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Tech by VICE

Behind the Burqa of Drone Fashion

New York-based artist-engineer, Adam Harvey, wants to cloak you from drones.

by Kelly Bourdet
Jan 18 2013, 4:00pm

Adam Harvey made a drone-proof burqa. The New York-based artist, in collaboration with New York designer Johanna Bloomfield, created a line called Stealth Wear that offers garments created from nickel-metalized fabric designed to thwart IR-detection by thermal cameras, including drone surveillance.

Harvey's background is in mechanical engineering, as well as digital art, and his previous work has also focused on the space where privacy protection and art overlap. His project CV Dazzle delved into makeup and hairstyle patterns that can trick the facial recognition software used for surveillance. Camoflash, his anti-paparazzi handbag contains a LED light capable of obscuring one's face during unwanted attention from photographers. 

The garments in the current collection, beyond the augmented burqa, include a scarf modeled on headscarves traditionally used for hijab, a hoodie, and a T-shirt with X-Ray attenuating material across the heart. None of the garments would totally protect the wearer from detection–the burqa is mid-length with open arms, the "floating leg" hoodie is aptly named–because creating a garment truly capable of obscuring your IR signature requires International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) compliance; a totally drone-proof getup is still too militaristic for civilians.

The author wearing a drone-proof hoodie

Harvey says the whole point of the line is to inform and to explore what is now possible. "It's about adapting to our new environment," he told me. "It's about being cognizant about new developments. On one hand, it's to bring awareness to new forms of surveillance. On the other hand it's an exploration of materials."

Both Harvey and Bloomfield note that Stealth Wear is an example of military technology trickling down into consumer technology. American military forces certainly utilize some forms of drone-proof fabrics, but these fabrics are now commerically available, if a bit expensive. 

Out of a small collection, two garments are traditional Muslim coverings for women: Hijab and a version of a burqa. The US's controversial aerial drone strikes and surveillance across the Arab world, notably in Pakistan, have inadvertently killed many civilians, including women and children--the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 475-861 cvilians have died in the 362 US drone strikes that have pocked Pakistan since 2004. Many of those victims, given the Obama administration's "signature strike" rationale considers any adult-aged male in the vicinity of known militants as fair game, have indeed been men. But when you look at the adminstration's embrace of the so-called "double-tap" strike, a terrorist tactic that immedaitely re-pummels a fresh blast site to snuff out first responders--often family members--it's not unreasonable to think that more and more women now find themselves in the eyes and crosshairs of unmanned aerial systems, too.  

So even as civil and hobby drones take off with great promise as tools for filmmaking and natural resource management, among other dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, the dreaded D-word more often brings to mind the bloody strikes that are now the hallmark of the US's shadow wars. In this light, I asked Harvey what his intention was in cloaking traditional women's garb:

These two pieces were originally intended to be worn by woman in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I discuss this project with several people and had a lot of conflicting ideas and feedback. On one level, I did not want to "westernize" a garment designed [burqa] that was to be worn in the Middle East. Yet, I felt it was wrong to add functionally to the burqa, which is such a repressive garment. Improving it would be endorsing its design. The 'anti-drone' burqa piece is full of conflict. But it's what I think I burqa should be, empowering. The hijab scarf is the opposite. It's very neutral. Anyone can wear this how they see fit.

The garments will be available for purchase; the prices aren't firm as of yet, but a Stealth Wear scraf will probably set you back around $250. 

Taken as a political statement, it aligns him with those opposed to drone attacks and the numerous civilian deaths in the Middle East. Yet its fundamental use appeals to those here and abroad who cast an increasingly wary eye at government surveillance.

Adam and Johanna recently invited me to a photo shoot for the Stealth Wear look book. Shortly after meeting up, they showed me an email offer they had received that morning. A gentleman out in Arizona who offered "objective" product ratings and reviews on his website was interested in reviewing the line for his site. Other items on the site include automatic and semi-automatic weapons, as well as ammo; he helpfully included lists for which weapons would best serve you during the apocalypse. More III Citadel than fashion forward.

In Stealth Wear, the artistic inclination to explore new materials and to create garments that shield us from view, symbolically and otherwise, merges with the political reality that a drone-proof burqa might be an increasingly sensible option in certain places and in certain futures. Now let's see how they sell. 

Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet