My retroreflective dress is a canvas for light art — and provides a bit of privacy, as well.

A couple years ago, I was playing with some leftover retroreflective fabric with Andy Lee. He’d ordered it from Alibaba to make garments, and we also used some of it to cover our tent while camping. (With headlamps on, we could spot it from hundreds of meters away!) After the trip, that fabric was fairly dusty, but I was entranced by it and didn’t want to throw it away… so into my stash it went.

In March of 2018, I dug it out and made a dress for a light art salon held by my friend Jonathan Foote. I copied the shape from a pair of lightweight wrap dresses that I’d bought in Bali, which are designed to be layered. After some crude machine sewing, this became the Ghost Dress. The retroreflective fabric sends light directly back to its source — so if you place your eye (or a camera) next to the flash, you get quite a show… here’s how it looks with a diffracted green laser:

Later, I wore it to Maker Faire New York and took the flash comparison photo at the top of this article, which illustrated the effect well and grabbed lots of attention.

Under normal light, the shimmering, prismatic fabric can look like a “cloaking” illusion, if that makes any sense. It can be weirdly invisible—or it can make YOU practically invisible. It really does have a ghostly effect!

I’ve gotten a ton of questions about this dress, so here’s the FAQ:

  • Andy ordered the fabric from Alibaba — I’m not sure which shop, exactly, but there are a few. (Please don’t spam him, kthx)
  • It’s very light, flowy, and comfortable! However, it doesn’t breathe… AT ALL. This is why I have the original blue wrap dress layered underneath it: it provides a bit of an air cushion, and/or sweat buffer. 😅
  • Relatedly, it’s waterproof, and does more weird, cool things when it’s wet! The water kinda traps the light and makes bright spots.
  • The fabric is pretty durable… it’s been layered over a tent and buffeted by the wind, coated in playa dust and wrinkled, and it still looks amazing! (I’ve also made some patches with it, which are holding up well. I used stabilizer material behind it, and the needle perforations haven’t caused any tears.)
  • Since it’s a two-layer dress, I can just wash the “real” blue fabric dress that’s next to the skin — no need to clean the top layer, although I wiped it down with a wet cloth to get most of the dust off.
  • I don’t know of anybody else making these, although there are a TON of companies making other retroreflective garments and bags. It’s a whole Thing right now. I do not want or plan to sell these, but if you get inspired to make your own, I’d love to be attributed (and also see the results!).

Recently, I wore this out again to DEFCON 27, since its camera-blinding abilities have obvious appeal in that community. My friend Moheeb happened to have a projector on him, so we created a couple of cool shots:

…Also at Defcon, accented by my robot owl Archimedes, the Ghost Dress won the People’s Choice Award at the “H@ck3r Runw@y”—and this sweet trophy by the organizer, Jai! It was wonderful to hear the gasps from the crowd when they turned on their lights.

I plan to wear the dress for my Dorkbot talk tonight, since I’m talking about telepresence, where this fabric is also enabling some amazing technology. It’s nice and warm in the evening, though also pretty well ventilated thanks to the design, and makes me VERY easy to find — which kinda works against the “privacy” thing, but really, it depends on what your goals are…

If you want to be ultra-clear about your preferences, try printing out the NoPhotoCo QR code Andy created, which pops up a link in the camera and tells people that you don’t want to be photographed. Neat!

As for my goals? I just want to start conversations about pro-social technology, and look rad doing it. B)

I needed an actual local photo for the header, so here’s one with a close-up of both fabrics. :)

DIY robots, music, EEG, wearables, languages. FIRST alumna. Hardware Nerd @hacksterio. She/her

DIY robots, music, EEG, wearables, languages. FIRST alumna. Hardware Nerd @hacksterio. She/her