Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The futurist idiom in film costume

Screen costume is a pet topic of mine, as you may have gathered from my recent public talks. We get so many of our ideas of masculinity and femininity, glamour and power, how clothes should and shouldn't fit, from the movies and from TV.

Partly we want to extend the pleasure we find onscreen, and our identification with characters, by emulating the looks of our favourite stories. But screen costumes also reflect their historical, political, social and technological contexts, and contain rich intertexts drawn from our understandings of fashion history.

Recently I saw the new Neill Blomkamp film Elysium, starring Matt Damon. I really enjoyed it at the time – the visuals are amazing – but on reflection its script was pretty thin and its themes very didactic. (It's a critique of inequitable wealth distribution, harsh immigration policies and the moribund US healthcare system.) One thing that troubled me immediately was this:

Matt Damon lives in the year 2154. Why is he wearing a T-shirt and jeans (and sneakers, which you can't see in this still)? This made me think about how other films have represented 'the future'. I've written a feature for Junkee about it, showing how both classic and recent films use costume to convey their 'futuristicity', but as a taster, here are the strands of futurism I identify:

Uniformed Futurism – symbolising the wearer's allegiance to an organisation, uniforms can signify utopian collectivism and freedom from markers of inequality, or a totalitarian regime imposing its will on the public.

Retro-Futurism – Fashion is cyclical, not linear; retro-futurism draws on fashion history to put its social and political connotations in fresh contexts.

Couture Futurism – We often imagine the future will look strange to us; couture futurism suggests that extremely avant-garde fabrics, silhouettes and textures might one day come to seem ordinary.

Organic Futurism – These costumes use organic forms, colours and textures to distinguish humanity from technology. Organic futurism can also assign new technological purposes to natural forms and materials.

Grunge Futurism – The assertion of individual style in the absence of state or corporate authority. Putting personal twists on utilitarian clothes through punk-style bricolage, not just wearing a grubby T-shirt and jeans!

Read all about it here.

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