Catalytic Clothing

Save the world and look good doing it, with the world's first air purifying dress

Want to save the world and do it in style? Then Herself – currently on display at the University of Ulster as part of the Ulster Festival of Art and Design – might be the dress for you.

The elegant blue gown doesn’t let you leap tall buildings in a single bound or know what evil lies in the heart of man, but it might help clean the air of pollution. More Captain Planet than Superman.

The brainchild of fashion designer/artist Helen Storey, scientist Professor Tony Ryan and textile designer and University of Ulster academic Trish Belford, the dress takes existing technology used in construction and applies it a new and innovative way – in the washing machine.

The science – simplified for the arts journalists – is that a catalyst would be introduced to the laundry cycle. It would bond itself to the clothes, which would then purify the air as they were worn.

‘This is actually a possibility,’ Belford says. ‘If this research goes forwards then we could actually use the laundry to purify our air.’

It sounds seductively simple and impossibly sci-fi at the same time – but what does it have to do with a couture ball-gown? Belford, sitting in a room at the University of Ulster, explains the theory behind the dress.

Herself is a Trojan Horse,’ the textile designer says, leaning forwards. Belford trained and worked in London, designing textiles for Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, before she returned to Northern Ireland. ‘The dress is a way to deliver a strong, scientific message in a beautiful way. That is what Helen does, create a platform for debate.’

Herself has already put that platform to the test in Sheffield, where it (she?) was displayed on a dais outside the University. Blackboards were available nearby for people to write down their opinions and reactions.

The response was, apparently, good, although Belford notes dryly that some of the comments were ‘quite rude’. The dress was also displayed as part of the Newcastle Science Week and, after Belfast, is on its way to another science convention in Asia.

Everyone involved is also eager to involve arts and science teachers and students with the project, to engage them in a conversation about the benefits of art and science working together. Belford points out that she ‘wanted to do art and chemistry, but you couldn’t.’ Now she’s proving that you can.

This is Belford’s second project with Storey. The first was Wonderlands in 2008, which used dissolving clothing to address the question of how to deal with plastics in the environment. Their relationship goes back further than that, however. The two designers have known each other for over 20 years.

‘We started out working together in the fashion industry,’ Belford says. ‘Now we’re working on projects about making the world better.’

Belford’s involvement in Herself, though, is based on her specialized skill-set. As co-founder of the Tactility Factory, along with architect Ruth Morrow, Belford has been working with concrete and textiles since 2004. They have been working creating on a ‘girly concrete product’, embedding textiles into the concrete rather than just ‘sticking them on as an afterthought.’

‘We want to make hard surfaces soft in the built environment,’ she explains and grins. ‘With Herself it was the other way around, we had to make a soft surface hard.’

Instead of Swarovski crystals, Herself is encrusted with pieces of concrete. Belford describes the process of applying it to the dress as, ‘nerve-wracking. There were fifteen different processes and I only had one chance to get it right.’

It did work and the dress is beautiful. Belford sighs and admits she would have liked to apply more concrete, to make the dress more sculptural. However, the dress needed to be wearable for the accompanying video with supermodel Erin O’Connor. Belford hasn’t abandoned her vision though, citing it as ‘something to think about, further down the line.’

As it is, the dress ‘does what it does’ is in raising important questions about the environment and our responsibility to it and ourselves.

If you want to find out more about the dress, check out CultureNorthernIreland’s What’s On Guide.