This piece originally appeared as ‘Fashioning the Future’ in House magazine
Fashion is an industry built on obsolescence. As such an obsession with the future comes as no surprise; with a self-set mission to forge the styles of tomorrow, designers plunder the past in search of the Next Big Thing, scouring archives to create the fashions of the future. Somewhat ironically, fashion that claims to be futuristic in vision is often derivative – a profusion of styles from the last century have come to stand for the ‘future’ even while referencing the past. Concurrently, ideas of the future are often used to shape the present and can speak volumes about contemporary hopes, dreams and fears. So what does it mean that the spring 2013 catwalks were flooded with Sci-Fi looks and Space Age styling? It’s time to go back to the future.
Early last century the phenomenon was kick-started by fashion’s flirtation with the Futurism movement. With the desire to break from the past and embrace industrial, urban life it was no surprise that sartorial styles soon came under scrutiny. Manifestos on both men’s and women’s clothing followed, setting out to banish ‘funereal’ black from the style palette and to create clothing that was functional and colourful. Later tainted by its ties with Fascism, the Futurist movement has since fallen out of favour yet through its championing of utilitarian, polychrome principles it successfully foreshadowed the rise of sportswear throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
The future was decidedly dystopian in Fritz Lang’s Expressionist classic Metropolis (1927), yet it has had a resounding influence on the world of design, from Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci to Donatella Versace and the architectural prints of Holly Fulton. Hints of this angular, Gothic Modernist vision have also been found in the work of Tom Ford and Max Mara. Just as Orwell’s 1984 threw a spotlight on concerns about the rise of extreme politics and Totalitarianism in the 1930s, Metropolis acted as a mirror to worries about the industrialisation of society. Echoes of Marxism are heard in the plight of the workers while the robotic enemy embodies fears of the machine age. The film appears to uphold many of the Grand Narratives of Modernism while simultaneously drawing on dark tales of playing God, evoking Frankenstein in the frenetic, wild-eyed scientist Rotwang. But for all its radical posturing and fetishising of Modernist architecture, Lang’s tale is ultimately ambiguous in its message of restoring the status quo and assuaging the workers’ revolt. This leaves a clean slate for current couturiers to project their own meanings onto a world that in the post-Industrial 21st century has become an iconic referent of the power and beauty of Modernist design.
Metropolis shots, from a piece I wrote for Silent London
A world war passed, Fascism was defeated and Communism was Public Enemy Number One when Soviet Russia launched Sputnik in 1957. Throughout the ensuing decade Parisian couturiers such as André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin used innovative fabrics such as plastic, metal and PVC to play out Cold War concerns and intergalactic dreams on the bodies of their customers. This forged a vision of the future that has become an enduring image of the past; these Space Age fashions quickly became emblematic of their time and will forever be associated with the Space Race of the Atomic Age. The style reached a pinnacle with Jane Fonda’s space babe Barbarella, featuring costumes designed in part by Paco Rabanne.
A decidedly 60s version of Space Age chic was evident at David Koma’s summer collection, whose drop-waists and patent leather appliqué had the effect of creating a futuristic take on the traditional tennis dress. Junya Watanabe (almost literally) carried the crown of André Courrèges, the grandfather of Sci-Fi fashions whose Space Age collection heralded the obsession with the cosmic that would dominate much of the 60s. Watanabe’s hats were reminiscent of Courrèges’ helmets but updated with spikes – where Courrèges’ were smooth and cream, like the surface of a perfect moon, Watanabe’s were spiked and molded into mohawk-like shapes, perfectly signifying our post-punk, recessionary angst. At Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs claimed his beehive-haired, monochromatic collection was not intended to reference the 60s. But combined with graphic prints reminiscent of Op Art it was difficult not to see the connection. A visual synchronicity exists between works by Bridget Riley and Sci-Fi styles; it comes as no surprise that the term Op Art appeared in print for the first time in 1964 – the same year as Courrèges’ Space Age collection.
In the landscape of 21st century fashion when discussions of plagiarism dominate much design, true futuristic fashion as ever lies with technology. With the rise of digital currently taking the fashion world by storm (from blogging to live streaming of shows and creating brand dialogues through social media), it’s no surprise that catwalks are currently tech-obsessed, from fabric innovations to Space Age styling. And this in itself is nothing new; technology has always been a driving force behind the fashion cycle, from advances in print techniques to imitate Spitalfields silks in the 18th century to the use of aniline dyes in the 19th century, and the success of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and rayon in the 20th. Topshop Unique joined the likes of Burberry to live-stream their catwalk show this season, upping the stakes with items available to pre-order to arrive 3 months before they hit the stores. With requisite trend boxes ticked – from asymmetry to Rudi Gernreich-esque sheer cut-outs and panels – they also succeeded in opening up the debate by asking for real-time feedback on Twitter. With the revered arena of the catwalk show suddenly open to all, questions arise about the air of exclusivity endemic in the fashion system and the hallowed place of the runway reviewer; these are questions that will reverberate around the very future of fashion itself.