Find the latest episode of "The Uncertain Hour" here. Listen

‘Back to the Future’s’ self-drying coat? Not yet.

Molly Wood Feb 12, 2015

‘Back to the Future’s’ self-drying coat? Not yet.

Molly Wood Feb 12, 2015

This week’s piece of “Back to the Future” technology we’re exploring appears after one of those classic 80’s movie stunts that is not even remotely believable. Even if you put aside all of the futuristic technology surrounding Marty McFly as he jumps off his hoverboard and into a pond to avoid the group of hoodlums bearing down on him with implements of destruction, the fact that all he has to do is take a dive to completely get out of trouble and alter the future feels out of date. Back then it was in good company“The Goonies,” “Adventures in Babysitting,” and “Gremlins,” all required such suspension of disbelief. 

The self-drying jacket though? Back in 1989, you might be convinced that would be a thing by now. In the 1980’s, scientists were coming up with the theory of the multiverse, and synthetic fabrics like polyester and spandex were in fashion. Why not a jacket with a computer voice that dried itself whenever you got soggy? Seemed legit. Fast forward to present day, where our ideas about wearable technology are much more complex, while our solutions to staying dry are a little more straight forward. At least that’s the impression you’ll get when you talk to Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, a designer and fabric technology expert at Pratt Institute. 

“The self-drying jacket doesn’t really exist at this moment,” says Pailes-Friedman, who has worked on wearable technology for NASA and is a fellow at the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. “I think that there are really exciting technologies that are happeningtechnologies where water will just be repelled by the fabric and never really absorbed, so the jacket will never actually get wet.” 

Pailes-Friedman says some of the most exciting things happening with fabric in the real 2015 have to do with making garments that actually conduct electricity. Think about having some extra integrated circuits in your shirt that add computing memory or even give a charge to your mobile device. Another big area is of course health-monitoring garments that do a lot of the things your Fitbit or your smart watch would do, but in a less visible way.

Marty’s jacket also shrinks a few sizes so that it fits him better. Any chance of that happening any time soon? Pailes-Friedman is skeptical, but she says there are garments that can change the way they fitinflating a jacket with air for insulation, or a hood squeezing closer to your face to create an air-tight space around your head, for instance. She likes to think of garments and clothing as much more than fashion statements.

“Your garment is a tool that you wear,” she says. “It has a lot of functions. It can be aesthetic. It can regulate your body temperature. It can be no-wash, so it never has to be washed. There are so many things that fabrics can do.”

Just not blow-dry themselves or go from an XL to an L. Yet. 

News and information you need, from a source you trust.

In a world where it’s easier to find disinformation than real information, trustworthy journalism is critical to our democracy and our everyday lives. And you rely on Marketplace to be that objective, credible source, each and every day.

This vital work isn’t possible without you. Marketplace is sustained by our community of Investors—listeners, readers, and donors like you who believe that a free press is essential – and worth supporting.

Stand up for independent news—become a Marketplace Investor today with a donation in any amount.