Imagining the Future

Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'
Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Film has always been entranced by the cosmic and the infinite, leading to an enduring love affair with futuristic design, art and fashion. In the late nineteenth century, stage performer Loïe Fuller first united cloth and light to conjure up an out-of-this-world vision in her dazzling lantern dances, complete with projections of the moon’s surface across her body. The films of Georges Méliès introduced into cinematic clothing the elements of fantasy and transformation, including a journey to outer space in A Trip to the Moon (1902).The celestial and the lunar were popular subjects in early projections, while even the technologies themselves exerted a powerful hold on the imagination. Designing, building and using them was a key aspect of imagining a future world. [private]

For fashion designers, cinema opened up a world of new opportunities. Spectacular visions of the future ignited a trend for imitative designs. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) sent ripples through the fashion world that can still be felt to this day on the catwalks of Givenchy and Versace, while Maurice Elvey’s High Treason (1929) immortalised the fashion aspirations of the Jazz Age generation. The film, set twenty-one years into the future in a politically volatile London (prophetically on the verge of a second World War), presents a sleek metropolitan vision intended to rival that of Lang. Some of these ideas have stayed with us (such as the Channel Tunnel), others proved less successful. But with sumptuous costumes designed by Gordon Conway, who began her career as an illustrator for Vogue and Harpers, a nightclub scene presented one of the first, great futuristic fashion sequences on film. Conway loved to work with fabrics analogous to film, from diaphanous chiffons to light-refracting American cloth. Metallic and coated fabrics shimmered on screen, leading eager eyes to the subtleties of cut and construction.

The costumes reference the flapper craze of the 1920s and the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which were themselves informed by the vampish severity and exoticism of silent film stars such as Gloria Swanson and Theda Bara, and magazines stressed the role of film in dictating this look. In 1920’s edition of Photoplay, May Stanley declared, “stars of the silent drama are not content with following the fashions, they introduce them.” So “when Alice Brady or Priscilla Dean or Norma Talmadge want to appear in winter things in a new film play they get next winter’s modes from the creators, who are always six months ahead of the styles, and you get them as soon as the picture is released.” These figures were promoted as trendsetters – leaders in sartorial experimentation and freedom – and they found a natural ally on the catwalks of couturiers. Coco Chanel, who would herself design for film in the early 1930s, championed the uncorseted silhouette and sporting lines that would be taken up by tomorrow’s physically and socially emancipated woman.

Fashion, by its very nature, is always looking ahead. Trend forecasting has played an integral role in the fashion world since colour prediction was established as a profession in the 1920s. But the nature of trend forecasting is a self-fulfilling prophecy, referencing the needs and desires of the present generation in order to deliver on its promises. So when the New York World Fair of 1939 put forward its predictions for the year 2000, it reiterated Conway’s dressing of the lithe, sporting body – clothes of diaphanous, silvered materials – with a few wearable technologies thrown in for good measure; bodies controlled and illuminated by electronic accessories. An image of humanity as intimately bound to a technological future.

This union of cloth, body and technology continued into the 1930s, where the growing scientific interest in the moon and the stars as the next frontier inspired a wave of utopian thinking that took popular form, with a rich field of science fiction literature and film leading the way.

In Things to Come (1936), the fashions are structured around transcendent principles. The film, based on H G Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933) and adapted by the man himself, presents clothing motivated by a dream of perfection. The film was an ambitious project by Alexander Korda’s London Films. Directed by William Cameron-Menzies, who had already established himself as a gifted cinematic designer, the film covers a century of future history culminating in the imagining of Everytown in 2036. The fashions of 2036, by young English painter John Armstrong, take their cue from the Modernist preoccupation with systems. Their clean and uncomplicated lines are complimented by references to the great elites of history (Wells saw the nod to Samurai armour as fitting for his intellectual elite of the future), while also hinting at the exaggerated lines of Futurism (the shoulder line is evocative of Tullio Cralli’s Dismountable Dress, 1932). Unisexed, wide-shouldered outfits with short skirts and sandals may have seemed avant-garde to some, but as Alastair Cooke pointed out in The Listener (18 March), “it must be heart-breaking for Mr Wells to be told that the costumes he predicted they’d be wearing in 2030 are to be the very thing in beach-wear this summer…”. With wardrobes of interchangeable separates, well-designed, uncomplicated silhouettes, unrestrictive clothing and new fabrics resistant to creasing, the outfits weren’t too far removed from the streamlined shapes bedecking the body beautiful of the 1930s. Cooke’s seemingly throwaway comment speaks of a culture obsessed with reshaping not just its clothing, but also the body that it adorns; an emphasis on hygiene, physical health, the active body and new exercise regimes. In the fashions of Everytown, Armstrong reminds us that the intellectual elite of the future are also expected to demonstrate physical prowess.

The film culminates in the firing of the space rocket, catapulting two perfect examples of Everytown’s bright young hopefuls towards the moon. They follow the dream that science may lead humanity to a scientific utopia on earth coupled with a future for humanity amongst the stars. By 1957, with the launch of the satellite Sputnik, the dawn of this Space Age was a reality. It signalled the birth of a technological age that brought with it new ambitions, and a desire to reflect this in a definitive and wearable ‘Space Age’ look. In the ensuing decade couturiers such as André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin would use innovative fabrics and techniques to play out these cosmic dreams on the bodies of consumers.

The clothes of Courrèges epitomized the technological optimism of the 1960s. The designer, he argued, “applies the maximum of his taste to the maximum in technological and social advances of his time”. Courrèges’s ground-breaking collections of 1964-5 are often cited as the authoritative example of the Space Age look: geometrically cut mini-dresses, tunics and trouser suits made of the latest synthetic materials to create surprising, sculptural shapes. In a similar vein, Pierre Cardin stated that “the clothes I prefer are those for a life that doesn’t exist yet – the world of tomorrow”. His seminal ready-to-wear collection of 1959 presented angular, rigidly-structured shapes over fitted, elasticized garments. Developing and patenting his own performance textile, ‘Cardine’, the designer created clothing that was engineered rather than sewn. His designs have been interpreted by design historian Jane Pavitt as the uniform for the 1960s “army of youth”, with Cardin sending models down his catwalk in a quasi-military procession. As Pavitt goes on to point out, Paco Rabanne echoed this agenda when he stated that clothes are “like weapons. When they are fastened they make a sound like the trigger of a revolver”. Rabanne’s favoured material, Rhodoid, was light and pliable; it could be cut, punched, layered and interconnected in an infinite variety of combinations, although one of his favourite was to link small pieces together so that they skimmed the body like ancient armour. Rabanne boldly called his first collection ‘Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials’, and he went on to experiment with many innovative plastics and industrial fabrics throughout his career, including in his work for film. In Barbarella (1968), he applied his method to more traditional fabrics, such as fur and leather. These Boadicea-inspired garments represented another popular 1960s trend: that of the warrior woman. Rabanne combined this with his understanding of the Space Age look to create the now-legendary costumes for Jane Fonda.

Rabanne described his clothing as a “manifesto”, questioning the future of clothing in an exciting but uncertain world. As the designer summarised, “Who knows what clothes will be? Maybe an aerosol used to spray the body, maybe women will be dressed in coloured gases adherent to their body, or in halos of light, changing colour with the movements of the sun or with their emotions.” A comment that perhaps acknowledges the filmic future of dress, taking us back to Loïe Fuller’s swirling dances of coloured light and fabric.

The fashion leaps taken by couturiers on the catwalk developed alongside equally large strides in the field of cinematic design, where the realities of space travel started to inform film fashions. The core components of Space Age clothing on screen borrowed heavily from the catwalks of Courrèges and Cardin: a clean, fitted and unbroken silhouette; the latest innovations in plastics and stretch fabrics; and geometric shapes and bold structures. The look dominated screens for several years, popularised by television programmes including Star Trek (from 1966) and The Avengers (1961-9).

Key to this skin-tight future was the jumpsuit, derived from the latest hi-tech innovations in skiwear and dancewear. The jumpsuit gave characters a practical freedom on screen (particularly during action sequences), but also added a certain amount of sex appeal. In The Avengers, the character of Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) will forever be associated with her high-kicking uniform of fitted catsuits with visible zips and knee-high boots. Designed by John Bates to emphasise Peel’s assertive female sexuality, it gave her an insistent physical presence on screen. She dominated the physical fight sequences, and her wardrobe was a witty and progressive contrast to that of bowler-hatted traditionalist Steed (Patrick Macnee). Perhaps more importantly, the jumpsuit was also a deliberate reference to the latest in performance textiles, particularly the practical, versatile and unisex undergarments worn by astronauts. In the fitted uniforms of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, audiences were presented with the logical outcome of this practice-led approach: clean-lined garments evolved from those once designed to fit under space suits.

But the filmic apogee of space fashion came in 1968. A year before the first moon landing, Stanley Kubrick revolutionised the depiction of the cosmos on film. The clothing, designed by Savile Row tailor and couturier to the Queen, Hardy Amies, presents futuristic fashion as an immaculately tailored uniform, stressing the orderly nature of the new millennium. The flight to the Discovery space station takes the hi-tech glamour of contemporary air travel to its ultimate conclusion. Flight attendants wear ‘grip shoes’ emblazoned with the logo of Pan-American Airlines. The staccato motion enacted by the wearers acts as a gentle reminder of the zero-gravity context, while also gesturing towards the recent development of fabrics such as Velcro. The stylish American airline Braniff had predicted a link between air and space tourism in 1965, when they hired Emilio Pucci to redesign their flight attendant uniforms. The results imagined an increasingly space-borne lifestyle, complete with a ‘Space Bubble’ helmet to protect hairstyles. Despite Braniff abandoning these helmets as impractical, echoes can be found in the pristine white hats of 2001’s flight attendants, designed for the film by Freddie Fox with a conscious nod to the lunar-like domes of Courrèges. Both Braniff and Pan Am were part of the army of designers hired by Kubrick to create a futuristic yet believable rendition of humanity in 2001, alongside major commercial players including Vogue, Revlon, Coty and Dupont. The film borrowed products still in the early stages of research and development, or in some cases commissioned new designs to develop the coherence of what was termed the ‘2001 Look’. Although many ideas were rejected at an early stage, the film’s pursuit of believability meant that many products thought to be over a decade away from commercial realisation were now just around the corner. To contemporary eyes, some of these fashions now seem inextricably tied to the moment in which they were created. But the result is a work of technical and fashion brilliance that, when first screened in 1968, left audiences in no doubt that they were embarking on a journey into tomorrow. [/private]

A selection of original costume designs, photographs, posters and publicity material from the BFI National Archive will go on display from 25th September – 11th January in the exhibition ‘Fashioning the Future’ as part of the major BFI season, Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder.

Claire Smith

About Claire Smith

Claire Smith is Curator of Posters and Designs at the BFI. Claire joined the BFI in 2011 after working as an Assistant Curator at The Henry Moore Foundation and at the V&A Museum, where she contributed to a series of exhibitions and publications relating to the history of art and design.

Claire Smith is Curator of Posters and Designs at the BFI. Claire joined the BFI in 2011 after working as an Assistant Curator at The Henry Moore Foundation and at the V&A Museum, where she contributed to a series of exhibitions and publications relating to the history of art and design.

Leave a Comment