Monday, June 3, 2013

Courtney Coulson's Costume Critiques: Retro-futurism and Star Trek- Designing the Unknowable

Ever notice that when you watch an old sci-fi you can pretty much tell immediately what era it was made in? Especially those supposed to be set in the future, they seem to resemble the time they were made in more than the time they are set in, but why is that? Sometimes it might simply be due to the dated equipment it was filmed on, but now we have the ability to restore old movies and watch them with the most optimal quality, there's still something about the effects, sets and costumes that give away what decade the film or tv show was made in.

Is it possible for a film to truly look futuristic even to future audiences? Has any costume designer been able to find the right balance between timeless and slightly otherworldly? Join me below the cut as we explore the future as presented by the past as represented by costumes.

Mankind has long been fascinated with imagining the future, science fiction has given us many examples of futures both bright and bleak...Most of them wildly inaccurate.
Prior to the mid-20th century, visions of the future were quaint and fantastical, they imagined greater, although impractical technology and yet somehow fashion never changed in the slightest. And of course clothing is what I'm more interested in, clothing is just as influenced by technological advancements as any other aspect of civilization.

"I defy anyone to design a hat, coat or dress that hasn't been done before...The only new frontier left in fashion is the finding of new materials" - Paco Rabanne 1966

The problem is that we can only see from our own perspective, when most people imagine a distant future it's their own world with a few advancements, we can't help it. This presents one of the greatest challenges to a costume designer, clothing is something we immediately identify with a certain time period. But as you may have noticed, fashion doesn't always look to the future. Remember when the 1980's had a fascination with the 50's? Or the 90's was in love with the 70's? And presently we seem to live in a nostalgia melting pot, we see influences of the 1950's, the 80's, the 60's and even (regretfully) the 90's. Not to mention with the Great Gatsby film out now, many clothing and jewellery companies are pushing for a 20's revival.

So what's a designer to do? Some science-fiction films do away with any kind of accuracy, Metropolis for example is more like an alternate reality rather than a vision of the future.

So futuristic, it's retro
 Some shows might go something a bit more whimsical as seen in the Jetsons and Back to the Future, these are more like sets from Disney's Tomorrowland rather than trying to make any real predictions. But I must say that self-drying, self-adjusting jacket does seem very practical, it's one of the rare clothing related technological advancements seen in film.

I would place Ridley Scott up there as one of the best director's to depict the future. The Alien films as well as Prometheus are very Cyberpunk, dark, grimey and practical, this is a believable future even after all these decades. Blade Runner is a neo-noir, a blend of the 40's/50's and the 80's and yet somehow I would rate it as one of the most timeless science-fiction films of all.

So fashionable it hurts

 But more importantly, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was a film that set the tone and look for serious futuristic science fiction for generations to come. In fact it was so good at depicting the future that almost 50 years later it still looks futuristic. The trick it seems is to make the fashion more subdued, more practical.

Costumes by Hardy Amies

But that's boring.

The show that's never afraid to boldly go where no fashion has gone before is clearly Star Trek which shall be the focus of this article, I'm only really talking about the Starfleet uniforms otherwise we would be here all day. Starting in 1966, the pilot had the crew in a unisex costume consisting of what looked like an over sized turtle-neck sweater which was most unflattering, they also wore black pants with a slight flare reminiscent of those worn by sailors and black boots with a heel. Uniforms were colour coded just like the uniforms worn by the crew of flight decks of aircraft carriers so that personnel can recognise each other's role at a glance.

When the show was picked up the colours became more vibrant, the uniforms more fitted and most infamously, the female crew were seen wearing incredibly short dresses, so much so that if they were to bend forward slightly or lay down you can see the shorts underneath. They also wore their hair and make-up in elaborate ways, this is obviously not for any practical purpose, this is not military realism like Battlestar Galactica, this is the swingingest cocktail party in space.

This is something designers come up against often, especially in television, you could try and make accurate predictions of the future, but to bring in viewers from week to week, the best way to draw them in is with pretty girls in cute costumes. People want to see something fun, something accessible and relatable, the clothing of Star Trek is a direct reflection of the fashion of the 1960's.

This was an era of experimental fabrics, up until that point the only stretch fabric was jersey and the only fabrics with a metallic shine were silks and satins, but the textile revolution brought about synthetic fabrics such as lycra, PVC, glo-mesh and netting just to name a few. This is an era of cheap consumerism, disposable clothing, of bright colours, pop art and the emergence of youth culture.
Although Star Trek is a show about exploring philosophical, tecnhological, social and racial issues, it was not completely disconnected from current trends. This is also why we see alien races wearing ridiculous shiny, shimmery fabrics, because obviously that makes it look alien right?

Star Trek- The Motion Picture
1969 and the Original Series goes off the air, a decade later the film franchise begins and through them we can see how sensibilities and notions of the future have changed. Stanley Kubrick's aforementioned masterpiece was released in the previous year and had a major influence over Star Trek:The Motion Picture, except in the costume department.

Oh gahd, make it stahp!
Why do they all look like they work at a day spa? I understand that they wanted to get away from the highly synthetic fabric, the short hemlines and the bright colours, but this isn't an improvement, you're just making it worse! Apparently they wanted to avoid any overt military designs, why? You can never go wrong with the military look. Also they are even more impractical than they are ugly because the actors couldn't even go to the bathroom without a bit of assistance and those shoes are actually attached to the pants!

I will say however that I have a fondness for Vulcan costume and indeed Vulcan culture in general, so I easily rate Spock's costume the only redeeming one of the film.

Black has and always shall be your friend.

Wrath of Khan-Undiscovered Country

Robert Fletcher stayed on as designer for the next two films and evidently learned from these mistakes.
Now these are uniforms! For the first time the costumes reflect the naval influence that Star Trek had always drawn from. You might be surprised to find that these are actually those atrocious costumes from the first film given a make-over. By adding a turtle-neck, a little black here and there, a double breasted front and a new colour and they worked magic. Interesting to note that the vibrant red was not exactly a choice, rather it was the only colour that took to the fabric, thereby turning red from an ill-omened colour within the franchise to one representing command, thus creating the uniform that would continue throughout the film series and even carry over into The Next Generation.

Oh Wesley's rainbow jumper! I mean "provisional officer uniform" ...right.

Star Trek- The Next Generation
I think The Next Generation uniforms are great, functional, darker and serious, they look like a military just not a military we are familiar with and what's more they don't look like a product of the time they were made in. Sadly the same can't be said about the Enterprise itself which does look very 80's/90's, ugh beige interior, who's idea was that? What was wrong with the white and grey?

The standard TNG uniforms went through many changes over the course of seven seasons and four films. Mostly minor details, like piping on the shoulders, adjusting the fit or finding a fabric with the right weight. As you can see above, it's quite thin, later on the material is heavier, which I find looks more professional. I think my absolute favourite uniforms of the TNG era were the ones in the films, they got everything right in terms of fit, fabric and a minimalistic yet effective use of colour.

 This jumpsuit silhouette continued on into the other shows Voyager and Deep Space Nine with very little changes, proving that it has aged very well, a truly timeless look.The exception being the prequel series Enterprise which featured uniforms very reminiscent of those worn by modern NASA astronauts, a logical influence to draw from.

Evidently the Vulcans would be very influencial when it came to introducing velour to Starfleet

That's not to say that the TNG era didn't have its fair share of failure, just look at this very literal "dress uniform", which gives Picard an hourglass figure and accentuates Riker's manboobs. I wouldn't say its problem is looking dated, rather it just doesn't take into account the male form at all.

 Here's another example of a failed formal uniform, what are they supposed to be maitre d's? I love white and gold together but they are very tricky to pull off especially in a uniform, that cropped cut isn't helping either, it's all very 80's despite this movie coming out in 1998.

What ages most of the Star Trek shows is the characters who are allowed to wear casual attire, they often did this to a female crew member to play up her appeal to viewers, T'Pol in her awful velour tracksuits, Seven in her skintight catsuits and of course the original culprit, Deanna Troi. I don't mind the dress on the far left, but those unitards are just dreadful. She looks much smarter in the two variations of the standard uniform on the far right.

Reboot Era
Okay, so it's obviously way too early to make any real comment on how the Abrams Trek will fair in the long run, but here's my predictions. First of all Michael Kaplan was the costume designer on both the 2009 film and Into Darkness, the man is a goddamn legend to put it mildly. Among his long list of credits is Blade Runner, so we already know how his previous work ages like a fine wine (or like a Robert Downey Jr if you will).

At this point the Star Trek franchise has its own unique look and the reboot films are about building up from that, it still tries to look futuristic but we see a nice blend of influences. Clearly this is the uniform of The Original Series, but made to look more detailed and professional, the fabric has a tiny insignia print all over it, there are lots of bias trims and the black collar is actually part of an undershirt. I find this is a far more believable uniform than their predecessors.

The designs for the formal uniforms are most..."fascinating". The red uniforms are clearly a nod to the ones worn in films 2-6 and the uniform worn by Captain Pike below incorporates that ribbed collar along with a subtle nod to the costumes of The Motion Picture. Quite a daring choice, but I like how he not only went there, but improved it.

As for casual clothing, Into Darkness features far more examples of them than the 2009 film. Kaplan is all about interesting structures and lines, most civilians are wearing clothes reminiscent of our own, just altered slightly, they seem like believable future fashions but it's not distracting. Kaplan knows to avoid looking at modern trends as they are just that, trends and will very likely looked dated even by the time of the films release. The one exception is Uhura's print shirt she wears when she confronts the Klingons, she could be brought into our modern world and she wouldn't look out of place. Only time will tell how it's going to age.

 I could write a whole article on John Harrison's (Benedict Cumberbatch) costumes alone, he wears some seriously cool coats, evocative of many influences, I see a bit of the 60's and I see a bit of Blade Runner among other things.
Dat collar
Overall the costumes of the reboot era have been stripped back and made functional and realistic, it takes into account the effects the passage of time may take on costumes in a film such as this. And now that everything is digital, designers don't have to fight an uphill battle with degrading film quality. I would imagine the reboot films are going to look good for decades to come.

So if I were put in charge of designing futuristic fashion I would take all of this into consideration, it's really not as daunting a challenge as one might imagine. To look forward one must look back to the past, to see what looks have stayed with us the longest, it's also about considering how technology may one day influence the appearance or even the construction of garments. Also, stop putting people in unitards! Why do so many designers think it looks futuristic? It's just impractical.

Next week-Paint it Black, a look at all the black rubbery leathery costumes that never seem to disappear from film and television.


  1. I'm really enjoying your costume critiques so far. Please keep writing them and I will keep reading them!

    A lot to think about here, its really quite special how much the star trek outfits really tie into their respective production designs and the tones of their individual films or series (pale and washed-out for the motion-picture's pensive mood, passionate blood-red for Wrath of Khan, etc). They feel of a whole. Its impossible to imagine ANY of the outfits working outside of their settings.

    As for future generations watching our sf films, I can't help but think that the trench coats will be a dead give-away. ;)

  2. That's fantastic, good to know people find costumes as interesting as I do.
    Speaking of seeing these costumes outside of their settings, when you see a costume being worn at a convention you notice some costumes look dated, some don't, cosplay is where it's put to the test.

    No way man, long coats will always be cool...That said, I'll be covering the Matrix in my next review, so I may stand corrected by then!

  3. Science fiction and Westerns are always more about the time in which they are made than about the time they depict. Sci-fi at least isn't constrained by historical referents.