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“ Clothing avatars will make online shopping more fun and help women make better choices.” — MyungHee Sohn, California Faculty Association

It may soon be commonplace that instead of going to a store and trying on clothes in a dressing room, you’ll try on clothing anywhere — virtually. Your very own digital avatar, with your precise measurements based on a 3-D body scan, will suit up for you, show you how you’ll look, and even suggest other more flattering outfits.

This is already a reality for students of MyungHee Sohn, a fashion design professor in the department of family and consumer sciences at CSU Long Beach. Her students are creating clothing with their exact measurements after undergoing 3-D body scans in a TC2 body scanner, which creates personalized digital avatars.

In the future, people will be able to order custom clothing based on their measurements instead of having to choose from standard sizes that aren’t an exact match, says Sohn, a California Faculty Association member.

“Clothing avatars can be especially helpful for online shopping, when consumers are forced to buy items without trying them on first,” she says. “It will make online shopping more fun and help women make better choices.”

The body scans are created by multiple cameras that capture different angles. Body scanners were at one time extremely expensive, but are now much more affordable. CSU Long Beach has had one for several years.

Sohn thinks that online shoppers using digital fashion avatars will become more interactive with retail companies, suggesting colors, fabric and design. That in turn will help retailers, including brick-and-mortar stores.

“Companies will know what customers want instead of guessing. It will cut down on waste. Stores often waste clothing if they overorder or a style is not popular.”

Sohn grew up in South Korea. She was initially intrigued by 3-D body scanning technology while an exchange student at the University of Texas at Austin, noting its ability to “help us understand human body type and shape, which is the first step to produce apparel.” After obtaining advanced degrees at the University of Minnesota, Sohn became an award-winning design educator. She sees computer-based sizing as a throwback to a time when people went to tailors for fittings, so clothing could be created especially for them.

Stephanie Langford, a June CSULB graduate, created a tailored jacket and pants based on her body scan; they fit her perfectly. She plans on wearing them for job interviews.

“It helps that all of the students have used the [body scanner] in tailoring class so we can adjust sewing patterns to fit our own measurements,” says Langford. “Everybody wants to go in and buy something that fits perfectly off the racks, but that is seldom possible.”

Most women don’t know their own shape, says Sohn. “This makes it difficult to identify garments that will help them look their best.”

She knows this for a fact because she helped direct a study of women’s perceptions of their body shape in relation to virtual garments. She and fellow researchers Jessica Ridgway of Florida State University and Jean Parsons of University of Missouri created avatars for 15 women to see whether their body shapes affected their opinions of virtual dresses. Instead, they were surprised to discover that the majority of women could not correctly identify their body shape.

For example, none of the participants identified themselves as being pear-shaped, although the researchers categorized one-third of them as having this body type.

The three co-authored a paper titled “Creating a More Ideal Self Through the Use of Clothing: An Exploratory Study of Women’s Perceptions of Optical Illusion Garments,” which was published in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal last year.

Before the study, Sohn assumed most women understood and accepted their body shapes. In fact, most with pear-shaped figures described themselves as having an hourglass or skinny body type.

What about men? Do they also need digital avatars and customized clothing?

“My research has focused on women, because previous studies have shown that women experience more clothing fit issues than men,” replies Sohn. “It was found that most men are more satisfied with their bodies and have less of a fit issue.”

Sohn thinks that in the not too distant future, when an outfit looks stunning on a digital avatar, the consumer will have it “printed” from 3-D printers directly onto fabric.

“It’s very exciting to think about. I think there’s a big potential for that market.”

MyungHee Sohn

  • Assistant professor at CSU Long Beach since 2014. Teaches advanced apparel draping and tailoring and computer applications for fashion.
  • “I have had many passionate design students with good construction skills. To advance their learning, I’ve incorporated my research and new pattern-making methods in class.”
  • Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in apparel studies, University of Minnesota.