The fashion of a society can often be a window on to the political, economic, and cultural concerns of the day. In science fiction stories the development of unique fashion can be used to provide an effective shorthand for the society being depicted. This is most often the work of the costume and production design in movie making, and there are many examples of great world building and thematic elements developed thanks in no small part to the fashion that the characters on screen wear. There are plenty of recent examples, just take the clear distinction between the garish/excessive fashion of The Capitol and the threadbare garb of District 12 in the Hunger Games movies (and how great was Wes Bentley’s beard!).
The execution of these fashions, and the meanings they have, are not always so obvious though. I have pulled together a few examples of costume/production design that I think works to inform the culture of the film’s setting, even whilst being quite subtle or appearing at first unremarkable. These films vary in quality, but I respect that enough care was given to their crafting that there are interesting and insightful fashions on display.
Elysium (2013) – Sub-dermal Art
Niell Blomkamp’s sci-fi treatise on the diverging quality of life that the rich and the poor can expect was flawed in many ways, not least in that the inexplicably white-not-latino lead Max (ably played by Matt Damon) was massively overshadowed by the villainous Kruger (played to grim perfection by Blomkamp favourite Sharlto Copley). But amongst the subtler successes of the film was the visible expression of the difference between those who live on Elysium and those who live on Earth. The rich and care-free Elysium citizens can often be seen sporting sub-dermal artwork – patterns, shapes, and words implanted beneath the skin to create a unique look. The implants can be seen on the foreheads, cheeks, and wrists of the rich throughout the movie.
Whilst the rich can have art work of their choosing added to their bodies merely for the aesthetic pleasure of it, the poor working-class people of Earth are not so lucky. Many characters in the film wear elaborate tattoos, perhaps the ancestor of sub-dermal art, but it is Max and Kruger that really demonstrate the difference in life-style. Like their rich counterparts they both have sub-dermal work too, but theirs is painful, practical, and bloody. For the poor sub-dermal implants are a cruel necessity, not playful conspicuous capitalism.
In Time (2011) – Buttons
After the sublime Gattaca writer/director Andrew Niccol’s return to near future societal angst was highly anticipated, but In Time suffers from a wealth of poor choices, including massive structural problems and interminably dry dialogue. That said, the production and costume design are pretty great throughout the movie. The concept of the film is also an interesting one: time has become a tradable commodity, and the poor die at 26 unless they can work to receive extra minutes whilst the rich have centuries in the bank. Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas finds himself mixed up in some time-trading shenanigans and the plot goes rather predictably from there.
Much like in Elysium the distinction between the rich and poor can be seen in their fashion choices (not that the poor necessarily have a choice). Although pretty conservative in design, mostly suits and gowns, the rich wear clothes that feature an enormously excessive number of buttons. Wherever buttons would normally be found, the shirt fronts, cuffs, collars, and jackets, here all of them feature just a boat load of buttons. When time is a currency only the rich can afford to spend precious minutes doing up their elaborate clothes. Such is the ostentatious importance of buttons that even the dresses feature non-functional decorative buttons for effect.
The poor on the other hand do not have the luxury of wasting time getting dressed. Their clothes feature primarily velcro’s, zippers, and snaps. The speed with which the ‘have-nots’ change is emphasised when Will’s mother pops into the bedroom to change and emerges seconds later fully clothed and doing up a couple of zips – getting dressed and un-dressed in as short a time as possible is immensely valuable when you live in a time based economy. The aspirations of the ambitious also reinforce the fashion trends. The local thug, a man who thinks himself above the common herd, can be seen wearing buttoned shirts and jackets, though even he can only afford a two button collar.
Inception (2010) – Subsumed Personality
This isn’t really a culturally insightful scifi fashion trend, but it does offer an interesting perspective on the events of this movie so hopefully it isn’t too out of place in this post. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is about the stealing of an idea from the mind of an unsuspecting mark; a team of trained ‘mind-thieves’ work to infiltrate and deceive via the medium of dreams. As the protagonists descend further into the multi-layered dreamscape they become less able to express themselves through their fashion choices. The team’s costumes and clothes, carefully considered personality choices, are erased and replaced with increasingly uniform outfits until they ultimately cease to be individuals at all.
In the ‘real’ world all of the characters wear clothes that, even though following similar trends (all of the men wear trousers and jackets for example) are uniquely their own (Eames, for instance, is more colourful and flamboyant than the rest of the group wearing a pink patterned shirt and antique watch, as opposed to the muted colours of Cobb’s wardrobe, whilst Ariadne consistently wears silk scarves).
As the team enter the first level of the dream they wear an assortment of outfits according to role, but already Cobb and Arthur wear similar leather jackets. In the next dream level they all wear suits, each retains a unique style, but they all more closely resemble one another sartorially than before. The next dream level down requires the team to don snow camouflage/winter gear – they are now all literally wearing the same uniform and their personalities have been erased from their clothing at this point.
In the finally dreamscape Cobb works through a collection of his previous looks, but at this stage the rest of the group, now devoid of sartorial personality, have ceased to exist – Cobb’s various outfits encompass them all. This idea intrigues me as there has long been speculation about the true nature of Cobb’s status in the film – if he is dreaming for the duration of the entire movie, simply trying to find his way out, then these sartorial choices would make sense. All of the other characters could be parts of his personality, creations of his mind, and so as he goes deeper to the heart of his psychosis or central dream problem or whatever that final dreamscape represents, the various splinters of his personality shed their distinct individuality and become closer and closer to the core personality. That said, it wouldn’t explain the epilogue at all, so it may all mean nothing and just be a collection of great clothes!
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