Behavior

DIY 'Subway dress' helps protect personal space

May 21, 2014 at 12:20 PM ET

Subway creepers may have met their match in artist Kathleen McDermott’s new frock, a techno-laden dress that’s all about personal space. The DIY dress, designed to slowly expand when it detects someone getting too close, is actually part of a clothing series or, better yet, clothing devices, developed by artists and designers for Urban Armor, a project focused on what it calls, “. . . playful electronic wearables for women which investigate the ways women experience public space.”

Indeed, no one really wants to be crowded, much less groped, on the subway, even if a little bit of personal space invasion is expected. The personal space dress may be an extreme example of reclaiming of our protective space bubble, but most of us just stick in our ear buds or stare at our phones, or both, and hope for the best.

After all, personal space is sacrosanct.

Personal space dress
Kathleen McDermott
Personal space dress

Step into an elevator and you’ll probably stand as far away from another person as possible — and you hope another boarding passenger won’t stand too close to you. 

“Personal space is something that a person looks at as a kind of bubble that is theirs,” explains Dr. Jeff Janata, division chief of psychology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “If that space is invaded by someone who is not close to the person, like a family member or friend, there will be a sense of anxiety and more than likely you’ll step away.”   

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall helped define the distance between noses that most of us find comfortable. If you’re intimate with someone and whispering to them you’re probably standing about 6 to 18 inches away, but if you’re with an acquaintance, you might be anywhere from 4 to 12 feet.

But remember that personal bubble varies among cultures, says Dr. Niranjan Karnik, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Most of my family comes from the subcontinent India, we don’t have the luxury of space, so what you find in European cultures in terms of comfort and personal space is going to be very different from other parts of the world.”

Karnik, who also has trained as a sociologist, finds our use of technology to help distance ourselves “quite interesting.”

“Before there were iPods and iPhones there were newspapers that acted as a barrier in a crowded space, so our technologies are just the next permutation to help us keep our bubbles,” he says.

Personal space dress
Kathleen McDermott
Give me some space.

But what he finds really fascinating is that despite our need to distance ourselves, humans still have that “biological and social urge” to connect.

“All you have to do is look around the next time you are on a bus or train, people may have their earbuds in, but chances are good they’re on Facebook or Twitter connecting with their social circle,” he says.

And as to that dress? 

Using gizmos called proximity sensors, the hem of the dress swells when fellow passengers get too-up-close-and-personal, creating a barrier for the wearer.  

“The devices are not actually viable solutions for societal problems,” artist McDermott says. “But they are intended to provoke conversations, not only about social issues, but about the future of technology in our everyday lives.” 

Even if we won't be seeing the tech-garment (the website provides instructions and code for making your own) on the streets, Karnik thinks it's an interesting idea. 

“Humans really do need their personal space,” he says.

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