Performative Wearables

Agata Olek

Performative Wearables

Since wearable technology pieces are often designed to be interactive, and in most cases are presented to an audience in some sort of way, we thought it was interesting to do a thought experiment: can every ‘wearable’ be considered a performative work, and can this approach help to design and create more meaningful projects?

When Valerie Lamontagne was 'researcher-in-residence' at V2_Lab, we dedicated two editions of the eTextile Workspace to the topic of 'Performativity'. We had intense discussions, and these notes try to give an overview of what has been said and thought on February 10 and March 10, 2011. To better follow this discussion, we will define the relevant keywords first, as we understand them. In between the text, we put statements and questions for the reader. We don’t have the answers; we just want to share our thoughts with the world and tickle your brain. 


What is a ‘wearable’? We define it as 'something designed to fit the body and to stay there when you are not actively holding it' (as opposed to ‘portables’). The BODY is an essential component, a structure to hold it up, and to make a wearable ‘work’. 

Statement: Wearables are intended to DO something. 

This provokes the very important question: does it work?? And if not, did it fail as a wearable? (“do” can be both input and output. Input is things like energy harvesting, CO2 sensing, solar panels. Output relates to sound, light, visual change). Remark on the side, to test the definition: Is a piece of cloth still considered wearable technology if you put hundreds of LED’s on it, without including the battery? How is this different from a garment studded with Swarovski crystals?

Performance and performativity

In this context, performance is defined as an action or process of accomplishing a task, which sorts an effect to a human perceiver. How does performance relate to interaction and participation? KEYWORD: experience. Important: for who is the experience?

Performative wearables

Performative wearables are pieces of clothing that are amplifying the body, adding a question of scale or adding layers of mediation.

Statement: If it is not mainstream, it is called a wearable.

A wearable is performative if some sort of transition/transformation is taking place, during a live demonstration. The notion of ‘live demonstration’ leaves us with another issue: wearables often have multiple lives. Real time (live) demonstration is documented by video registration and professional photography, and end up being displayed in several media.  Some wearables are famous as icons; most people only get to know them through visual documentation. The audience never experiences the pieces up close. Many wearables look great on pictures, but do not live up to the expectations in real life. 

Question: can a wearable piece still have performative quality if it is represented on video or paper?

People like to see ‘how it works’. If you demo a work live, it can add to the appreciation to show the raw technology behind: “where’s the battery”? It might as well shatter the dream, but it contributes to the notion of something being ‘real’, another important criterion in considering performativity in wearable technology.

Nevertheless, considering the popularity even from visual documentation only, wearables have an appealing factor. Will eventual performativity come across to an audience from documentation only? If documentation is your end game, the concept should be very strong or it should simply look very good. This is a totally different exercise compared to showing an interactive/ participatory/ performative artwork. 

Defining stages

Our definition of performance implies a ‘stage’ and an ‘audience’. We were trying to categorize wearables by different stages. Each stage dictates or prescribes specific properties the wearable must have. Thus different stages could bring different wearables.

  1. Participatory (live demo, experience)
  2. Prom dress (special events)
  3. Red carpet (show off by celebrities)
  4. Catwalk (fashion show, not intended to wear everyday)
  5. Live entertainment (on stage, from distance)
  6. Demo (in progress, plugged in)
  7. Gallery (plugged in, don’t touch)
  8. Film (documentary, special effect. Can be fake)

This list is ordered by ‘reality check’. Stage 1 needs to be fully operational and retard-proof to be successful, where as stage 8 can be completely fake or virtual. Again, crucial is the notion “does it work?” or “is it real”?

Observation: we do not wear wearables everyday. Why? Are wearables for special events? Are they simply a statement piece? 

Performative techniques

The whole point of considering performativity and wearables as an interesting combination is because we are looking for the effect it generates.

Therefor we did a second categorization attempt, this time focused on techniques. How do different techniques make you perform differently, when implemented in a garment or costume?

  • Illuminated (turns you into a 2D display screen)
  • Shape shifting (makes you freeze)
  • Gesture based (interaction becomes an act)
  • Networked (adds a virtual stage)

Illuminated: Why wear lights? 

Two reasons: Look at me! (Show off) and See me! (Functional: Don’t run me over). 

On a conceptual level, illumination does not have much to offer. Truth be told, LED’s or similar are popular because it is a stable platform (nature of the technology). However: if you ask fashion designers, with little or no knowledge of the technical constraints, to include technology in their designs, they will mostly come up with “light” or “movement”. So there is some natural attraction to it.

Question: does wearing light influence the behavior of the wearer/performer?

'Barreleyes' (Dattah + Evelyn Lebis) positions the dancers in a humble position, they are only the carrier of the light source.

Question: can you ‘wear’ light as such? 

For example the Chunky Moves performers do not wear LED’s, but the light is following the body with projection mapping. Thus becoming the clothing in itself. This is balancing on the borders, stretching the definition of wearable technology. It is somewhere in between second and third skin. Check also the youtube video on face projection mapping.

Statement: if something is acting as a kind of skin, it is considered a wearable. 

Or in other words: is the definition of a ‘wearable’ related to the distance between technology and the body?

Shape shifting: The wearable IS the performer.

In most cases it will make you freeze, because you don’t want to disturb the fragile technology or you don’t want to withdraw the attention from the garment. The wearer becomes a live mannequin doll. Gliding scale: Who is the performer? Wearable versus wearer...

Statement: People want to touch.

People expect garments to be able to withstand a certain level of touch. They are used to clothing, so they should be able to feel it, explore it, without being anxious to ruin it. Live up to the expectations!! If you need a sign “Don’t Touch Me”, your wearable has a bad interface design. There often is a mismatch between what an audience expects and what (fragile) technology can handle.

Interesting to consider: what does “touch me” in a demonstration setting mean?  

Statement: Most wearables are ugly. 

If they are meant to do something, then it is about the effect. The effect should be meaningful and subtle. If the wearable is badly designed, it distracts attention. Don’t design for the sake of using lights or any other technology, but do something meaningful with it. 


Performance and wearables are highly related, yet very difficult to define or to categorize. The main thing we would like to conclude from this discussion is that artists and designers can use performativity as a starting point for creating meaningful concepts. Tracing back from the audience to the stage to the technique to the garment itself. What story would you like to get across? Who is your target group? In what context will it be presented and what do you need to make that happen? 

We believe it can be a powerful tool to start thinking from the perspective of ‘performativity’ rather then to be technology driven. 


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