I sometimes hear the claim that innovation in the physical world has stagnated since around 1970. More specifically, chapter 1 of The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J Gordon claims that there has been basically no innovation in clothing other than changes in fashion. This is somewhat contrary to my intuition (although I definitely believe that innovation in the 50 years before 1970 was greater that in the 50 years after), and price of insulation seems like a relatively objective metric for this.

My favourite type of response would be time series data of clo per inflation-adjusted dollar, but I'd also appreciate people's subjective experience of this.

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  • Per Wikipedia, Polar Fleece was invented in 1979.
  • The Hacker's Paradise puts the patent for the first moisture wicking fabrics at 1996. [article]
  • Forbes has an article from 2014 reporting the recent invention of "smart textiles" that "do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow."
  • This 2017 article from University of Minnesota describes some of the latest in color-changing fabrics technology.
  • Science Daily has an article from 2019Feb about the invention of a fabric that dynamically regulates temperature.



On Facebook, Stefan Schubert linked to this CPI chart showing that the price of clothing has declined relative to the prices of other things over the past 20 years.

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Subjective experience:

  • Polyester (elastane, etc.) clothes are much more common these days. Back in the 80s, people wore way more cotton shirts to the gym. Nowadays, most people wear some sort of sweat-wicking heat-venting material. They're also cheaper; Under Armour used to run about $50. Nowadays, UA shirts tend to run about 3/5 that.

  • Remember back when wool was only for itchy sweaters? Nowadays, merino wool, which is less itchy for most people, is used for shirts and undershirts and even socks and underpants. The great thing about wool shirts is that you can wear them for almost a week and they won't stink; this isn't something you can do with cotton and especially not polyester.

  • There are a lot more stretchy materials out there, as well as stretchy materials (polyester) woven into less-stretchy materials (cotton) to give the stiffer materials a bit more give. This makes slim-fitting clothing less restrictive, if nothing else.

  • There are nylon pants that don't look out of place at the office. Outlier's Futureworks pants made out of F.Cloth (click on "Fabric" on the tabs) are better than cotton chinos in at least some respects; you can spill coffee on them and likely all of it will bead up and just run off, not staining anything or even getting wet. (They'll eventually wet out if you're walking around in the rain, though.)

  • You can car camp in the rain, forget your rain gear, and everything'll turn out mostly OK.

While the price of insulation is a superlatively objective metric, it entirely misses advancements in anything other than insulation effectiveness. The big changes have all been in finding new points that balance the different tradeoffs between stretchiness/durability/stink trapping/cost/water resistance/stain resistance/warmth/air permeability.

The great thing about wool shirts is that you can wear them for almost a week and they won't stink;

Why is this? I'm perplexed at how long my wool socks last.

My favorite example is teddy bears:

The link is 451 for me: "Unavailable due to legal reasons". The specifics:

We recognize you are attempting to access this website from a country belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA) including the EU which enforces the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and therefore access cannot be granted at this time. For any issues, contact circdept@times-news.com or call (301) 722-4600.

Prima facie that looks like bullshit, but recognising that doesn't get me the web page. Time I looked into a VPN account. Any suggestions?

BTW, mousing over the same link on your web page gives me a popup saying "Too many requests", which none of the others do. What's up there?

Instead of a VPN, you can use Tor Browser for this. I just tried it, and though it may take a few relaunches, Tor Browser will eventually connect via an exit node in a non-EU country, and you’ll be able to visit the site. (It does also work fine for me without Tor, of course, as I am in the U.S.)

EDIT: As for the “too many requests” thing, that’s an artifact of gwern’s link-preview-generating setup; this is one of the occasional failure modes. Nothing terribly special going on there—the feature is still a bit experimental, is all, and has the occasional kink. No doubt gwern will fix this one soon.

It seems like the cost of insulation mostly depends on improvements in the insulation manufacturing process, which seems kind of different from innovation in clothing itself.

For example, if we stopped innovating in clothing design entirely, people might focus more on reducing the production costs of fixed amounts of materials, so insulation would get cheaper by your metric, and it's unclear if that counts as innovation in clothing.

Going the other direction, if we invented a less insulating, expensive insulation with magical perfect durability, it would be a huge clothing innovation but the cost of insulation would go up by your metric.