If there were underwater fashion shows, we’re pretty sure cuttlefish and zebrafish would vie for the top prize. These bizarrely beautiful sea creatures can change color to adapt to their circumstances. Cuttlefish blend into their surroundings to hide from predators, while zebrafish make themselves lighter or darker, most likely to communicate with peers or to attract mates.
So we can understand why engineers at the University of Bristol would be taking a cue from these savvy cephalopods and flashy fish and developing clothing materials based on their unusual skin types. Specifically, they have manufactured artificial muscles which mimic chromatophores, the cells in certain cephalopods, fish, reptiles, and amphibians containing the pigments that make color-changing possible. The fake muscles are soft and stretchy, making them prime candidates for specialized clothing material.
The potential applications of appearance-changing fashion are myriad. Mirroring the exceptional masking talents of the cuttlefish, the new material could be extremely useful in high-tech camouflage uniforms for military personnel. The study’s authors, Jonathan Rossiter, Bryan Yap, and Andrew Conn, also point to the benefits of clothes which could change color based on the outdoor temperature–light clothes when it’s sunny and dark clothes when it’s cold. Similarly, thermo-sensitive material could be implemented in an energy setting: for instance, enabling solar panels to absorb more light. In addition, “smart clothing” could be suitable for safetywear, allowing nighttime bicyclists or hikers to flash bright colors. But mostly, you’d be able to avoid making grossly out-of-style fashion choices.