Clothing systems and protection

In a sociological reading, clothing is 'a system of signs that derives meaning from its context while enabling us to carry on our activities' (Joseph, 1986). The process of dressing is a ritual activity executed at various levels of consciousness and performed daily by each individual in preparation for social engagement. Items of apparel are selected and combined to create a 'system of clothing' generally composed of base, middle, and outer garment layers. This complex architecture of materials and the pockets of air contained within both the fabrics and garment structures extends from the skin's surface through all levels to the outer face of the fabric comprising the external layer of clothing. This system possesses a dynamic microclimate resulting from a variety of external factors such as the activity of the individual (which generates heat and moisture), and the climate of the immediate environment, and from internal factors such as the types of fibres, the structure of the textiles, the properties of the materials employed as well as the design of each garment. It is therefore evident that every component operates within a dynamic system of inter-relationships and the properties of any individual textile or functional design feature are subsumed and may be lost within the complexity of the collective clothing system, unless it is designed to work in an integrated manner (Renbourn, 1971).

In the field of protective clothing, systems are engineered to shield the wearer from hazards such as extreme environmental conditions, chemicals, fire, etc. Their aim is to enable the user to perform tasks in these conditions without endangering the wearer's health or well-being. Successful design is paramount and can affect the survival of the wearer in extreme conditions. Although protective clothing is designed to enhance the user's comfort and safety, if the system is not carefully engineered it can have a negative effect on the wearer's performance by causing heat stress and discomfort, reducing task efficiency and restricting the range of motion. These factors may cause the user to reject the protective clothing and thus increasing the risk of injury or disease (Adams et al., 1994).

The success or failure of each clothing system cannot be measured by the performance of each of its parts individually but in the efficiency in which the components operate within a collective. In A quest for thermophysiological comfort, Brownless et al. reviewed the concept of physiological comfort in terms of technological efforts to improve the comfort sensation by developing wicking and insulation properties in textiles. The key observation made was that previous research in the area had misconstrued the concept of comfort in fabric requirements, resulting in the development of highly wicking and insulating textiles, which in extreme cases can lead to dehydration. The authors' findings highlight that 'a comfortable fabric is one which is not necessarily highly wicking or strongly thermally insulating, but one which has these two factors finely balanced in order to aid thermoregulation' (Brownless et al., 1995).

Firefighters' uniforms must act as a barrier between the user and radiant heat from fire; they therefore need to insulate the wearer from intense heat. In 2003 Bristol Uniforms, supplier of protective clothing systems to the fire-fighting industry, commissioned physiology consultancy Human Vertex to investigate the effects of heat stress in existing uniforms and used serving firefighters as volunteers. The results highlighted that existing test methods used for the assessment of ergonomic and thermal effects of the clothing systems actually underestimated the impact of heat stress on the volunteers. Firefighters on duty mostly operate below their individual anaerobic threshold and the assumption has been that they should be able to perform in these circumstances for extended periods ('Out of the hot ashes', Company Clothing, July 2004, p28). Because the firefighters' garment systems are designed to have high levels of insulation, on one hand the user is protected from the external heat generated by flames, however, the internal heat generated from the movements in addition to being in a very hot environment remains within the system of clothing, this increases the intensity of the exercise, resulting in the firefighter becoming exhausted more quickly and not being able to perform for extended periods. (See also chapter 22 by Makinen.)

Other factors that affect the success of a protective clothing system are users' attitudes and beliefs. In a study of Alberta farmers focusing on their attitude towards the use of disposable protective coveralls during exposure to pesticides, it was found that the system was being rejected on the premise that it was perceived to be costly; further analysis revealed that the users had misconceptions about the necessity of the level of protection, and placed comfort and convenience at a higher priority (Perkins et al., 1992). When the functionality of the garment system is not transparent to the target user, such as in the case of the Alberta farmers, the users can be deterred from integrating the protective clothing system as a necessary tool into their particular industry.

In industries where wearers are reliant on their clothing systems, users can become attached to certain products and tend to reject new developments. For example, a clothing system for cold-storage workers recently underwent a change ('Glacial shift', Company Clothing, July 2004). In this particular situation, thinner insulation was introduced into the system replacing the thicker counterpart, although the new insulation is equally as effective yet lighter, enhancing mobility of the user. It appeared that the target user in this situation failed to accept the new insulation because of their attitudes and beliefs; they were not convinced that the new types of insulation had equal performance although less bulk, and therefore rejected the new system. A designer must ensure the traditions and culture of the relevant industry or occupation are taken into account before proposing radical design solutions, and consider the information which must accompany any major change.

Aesthetic design can affect the success or failure of a clothing system through the way it makes the user feel, allows for personal expression, and generally enables the psychological functions of clothing, but there is very little research on this particular area. However, evidence is growing that fashionability affects the way protective clothing is perceived. For example, health care workers in Belgium and Holland found the garments they used for work boring and basic, so Belgium healthcare supplier Sacro introduced 'denim look' textiles into the garments in their range, which are now being used as part of the clothing systems in major hospitals in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent ('Denim look hits healthcare', Company Clothing, July 2004, p32). Although there is no substantial evidence due to lack of research in the area, this article suggest that design and aesthetics can influence the attitude and possibly the performance of the user, through increased self-esteem. (Similarly, in a medical context, when researcher Rebecca Earley from Chelsea College of Art and Design recently designed a range of printed medical gowns for patients following operations, this was seen to enhance their self-esteem and aided recovery.) This is indicative of a growing trend towards both higher aesthetic and performance characteristics in everyday clothing, which has changed at a faster pace than the equivalents in corporate and protective clothing, creating a gap of expectations and usage between workers' on- and off-duty clothes. Off-duty clothes are more fashion conscious and can provide a higher level of social acceptability than many occupational working clothes.

Performance clothing is a testing ground for new innovations due to the demanding nature of the functionalities required from the systems; often technology transfer from other fields such as space exploration and aviation is introduced. However, innovation and practicality do not always go hand in hand. For example, electrically heated gloves were introduced to cold-storage workers who rejected them because they were expensive and the battery pack necessary for powering the function was too heavy ('Glacial shift', Company Clothing, July 2004).

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