Film, Fashion and Science Fiction

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photos courtesy of Rodarte

This story appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Mention Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey and the image of astronaut Dr. Frank Poole probably comes to mind — maybe while flailing in a mustard-colored space suit surrounded by dark, vast emptiness. Or think of the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner and you likely picture a dystopian Daryl Hannah — sheathed in a sheer top and iridescent jumpsuit with torn fishnets, a studded dog collar and platinum blonde locks to boot. Science fiction, whether of the space opera or cyberpunk kind, has always provided a source for some of our most memorable cinematic and sartorial visions.

So when plans for a continuation of George Lucas’ Star Wars films were announced (Episode VII is currently scheduled for release in December 2015), it was perhaps not so shocking that fashion houses sought inspiration from the franchise for their fall 2014 collections — notably, American fashion label Rodarte. Closing a collection ripe with turtlenecks, paper bag pants and shearling-collared metallic coats, five gowns floated down the runway featuring stills of Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, the Death Star, Tatooine suns and Jedi Master Yoda. “Our fall 2014 was inspired by our nostalgia for our childhood, delving into the ephemeral space of our imagination, highlighting our fascination with storytelling and cinema,” explained sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy, founders of the Rodarte brand, of their design concept to Lucasfilm. “These images have impacted us greatly both as young women and as adults; their influences have been broad, shaping our aesthetic understanding, as well as our connection to storytelling, art, film, innovation and creativity.” (No word as to why R2-D2 and Princess Leia didn't make the cut.) 

Not surprisingly, the dresses were a source of debate among the style sect, sparking varied reactions. “And with all due respect to fans of Star Wars (for they are legion), the use of giant Luke Skywalker and R2-D2 prints in the final passage of gowns just seemed silly,” wrote Maya Singer for Maybe Singer would have felt differently if she knew her C-3PO from her R2-D2. But Star Wars enthusiast or not, critics needed to be reminded that fashion, after all, is fundamentally an industry of make-believe, and designers are always striving toward the future in the same vein as the mythical genre — whether they’re designing for the runway or the cinema itself.

Consider Jane Fonda donning a shiny, green leotard with chain-linked Rhodoid plastic fringe in the 1968 sci-fi romp Barbarella, and the concurrent fashions from designer Paco Rabanne. The Spanish designer had been defining futuristic couture since the start of his career, designing jewelry for the likes of Givenchy and Dior from unconventional materials like metal, paper and plastic, and in 1966 he showed his first collection, suitably titled “12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials.” Imagine dresses crafted from alumi- num discs and sheet metal. The futuristic sex goddess character of the film provided the perfect canvas for Rabanne’s aesthetic — chainmail crop tops, plastic bodysuits, thigh-high silver boots and all.

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier took a cue from Rabanne’s shiny, form-fit- ting space age outfits in creating the costumes for 1997’s The Fifth Element — like Milla Jovovich’s iconic white bandage dress and Chris Tucker’s gender-bending leopard catsuit. But Gaultier had been displaying similarly ostentatious designs on catwalks since the late ’70s (and on arena stages since the ’80s — he’s the one responsible for Ma- donna’s iconic cone bra). So his work in The Fifth Element didn’t only mark his own achievement in cinematic contributions, but also emphasized the grander symbiotic relationship between film and fashion’s fantastical worlds. 

The fact is, cultural obsessions permeate more than one facet of society, and science fiction is one influence that has never been stronger than it is today. Just take a look at some of the top-earning Hollywood movies in the past few decades — The Avengers, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Avatar, Transformers, The Matrix, Independence Day, Jurassic Park and Back to the Future before that. It’s clear that America has a particular affinity for anything to do with wizardry, space travel, time travel, aliens, post-apocalyptic worlds and Robert Downey, Jr. And movies are just one slice of the science fiction pie; we can’t disregard the television shows, video games, comic conventions, books and, of course, fashion. (Though Rodarte’s couture pieces may belong in a different subcategory than, say, a brandished pair of Vans featuring a Stormtrooper.)

But why the science fiction obsession? Nineteenth-century German sociologist Max Weber’s research may provide some insight. In a modern, bureaucratic Western society where scientific understanding is valued over belief, and rationality and pragmatism preside, we have become “disenchanted,” in Weber’s words. There is no place for mystery or magic in a world rife with explanation, with systems, with facts. So we turn to science fiction to gain a sense of wonder and recover the imagination of our childhood.

Childhood, imagination ... exactly what the Mulleavy sisters said inspired their Star Wars gowns. “In the end, for Rodarte, the dresses represent something intangible,” they added. “The instant where you learn to keep your eyes wide open to the vast potentiality of everything.” After all, sometimes that with potentiality becomes reality: Nike is introducing the self-tying “power laces” worn by Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part II next year — the same “future” year the shoes are from in the 1989 film.