Technology related to yarn and fabric production and related to sewing is constantly improving. The textile and clothing sector benefits a lot from research in many disciplines (from chemistry to computer science and biology), but often in a not entirely conscious way. Putting the word ‘Fashion’ near ‘Science’ consequently still seems to be a paradox. This article shows how a mutually frugal dialogue between Fashion and Science can lead to interesting and creative results.

Society demands from science to solve problems of interest to the society as a whole and to open a dialogue with the community. In this spirit, for example, the famous MIT has created a new scientific journal in 2016, the Journal of Design and Science, which explicitly brings together design and science from an antidisciplinarity perspective.

Two opposing etymological spheres

The meaning of the Italian word ‘scienza and the English ‘science both refer to systematic knowledge gained through observation, study, and experience, using codified methodology in order to ascertain truth.

The Italian word moda roots in Latin modus, meaning ‘way of being’ and ‘measure’, and via its French predecessor mode it can be dated back to 1482 for its first written appearance, indicating a specific type of clothing. In Italian, the word became popular in the second half of the seventeenth century and then already contains within itself the idea of transiency, variability, and innovation – other than the Italian word ‘costume, which since the sixteenth century indicates a way of dressing that is more durable and slow to change. Only in the nineteenth century with the growing interest in fashion by the middle class and the emergence of department stores and fashion magazines, fashion starts being analysed for being a mirror of daily life and, from a sociological point of view, to be looked at as a response to personal needs of people [1]. The British term fashion derives from the French façon and refers to the concept of doing, making something, giving life to shape and style, and it will be soon associated especially to the sphere of clothing and its continuous changes [2].

As you can see the word science refers to the concept of truth and certainty and to operational methods that involve the repetition of codified rituals, always challenged to proof itself when attempting to replace prior knowledge or when developing a novel method to modify existing procedure. The terms moda and fashion as we know them today instead evoke the idea of mutability, of speed, of aesthetic elements that change easily in relation to new criteria of taste or to satisfaction of contingent needs. After World War II fashion becomes “modo di essere, di scegliere oggetti” (a ‘way of being, of choosing objects’) and later also “modo di appartenenza e modo di comunicare” (a ‘way of belonging and communicating’), bringing fashion close to the arts. So, from arts, fashion starts bringing the ability to convey values and messages dropped in contemporary situations and closely connected with the historical and social context [3].

Sustainability challenges for the fashion industry

The world economic crisis of recent years has led to a global reflection about the need to rethink our lifestyle, especially with respect to consumption. Even the fashion market was affected by the crisis although it is interesting to remember that the haute couture industry was the industrial sector in Italy in the period from 2009 to 2013 that has suffered less than other industries in the crisis in terms of decline in revenue [4]. However, the impact of the economic crisis became more felt in the companies upstream of the Italian fashion industry, mainly because of the trend for companies to off-shore production outside of Europe, in particular by moving to Asia [5].

The need for a rethinking of production models and business models of fashion was also fostered by appeals from research centres and environmental groups that asked for the construction of production chains more respectful of the environment and its resources. With respect to the Italian situation, a determining event has been the Greenpeace campaign ‘The Fashion Duel’, launched in 2013, which challenged eleven Italian fashion houses and four French ones to clean up their production chain from processes leading to deforestation and water pollution [6]. Consequently, the fashion world is starting to be more aware of the need to control its impact on society in terms of environmental and social sustainability and, to do that, it is beginning to feel the necessity for a profound renewal. Since 2010, the National Chamber of Italian Fashion has declared its commitment to “implement sustainability as a fundamental value of the Italian fashion system, taking into account environmental and social factors” [7]. In 2012, it published the “Manifesto of sustainability for  Italian Fashion” [8]. In 2015, the European project Textile & Clothing Business Lab (TCBL) was born [9]. Coordinated by the Municipality of Prato, the TCBL initiative aims to develop and test new business models, more sustainable for small and medium-sized European fashion companies, and to combat off-shoring of production, bringing again Europe to the center of production in textile and fashion industry.

How modern science opens to society

Science has started in recent years a opening up to the world of art, feeling the need to communicate beyond the circle of experts and establish a more direct dialogue with society. The use of visual abstracts, video content, infographics, information design, and data visualization tools is becoming an increasingly common practice to make high quality scientific content more accessible to larger audiences. Modern science, in the twentieth century, has established a contract with society, which provided that science would have produced research and new knowledge to be taught through universities, receiving from society funding and the right to maintain a relatively high degree of autonomy [10]. In this stage science and industry have worked mostly in an autonomous manner, in which the knowledge was taken from the first one and applied by the second one. Around the beginning of the twenty-first century, science has begun to take on an increasingly important role in society, always going to influence new territories, so the boundaries between universities, applied science for the industry and basic research have started to become increasingly blurred. The industry was established as a system of laboratories to test scientific discoveries for production processes and to foster the exchange of knowledge and methodologies between science and industry [11].

However, the world of fashion, except for individual cases and for the sportswear sector, it is still early in the process of activating a systematic dialogue with science, especially considering the case of the most innovative technologies, which occurred more frequently and effectively in the field of product design from which fashion methodologies should draw inspiration.

Since 2000 the role that society demands from science has shifted towards solving problems of interest for society as a whole, and to open a dialogue with the community in the agorà and not only within the closed circle of researchers [12]. In this regard it is interesting to recall that in 2016 MIT has created a new scientific journal, Journal of Design and Science, which explicitly brings together design and science [13]. In the first issue of this new magazine Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, writes a manifesto of the new way of designing and doing science that must be focused on antidisciplinarity, namely the overcoming of disciplinary divisions and on the contamination of knowledge around common objectives of wide spectrum.

Conclusions: the paradox is solved

The reflections above want to suggest that not only product design, but also fashion design should partake in this dialogue. Design, thanks to the miniaturization of technologies and the growing interest in the care and welfare of the person, is shaping itself in an increasing number of areas as wearable design. It becomes clear how fashion can not ignore this phenomenon but should build on its specificity and skills and fit into this new challenge opening up to collaboration with science. Considering for example computer science, the production of soft circuits (i.e. flexible circuits applicable to tissues) and conductive yarns has given life to the dream of an aesthetic and functional wearable computing. In this regard CuteCircuits’ creations [14] and Diffus Design studio’s projects should be cited. Thinking of the last generation of smart jewels, they are intelligent objects able to connect to the Internet and to capture information with respect to our health or the environment that surrounds us, fashion is joining with information technology but also with medicine. Considering the case of LEDs and optical fibre applied to clothing, but also the possibility to study materials such as the films that employ color capabilities of the structural color (a particular color that changes depending on the angle of view, as it is due to the structure of matter and not to the presence of pigments), it would be interesting to speculate how to fully exploit optical physics studies to design clothes and accessories. Besides, 3D printing (you can think about Iris van Herpen’s clothes or Francis Bitonti’s garments) is opening the way, in fashion industry, for a revolution in the techniques of building the clothes and for the use of digital models (avatars) of our body in order to be able to create remotely models tailored for the user. Digital modelling and 3D printing are the result of the development of information technology but also of mathematical and geometrical models for describing complex shapes. Research is also moving toward 4D printing, i.e., the possibility to create materials able to change shape, after being printed, in relation to external stimuli. Biology also offers a recent example of the link between fashion and science, thanks to Biocuture project of Suzanne Lee, who created tissues by the bacterial cellulose. Neri Oxman is working instead at the intersection of materials science, computational design, digital fabrication, materials and synthetic biology. The relationship between fashion and science is just at the beginning, but there is every reason to believe this will turn into a lasting marriage.


[1] Definition of moda by Lucia Sollazzo, in Guido Vergani (edited by). 2010. Dizionario della moda. Baldini & Castoldi, Milano

[2] Valerie Cumming,C. W. Cunnington,P. E. Cunnington. 2010. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Berg, New York

[3] Definition of moda by Lucia Sollazzo, in Guido Vergani (edited by). 2010. Dizionario della moda. Baldini & Castoldi, Milano

[4] Top Moda Italia e Aziende Moda Italia 2009-2013 written by Area Studi Medio Banca. Available at

[5] Report by Camera di Commercio di Milano, Università IULM: Simona Ironico, Ariela Mortara e Sabrina Pomodoro (edited by), Il settore moda italiano a un anno dallo scoppio della crisi,

[6] Official web site of the Greenpeace campaign: The Fashion Quel,, accessed June 11, 2016

[7] Official web site of Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana,, last accessed on-line June 10, 2016

[8] You can read the “Manifesto della sostenibilità per la Moda Italiana” at this link:, accessed June 10, 2016

[9] TCBL project web site,

[10] Michael Gibbons, 1999, Science’s new social contract with society, Nature 402, C81, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ,

[11] Michael Gibbons, 1999, Science’s new social contract with society, Nature 402, C81, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ,

[12] Michael Gibbons, 1999, Science’s new social contract with society, Nature 402, C81, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ,

[13] Web site of the Journal of Design and Science del MIT,

[14] Web site of Cute Circuits fashion company,