Color-changing clothes aren't just a space-age fantasy

Beyoncé left fans stunned by her outfits and her setlist during the first show of her Renaissance World Tour in May. One look featured a legendary triangle-paneled gown and headpiece by Japanese brand Anrealage. At first, the clothes appear to be pure white, but after being exposed to two moving beams of light, they suddenly change color.

Bey's renaissance look is an example of a fashion technique that's soaring in popularity: using color-changing fabrics to create chameleon-like garments. In this case, the surprise comes in the form of Anrealage's UV-reactive textiles. The brand launched the technology in 2015 and has since implemented it across its entire collections, including its popular Fall/Winter 2023 show.

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Another brand that has recently leaned into UV technology is PH5, a New York-based knitwear brand known for its delicate hems and form-fitting ribbed fabrics. The PH5 garments, created by designers Wei Lin and Zoe Champion, differ from Anrealage's garments in one important way: the wearer can change the color of the garment simply by stepping out.

"It's more than just an outfit for a photo shoot," Champion tells Bustle via Zoom. While most of PH5's UV-responsive pieces cost upwards of $200, designers are doing their best to make the technology as accessible as possible through whimsical yet wearable knitted silhouettes. "We really want people to feel like they're wearing something fun, but they can live in it, the stretch of the knits and all that. Someone wore [our dress] to a gender reveal baby shower and it turned out in the sun Pink. It might be seen as a gimmick, but it’s really special to people and they can use it to add some excitement to their lives.”

Color-changing clothing first became mainstream in the 1990s, when sportswear maker Generra launched Hypercolor, a line of cotton T-shirts and shorts whose pigmentation changed as the wearer's body temperature increased. Its success was short-lived - after a few washes, the pieces turned a permanent purplish-brown color. Today, color-changing clothing can generally be divided into two categories: UV-reactive and LED-activated. Brands like Anrealage and PH5 fall into the former category.

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"That's really the yarn we use. It's dipped into a coating that's UV reactive," Lin said. The yarn in question starts with viscose made from tree pulp, which absorbs the properties of a UV-reactive coating at a molecular level. You might think that this innovative material might be difficult to maintain, but all of PH5's UV-reactive items are machine washable and tumble dry low. "It's porous and absorbs the coating so it won't wash off or rub off," adds Champion.

For the less science-savvy among us, the second category of color-changing fashion—LED-activated clothing—might seem more intuitive. The technology first appeared in Alexander McQueen's fall 1999 collection for Givenchy, where a finale look embedded with wires and lights foreshadowed Y2K's path to cyborg clothing.

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Since then, stunning looks from stars like Lupita Nyong'o have kept the bright and stylish zeitgeist alive. But no fashion moment is more memorable than Zendaya's famous Cinderella gown at the 2019 Met Gala. When celebrity stylist Law Roach tapped it with a wand, the once gray, lifeless dress began to dance with the lights and blossom into a giant cupcake shape.

Dimitrios Cambris/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Dimitrios Cambris/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

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LED-activated textiles have advantages over UV-reactive technologies, such as the ability for manufacturers to specify exactly how and when clothes change color. You can sew the lights and power sources directly onto the garment, eliminating the tedious process of coating the yarn fibers with UV-reactive material before weaving the fabric. There's also no risk of sunburning your clothes, which Lin says can happen if UV-reactive garments are exposed to strong sunlight for hours at a time, preventing them from changing back to their pre-UV color.

Still, Lin and Champion argue that UV-responsive fashion is more user-friendly than LED fashion (clothes covered in wires simply can't be put in the washing machine). They saw a world of untapped potential. PH5 recently held its first-ever runway show at New York Fashion Week, filled with never-before-seen interpretations of the brand's tone-shifting technology.

Several pieces started out as abstract green and beige prints, but after moving through the outdoor venue, all the beige turned into neon pink. Even after it hit the runway, the bubblegum-colored fabric still contained white flecks where UV rays had yet to change its hue. One model walked in a tank-top dress and viewers gasped when she removed her hands from her hips to reveal white handprints underneath.

Photo courtesy of Ph5

Photo courtesy of Ph5

Photo courtesy of Ph5

Photo courtesy of Ph5

“Previously, we’ve made entire garments and T-shirts with UV yarns, but this season we’re also using a more compact knitting technique in different patterns,” said Champion of the Spring/Summer 2024 collection. "The great thing about knitwear and the way we develop it is that we can bring all these different elements together. By bringing in different colors, I think we can create an infinite number of combinations and variations."

Lin and Champion believe that many barriers prevent UV-responsive fabrics from fully becoming mainstream. PH5's UV yarn is five times more expensive than regular yarn and is also more sensitive to heat and pressure, adding meticulous extra steps to the production process.

“In knitwear, one of the final stages before we finish production is washing and tumble drying the garments, and then steaming them flat before folding and packaging,” Lin said. "We hang a lot of UV-resistant garments rather than folding them because we don't want the coating to be unevenly distributed in the initial stages because they are still very fragile when new."

The most affordable color-changing clothing on the market caters to the reveler's sensibilities. Etsy is filled with glow-in-the-dark options, but truly transformative pieces can be hard to find. LED fashion brand Neon Cowboys has some affordable accessories, but the pants with glowing lace detailing, which starts at $380, are already sold out. When it comes to pieces you'll actually want to wear regularly, the PH5 is one of the most convenient options on the market. Still, with prices starting at $140 for a T-shirt and sizes only ranging from XS to L, "convenient" is a relative term.

For now, color-changing clothing is still mostly the domain of the Beyonces of the world (and those who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on one), but as a spectator, there's still plenty to appreciate. Expect more and more viral moments incorporating the technology on red carpets and beyond. As for the PH5, the designers want you to benefit as much as possible from their UV-responsive innovation.

“It also reminds you to put on sunscreen,” Champion said with a laugh. "You think it's a cloudy day, but when you step outside, your clothes turn pink."

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