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A shimmering ocean of solar panels looks cool in photographs, but to wear those panels on your clothes? Sounds pretty uncomfortable. Wearable tech has always been predicated on the fact that little bits of wire, glass and electronics have somehow been made comfortable enough to put on our bodies. But solar technology, despite whatever aesthetic and gadget-charging potential it may have, just hasn’t been that wearable.
Until now. Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen recently released an experimental line of clothes that harnesses the power of the sun to charge small gadgets like your phone. Enabling constant connectedness through your clothes is a feat in and of itself. But even better? You might actually want to wear these things.
VanDongen’s clothes aren’t exactly mainstream. Her last line, Oloid, looked at how she could incorporate the aesthetics of technology—not necessarily technology itself—into fashion. There are no functional bells and whistles, but electrical wire is woven through the garments and connects laser-engraved neoprene with leather. So while there is technology present, it’s expressed in flowing, geometrical forms. “Technology isn’t just tracking stuff, it’s also about expression,” she says. “Fashion is a language that communicates identity and it’s important to create new expressions round the body.”
Van Dongen’s Wearable Solar line is a little more practical. For it she designed a sleek, wool, leather (and solar cell) shift dress that I’d be more than happy to have in my closet. There’s also a futuristic looking jacket for the more sartorially ambitious. The dress features 72 flexible solar cells that have been built into foldable panels on the front of the garment. The jacket is made with 46 rigid cells that are hidden beneath foldable leather flaps and is a little heavier. When worn in direct sunlight for an hour, each piece generates enough power to charge a dead phone to 50 percent.
That might sound like a lot of technology to wear on your body for relatively little payoff. And you’re right. Incentivizing people to actually wear this technology hasn’t been easy, van Dongen says. “I think it’s a real challenge.” For her pieces, and wearable tech in general, It’s a matter of going beyond the practicality of technology and making it into something people are excited to put on their bodies. Which is actually the hardest part.
Solar technology, in particular, is a tough sell. Today the only way to incorporate it into fashion is to treat it as an embellishment, a high-tech ornament of sorts. “If you look at a solar panel system on a house it’s mounted with structures you can’t do that with clothing,” says Dr. Gertjan Jongerden, a physicist who worked on the project with van Dongen. “The ideal wearable portable solar cell would be a piece of textile. That exists in the lab but is not a sellable product.”
Advances in the field, like little domed solar cells that capture energy more efficiently, are making it possible to create pieces that look more like the clothing you’d actually want to buy. And these flexible solar cells you see on van Dongen’s dress are even a compromise on the garment’s technical capabilities. Go a little bigger or a little heavier with the solar cells and your energy-production will actually be useful. The tradeoff, of course, is that people probably won’t wear it.
Designing in the wearable tech realm is a constant balancing act between making something wearable and making it functional. Van Dongen’s team makes it clear that these two pieces are just prototypes, but given the right technology and the right investments, she says that Wearable Solar will be for sale like any other item you have in your closet. “Its’ a long road to travel still,” she says. “But I think through a lot of research and development we can get to a marketable product.”