The first time I went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s (The Met) summer exhibition Manus Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, I felt like I was on the set of a futuristic film. The dresses on show were all wondrous, ethereal, and a bit bizarre, like something from another planet or dimension. The exhibition evoked a dreamlike state with its grey-blue walls and background soundtrack (THIS is the music I heard when I entered), giving the rooms a luminous feeling of enhancement. While coral-embellished Alexander McQueen dresses and Chanel wedding gowns caught my eye at first, I now think the garments on the lower level are some the most daring and innovative pieces. Why? Because they, unlike the rest, were printed.
Yes, friend. This garment, and many others like it, was made physical with a 3D printer.
But what exactly does this mean? What can 3D printing achieve? Well, as it turns out, a lot of things. Met curator Andrew Bolton says 3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the clothing industry because printed attire would “mould exactly to your measurement and it’s environmentally friendly. There’s no waste, whereas there’s always waste with textiles.” 3D printing would not only allow its wearers clothing specially made for them, but also clothing they could download instantly. Although this sounds sensational, I doubt the average person will be able to print a dress with their nifty 3D printer anytime soon (it isn’t able to print natural fibers like cotton yet). Nevertheless, I think this strange type of technology can serve as the catalyst for something else. As a millennial that grew up experiencing the rapid revolution of e-commerce, a sort of scaled-down version of 3D printing is not far-fetched.
And 3D printing is just one of the many new examples of wearable technology. Numerous tech companies and fashion institutions are exploring temperature controlled clothing and materials that can change colour (just think: you could wear one dress and it would seem different every time… LIKE A MAN IN A SUIT). This year alone there have been numerous exhibitions, books, and articles predicting advancements in fashion technology. One of these was #Techstyle, the 2016 summer exhibition at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which showcased not only 3D dresses but also laser cut objects and garments which responded to sound.
But there is one industry which now regards futuristic fashion with an entirely different perspective: film. Lately, celebrated futuristic films have blatantly disregarded technological innovations in fashion. This is especially interesting because films, particularly sci-fi and dystopian pictures, have always been the main medium through which ideas of evolving fashion have reached mass audiences. Movies such as “Star Wars”, “Logan’s Run”, “Buck Rogers”, “The Fifth Element” and “The Matrix” gave audiences a colourful, oftentimes frightening, picture of what the future could and perhaps would look like. Although each film told a unique story, costumes were more or less analogous (overly kitsch getups and/or tightly fitted tunics and jumpsuits come to mind…I am looking at you, Ruby Rhod! ). Despite at times looking ridiculous, these costumes were quite entertaining and, most importantly, signaled the coming of a new age. Geometric shapes and patterns, like those of the oh-so-fabulous Pierre Cardin, appeared in many pictures, delighting and inspiring movie-going audiences.
Ah. Just watching this YouTube video makes me want to jot down ideas for a fabulously campy, space-age Halloween party.
So why don’t we see the same kind of giddy enthusiasm for costumes in sci-fi films anymore? What’s changed today?
Well, for starters, recent films such as “Interstellar”, ”The Martian”, “Inception” and “Ex Machina” avoid clothing their actors in overtly hi-tech attire; attire which can quickly become dated. In fact, they tend not to feature fashion technology at all; most characters wear subtle apparel such as basic trousers, shirts, and jackets. You might argue that this shift is because audiences aren’t living in the Space Age craze of the 60s and 70s anymore. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer, especially considering that space age designs are still prevalent (Dior, for one, isn’t letting go). No, directors and designers now want to retain an element of authenticity and realism by keeping clothing simple and minimal. Instead of showcasing unfamiliar clothing in an already unfamiliar world, films give us costumes that look different enough to be curious and yet not so different, not so eccentric.
One particular film that does a stellar job is Spike Jonze’s “Her.” The film is set in futuristic Los Angeles, a time where operating systems can adapt and evolve past humans capabilities. Despite the advancement in technology, most of the clothing could be mistaken for what we wear today. Costume designer Casey Storm expressively made it so, stating, “What a lot of futuristic films do and we didn’t, is add things. No epaulets, badges, materials, textures.” Indeed, the main character wears simple buttoned shirts and his best female friend dons jumpers and a frumpy hairdo. It might seem rather artless but would people in the future really want to wear uncomfortable-looking, wetsuit-type attire? Storm argues, “If you have access to anything you want in the future, why would you create a cold world for yourself? Why would we be moving into textures and materials that were not organic and recyclable? It made more sense to use cottons and wools, not metals and plastics.” Storm presented moviegoers with her vision of what an advanced society would choose to wear and not what they scientifically could, an innovative and daring new approach in modern cinema which challenges her predecessors and opens a new door for the visual look of films of a similar genre.
Does this mean that all high-tech fashion is silly? Not at all. “The Hunger Games” is one example of a recent film set in a dystopian future that utilises flamboyant, ultramodern clothing but it is also cautious in its approach. Only an elite group of characters wears stylized attire and it functions to emphasise their overindulgent and greedy behavior. Hi-tech fashion is very visible in the film (especially in this powerful scene) but it is oftentimes political; it adds to the narrative and does not distract from it. Costume designer Judianna MakovskyI explains this choice, stating, “We didn’t want it so overly stylized that it wasn’t a real place—it is a real place.” And that’s precisely it. Filmmakers do not want moviegoers to be mere spectators; they want them to envision themselves within the narrative, accepting a make-believe realm as their own. This acceptance is easier if recognisable elements are present so audiences can call it their home, ignoring that the characters and places are not only fictitious but light years away.
While advances in 3D printing and fashion technology are definitely fascinating, it’s equally fascinating and very refreshing that sci-fi filmmakers are taking a new approach by focusing on engaging their audience. Sci-fi costumes shouldn’t merely focus on looking smart, they need to be smart (Am I right, Edna Mode??). Thankfully, there are those in the film industry that understand this today. These sci-fi film costumes might not be as flashy or daring enough to feature in a cutting-edge exhibit but if they can make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look this good, then who’s complaining?