When we talk about the future, we’re mostly alluding to just two different concepts: the one we plan for and the one that will actually eventuate. But in the eye of creatives, there is a third: the one we can see when we look back on its past interpretations. Nowhere is this more palpable than in fashion. Looking at depictions of futures dreamt up decades ago, we’d see Space Age civilians in silver and inflatable silhouettes or dystopian scenes of rag-clad leftovers. And yet, for the most part, we’re still wearing button-up shirts and denim — both products of the 1800s — while our ideas of ‘future fashion’ remain relatively unchanged.
In the height of the 1960s, prolific French designer Pierre Cardin famously said, “The dresses I prefer are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist.” Of course, he was right. Best known for his architectural proportions, creative use of synthetic fabrics, and incorporation of electric lights in his garments, Cardin’s legacy is in being a pioneer of the fashion’s Space Age and setting up the foundation for what fashion in decades to come could look like. And in the 60s, when moon landings, the end of war and even oral contraceptives were just around the corner, it was perfectly reasonable to believe that these were the trends upon which the new world order of fashion would be built. While it’s been half a century since his visions first inspired ideas of a brave new world, the life he speaks of still feels lightyears away. Even in the age of self-driving cars and a burgeoning space tourism industry, our idea of ‘future fashion’ still harkens a return to the work of past dreamers, rather than a glimpse into what actually may lie ahead of us.
Though the past has always served as inspiration in fashion, the revived themes we’re seeing in collections as of late cause us to look at how far we’ve come. There is a bittersweet comfort in appreciating the ideas people had for a time like the one we’re in. Even from days not too long gone did we hold an expectation for the 2020s that would see a more idealised reality. When we look back and compare notes, we’re confronted by the disparity in fashion today and the kinds of innovations we may have predicted for our future.
Where many of fashion’s trends post-lockdowns were anchored in comfort or celebration, rightly reflective of a world coming out of hibernation, the emerging trends observed in returns to designer codes of the 1960s mod movement, seem to embrace the blind optimism of an era that was sold the technological dream. Revisiting what we perhaps thought would be the standard of dressing in 2022 some decades ago — instead of the reality that is — in modular pieces, structural designs, non-traditional layering, reflective wear and silver everything, we’re reminded of fashion’s role in conceptualising the future.
Nowhere do we see this dreamed up more than in the 1960s animated series The Jetsons. With its ludicrous portrayal of fashion in the 2060s — including designers like Christian Di-Orbit and Pierre Martian — the show’s conception is an example of the head-in-the-sand optimism for technology typical of the decade. As we watch dresses that spray on (hello, Coperni Spring/Summer 2023) and machines that choose our outfits, viewers are invited to entertain a dazzling trajectory for our world that our current routes of innovation could one day realise. But though depictions of what the future may hold for fashion spoke to our desires for more of it, a world where technology could cater to our every wardrobe need, and an outfit could literally light up a room, these ideas ultimately panned out to be premature.
Over time, we’ve seen these projections of the future take a more foreboding shape. As the darker side of technology and rampant advancements, including the upheaval of the natural world, became clearer, it seemed the other shoe had dropped. Despite rampant advancements and a capitalist push for hyper convenience, mankind’s upheaval of the natural world and wayward politics that brought divisions of class and wealth to the forefront — not to mention constantly drawing us to the brink of total nuclear collapse — fashion’s construction of the ‘future’ has skewed. Jean Paul Gaultier’s fantastical costume designs in Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element are a true testament to the shift in feelings about the future preluding the bursting of the dot com bubble. Set in the 23rd century, perforated rubber dungarees and cropped utility sets primed for actions, are juxtaposed with barely-there cut-out uniforms for air stewards and fly-through McDonald’s employees, and other-worldly couture for the upper class.
In 2023, these divisions have arguably wedged deeper, and we see this in a return to retro-futurism that has no room for the desperation of optimism. If the 1960s vision ushered in the future with wide, open arms, then today’s creatives prefer a reassuring nod. There is an understandable humility to our dreams of the future, with nods to a different world embedded in the details. Pillowy shoes at Jil Sander, known for her classic sensibility, anti-gravity hems and bulbous shapes at Jordan Dalah that seem to move independently from their wearer, a return to chainmail at Paco Rabanne and vinyl mini skirt sets from Courrèges. The desire to shine a light on what’s ahead will always be there, it’s just grounded in a realism essential to the times. We may be open to a little bit of retro glamour, and who doesn’t fall prey to the convenience of online shopping, but ultimately, fashion’s retro-futurism in the 2020s isn’t as optimistic.
With most creative industries still feeling the reverberations from the pandemic, we seem to have lost our proclivity to be captivated by the unknown, and an idealised future diverges from what it once was. Instead of spray-on dresses that go beyond performative and high-fashion fast-good uniforms, our projections are far less utopian. We do not dream of canned clothes and outfit-deciding machines, nor do we feel a noticeable absence of hoverboards and space travel. Even the once-romanticised use of synthetic fabrics feels more reminiscent of an industry in decline than advancement. At our core, we’re really just looking to elude annihilation, and the fashions that come out of this are not only beholden to this implicit fear but are finding ways to cope with it.
Ultimately, dreams of the future are just that: dreams. Fashion is not prophetic but has and will always be a vehicle to explore current sentiments and hopes of an uncertain tomorrow. And though we may still button our own shirts and wear centuries-old denim every day while we trade our digital coins and meet up virtually, the consolations of fashion’s embrace of a better world are always there if you’re looking.
THIS FEATURE IS PUBLISHED IN THE 13TH EDITION OF GRAZIA INTERNATIONAL. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.