Doctoral thesis

Touching the cloth
: haptics in fashion digital communication

  • 2022

PhD: Università della Svizzera italiana

English Clothing ourselves is a communicative experience and a situated, embodied dress practice (Entwistle, 2000; 2015) in which touch, in all its complexity, plays fundamental role. Passive touch sensations convey how dress feels on the skin, and active touch enables the perception and appreciation of its material properties; haptic information - that is, sensory input obtained through touch - informs and enriches consumers’ material exploration in physical retail settings. Digitalization has created new venues for fashion consumption and communication, but it has also mediated and de-materialized dress practices. In the digital domain, clothes are visually accessible but cannot be physically touched or tried on; in fashion e-commerce, hand and on-body touch sensations can only be simulated using audio-visual means. This situation potentially leads to misaligned consumer expectations regarding size, fit and feel; it also contributes to the unsustainable phenomena of product returns. By accelerating fashion digitalization, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the tactility gap which exists between in-presence and online interaction, and spotlighted the need to enrich touch experience in the digital domain. Haptics - the science of manual sensing and manipulation - is a historical field of enquiry concerned with lack of touch interaction in digital environments. In fact, ongoing developments in haptic technology research aiming to enrich mixed reality experiences with touch feedback might help fill the tactile void in digital fashion.
However, touch and haptics have heretofore not been discussed in the specific contexts of digital fashion communication and business studies; the dissertation addresses this gap. The research questions it seeks to answer are the following: what is the relevance of touch sensation - or lack thereof - in digital fashion communication and specifically, in fashion e-commerce? (RQ1); what role might haptic technologies play in enriching fashion brands’ online sensorium and e-commerce experience? (RQ2). The research approach is pragmatic, and the methodology is qualitative. Drawing from the literature review, a model of the dis-embodied online experience of dress is conceptualized, positing its re-embodiment through touch technology surrogates. The model threads together fashion and embodied cognition theories as well as touch physiology and
haptics literature. Building onto these foundations, the research is designed, and questions addressed, using a variety of methods including content analysis, case study analysis, focus groups and expert interviews. Two haptic devices simulating a fashion e- commerce experience were customized for the study and used as prompts: TanvasTouch, an interactive screen which enables variable friction surface effects, and the WeArt Touchkey, a small device (coupled with an iPad) which delivers force feedback, texture- based vibrations, and thermal cues to the fingertip in sync with visuals.
The dissertation is structured as follows. Part I (Chapters 1 – 4) includes the literature review and the conceptual framing of the thesis. Then, two fashion e-commerce phenomena are analyzed which concern RQ1. The first study constructs a semantic framework for the analysis of touch sense communication and applies it to a sample of fashion brands’ e-commerce product descriptions, thereby evidencing textual best practices. The second study explores the growth of virtual try-on (VTO) fashion applications through the conceptual lens of platformization (van Dijck et al., 2018) and identifies the potential risks VTOs pose in terms of privacy, social inclusivity, and brand reputation. Part II (Chapters 6 and 7) addresses RQ2 and includes two studies which make use of TanvasTouch and of the WeArt Touchkey as prompts. The first, conducted before COVID-19 using focus group methodology, explores young fashion consumers’ attitudes towards touch in fashion consumption and their impressions regarding the introduction of haptic effects in a mock e-commerce setting. Findings suggests that for young consumers, providing richer perceptual cues – tactile and visual – adds value to the e-commerce journey, particularly at the information-gathering stage. The second study, conducted immediately after COVID-19 lockdown measures had lifted and consisting of 14 expert interviews, explores fashion and luxury business executives’ perceptions regarding lack of touch in e-commerce, and elicits their views on the potential role of haptics in digital fashion. Findings indicate that even though fashion executives consider lack of touch sensation an unsurmountable gap between the physical and the digital experience, leveraging haptic data within the value chain and adopting haptic technologies to enhance the digital customer experience will confer competitive advantage to fashion brands.
In conclusion, this dissertation explores the issue of touch, or lack thereof, in the digital fashion communication domain, and questions the role of haptic technologies as potential surrogates. The thesis conceptualizes dress (dis)embodiment and touch sensation in the context of digital fashion business practices. It investigates, and provides insights, into the relevance of touch in fashion e-commerce; the phenomena its absence engenders; and - using two devices as prompts - the future role haptic technologies may play in consumer experience and industry practices. Thus, the thesis contributes, conceptually and empirically, to the fields of digital fashion studies and ICTs for Communication, providing valuable outcomes to the fashion industry and the haptic technology sectors.
  • English
Social sciences
License undefined
Open access status
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