff that belonged to my grandparents. I did the minimum amount necessary to have a wedding that would not totally piss off everyone in my family. As it was, my grandmother said “What the hecks is a brunch reception?” and my in-laws were bent out of shape because we had an open bar. So there’s no pleasing kinfolk whatever you do.

    As my other grandmother said, “The only good thing that happened on my wedding day was that I got married,” and that’s good enough for me. :-)

  21. Profile photo of scotte
    May 20, 2008 at 8:24 pm —

    “And wearing one to a special event just seems like a guy wearing one of those silly oversized blinky-LED bowties to the event at a considerably higher price.”

    Ah…well, actually, I kinda like those.*

    And a top hat (though mine’s an antique).

    There’s just something sort of nifty about something nearly unique like that (or the dress, anyway, not necessarily.)

    (* Though I’ve been forbidden by the UN to weild a soldering iron for something like the next 10,000 years, imagine how kewl that bowtie would be as a color organ, or a heartbeat monitor [to tie it back to the dress], or a multi-cpu display being fed data from top, like the BeBox had.)

  22. Profile photo of
    May 20, 2008 at 8:35 pm —

    That is incredibly cool. Remember back when I said if you found a dress pretty enough that I’d wear it?

    *points*

  23. Profile photo of Lyc
    May 20, 2008 at 9:21 pm —

    @scotte

    To paraphrase the late Mr Heston – “They can have my soldering iron/surface mount station when they pry it out of my cold dead hands”.

    As for the display – wether it be the classic constellations of blinking red LEDs or liquid crystal cascading ‘matrix-esque’ gobbledygook characters – I will admit you could have all sorts of fun, and that’s just with the “Eat at Joes” display circling the brim of the hat.

    Fancy hats with excessive displays….sounds a lot like the Jägermonsters in Girl genius….

  24. Profile photo of bug_girl
    May 20, 2008 at 9:42 pm —

    oooooh. I would totally wear that.

    Except, you know, for the $5K part.

  25. Profile photo of TheWireMonkey
    May 20, 2008 at 10:22 pm —

    The wedding dresses I made “cost” less than the tux’ the grooms wore, but only in cash outlay. My sister-in-law’s dress took about 60 hours to make (she is also an accomplished seamstress, so she was able to help out quite a bit) and my friend’s dress took about 90 from sketch to final fitting. This is why I will only make these as gifts. If I were to charge, it would definitely need to be in the 2 to 5K range.

    I’m going to hit instructables.com now to see what others have come up with…

  26. Profile photo of
    May 20, 2008 at 10:28 pm —

    I helped someone make a wedding dress once. never again. Never.

  27. Profile photo of KJ
    May 20, 2008 at 10:35 pm —

    I totally agree with bug girl! Normal attire for me is jeans, knit blouse and my cowgirl boots, but this, for some reason this has “gotta have” all over it. As soon as I hit the lottery, that is.

    Karen (First Post!)

  28. Profile photo of Improbable Bee
    May 20, 2008 at 11:16 pm —

    Important P.S. to my earlier post about having a day to be a princess:

    If for any reason I ever ended up in a position to tie the knot again, I’d probably do it outside, barefoot, and wearing something that would blow around in the wind and be wearable again. Much more “me” at this stage of life.

  29. Profile photo of Rodney
    May 20, 2008 at 11:32 pm —

    I like that dress.

    It’s pretty because of the woman in it.

    My girl would look GOOD in it.

    It’s time to call her up and end the feud. (We’ve been fighting for a week).

    Wish me luck,

    rod

  30. Profile photo of
    May 21, 2008 at 12:04 am —

    If for any reason I ever ended up in a position to tie the knot again, I’d probably do it outside, barefoot, and wearing something that would blow around in the wind and be wearable again. Much more “me” at this stage of life.

    I support it. It’s your day, you do do it how you want. I want a boat. Boats are pretty. Boats and sunset. Also butterflies are nice, but hard to wrangle onto a boat, I would think…

    Ok, so I get a little girly-girl sometimes, too, what of it? If Teek can have huge hairy balls, I think I’m entitled. :P

    Oh, and good luck, Rod. I hope everything works out and wish you both all the happiness in the world.

  31. Profile photo of Dread Polack
    May 21, 2008 at 11:03 am —

    And don’t forget that the wedding business- just like the funeral business, is a racket. The last wedding I was at was in a movie theater. The bride was in blue (we were in tuxes- which would be boring if it wasn’t the second time in my life), the officiant was a buddhist monk, and the audience munched popcorn and slurped sodas during the ceremony. I encourage people to break from tradition.

    The dress is awesome, though.

    And I remember the Hypercolors tee-shirts. Like most trends, I missed that train :) Never wore zubas either. I guess I can be a little proud of that.

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