pattern envelope

I’ve decided to go with the less impossible, more amusing of my two Wearables project ideas: The Party Dress.

Assignment: Project description

Write a description of your project (one page minimum) – describe what your prototype will look like, what it will do, and how it will be used. List your influences, goals, intended users, and provide a use scenario. If you haven’t decided on one project, write a full description for each project you are considering.

Here’s my silly write-up:


My proposed project for Wearables Studio is a Party Dress: a dress equipped with sensors and indicators that will encourage people to socialize with the wearer at parties, conferences, or other events where there may be a lot of people who don’t know each other but might wish to strike up a conversation. At its most basic, the dress will respond to proximity, encouraging people to approach the wearer and providing an easy ice-breaking topic. It will also, technology permitting, include a special cell phone pocket that visually indicates when the wearer has an incoming call, as this event is often impossible to detect in a room where music is playing. There could also be a panic button hidden on the dress that would directly trigger the lights on the phone pocket, so that the wearer could pretend to have a call, should she need a way to escape a conversation that is boring her or otherwise causing distress.


The Party Dress will be sewn from Simplicity pattern 2491, a festive, cheerful style that was issued most likely in 1958. It has a plain bodice that will not be made too garish by the addition of lights; a full skirt that, especially with the help of a crinoline, will provide ample camouflage for a power supply; a wide box pleat down the front of the skirt that will provide a stable surface on which to mount a sensor; and a belt that can be used to hide switches or other controls.

The top of the bodice will bear a short-range infrared sensor (such as the Sharp GP2D12, which has a range of 4 to 30 inches) and two small clusters of RGB LEDs. When the wearer is engaged in close conversation, her interlocutor’s presence directly in front of her will cause the LEDs to light up. If the person steps too far away to be easily heard, the lights will dim or blink.

The bottom of the skirt will bear a longer-range infrared sensor (such as the Sharp GP2Y0A710YK0F, which has a range of 40 to 216 inches) and a ring of 20 to 30 more RGB LEDs. If no person or object is detected by either this or the short-range sensor, these lights will pulse or change color to attract attention from people across the room, encouraging them to come closer to see what on earth is going on.

By default, all the LEDs except those on the cell phone pocket will stay lit (though there will, of course, be an on/off switch for times when the wearer does not wish to attract attention, such as while riding the subway), and their color will contribute to the overall hue of the dress. If the fabric is light in color and reasonably sheer, they may be mounted on an underlining so that the fabric diffuses their light and takes on their colors more organically. All the lights may shift color depending on proximity or other factors, such as noise level, temperature, the ambient light level, or incline (in case the wearer is dipped by her dance partner, or—heaven forfend—faints). If the edge of the phone pocket is too far out of the wearer’s field of vision to be comfortably seen, its indicator lights may be mounted on the belt, instead.


The idea for this dress emerged from a conversation about wearable technology that I had in December 2008 with the mighty Erin McKean, proprietress of the website A Dress A Day and founder of the massive Vintage Sewing Patterns Wiki. In addition to being a great proponent of dresses, Ms. McKean is a frequent traveler and conferencegoer, and a charming conversationalist.

Intended Wearers

The Party Dress is intended for women who wish to make new acquaintances and are amused by fancy dress. It could function as an aid to the moderately shy, or to the intimidatingly beautiful, or to those who simply enjoy let their freak flags fly.

Use Scenario

A woman walks into a party where she does not know many people—say, one of those awkward parties that occurs on the opening night of a typography conference. As she looks around, trying to decide whom to try striking up a chat with, her dress begins to coruscate. Curious typographers begin to edge closer in order to determine whether this effect is a result of too much liquor, or whether that woman’s dress really is glowing. When they determine that the latter is more likely, they step forward to ask her what the blinking means. By this time, they have drawn close enough that the dress glows steadily. . . . Hours later, in the middle of the dance floor, the woman sees that her phone pocket is blinking. She steps aside to answer the call and discovers that it is almost midnight, and her pumpkin is waiting at the curb. She exchanges cards with her newfound friends, bids them goodbye, and exits, her dress starting to twinkle again as she heads for the cloak room.

* * *

Assignment: Paper prototype

Start thinking about and developing the physical form for your project. Using materials like cardboard, paper, muslin, and foamcore, experiment with size, shape, and placement of the different component parts of your design. The results won’t be functional, but they should represent as closely as possible the elements you plan to use.

Think through how the finished garment or piece will look and how it will be used. Use this time to develop your ideas about why and how the user will interact with the final prototype without the pressure of making it work – that comes soon enough. Come to class next week with your paper prototype and be prepared to talk about your design decisions.

4 thoughts on “Simplicity”

  1. I want one.

    I want to make one.

    If not a dress, then a jacket.

    In fact, I got a black velvet jacket at the Goodwill two weeks ago, with something very like this in mind. Have the Lilypad, LEDs, conductive thread and some sensors. Hadn’t thought of IR, though. Was thinking instead of linking the blinkiness to the sound level in the room, and was trying to figure out how to use an electret mic as a sound sensor. (And proceeded to get more confused by the hour, cruising from site to site online for tutorials or help.) I can do o.k. with Processing, but the physical computing part is brand new to me.

    Thanks for the continuing inspiration, and I can’t wait to see the evolving stages of this project!

  2. You have always been mighty!

    I’d like to pick your brain some more about any other (easy-to-implement) features that might be useful for socializing at conference-type events. I don’t get to go to very many of them myself.

  3. And that goes for anybody else reading this: can you think of a cool feature that this dress could have, even one that’s too snazzy for a soldertard like me to build? I might eventually be able to work it in.

    Also, um, any advice on grading patterns? I am so not a 1950s size 14.

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