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One of the most interesting ways costume designers can flex their creative muscle in the movies is by inventing fashions that might be worn in the future. Envisioning what our world – or perhaps another world – might look like in a time that has not yet come to pass is a task of limitless possibility. I imagine it would be any designer’s dream to have such freedom to experiment and explore. So why is it that so many films set in the future feel so dated?

On the TV end, the most hilarious examples of “future costume design” can of course be found in the shows of the   Star Trek   franchise. While creature design on the show is relatively inventive (though leaning pretty heavily in the humanoid-with-a-wacky-face direction), the approach to costuming has always followed the tried & true sci-fi credo that only on Earth do people try to distinguish themselves from each other by using different styles of dress. On other planets, there’s a single planetary style and colour palette, and that’s it. We humans are, apparently, unique in our invention of “fashion”.

Avoiding the date trap

Many of the best futuristic films wisely avoid the trap of inventing future fashions which might quickly become dated, which is why films like Alien still look so fresh. It’s because the characters wear timeless classics like coveralls and white cotton t-shirts. Even the trench coats and vinyl catsuits of The Matrix seem a bit dated a decade later (or perhaps it’s just the sunglasses), but it’s really the nouveau-hippie tribal fashions we were treated to in the rave  sequence of The Matrix Reloaded that truly suffer from late-’90s-itis.

The plausible future

Predicting the future is no easy feat. Just think about the fact that Escape from New York and Terminator clock the start of our dystopian future around the mid-1990s. Who can blame them? It probably seemed plausible in the early ’80s. While both of those films are iconic for various reasons, they don’t stand out in terms of costume design. In fact, post-apocalyptic films rarely excel in terms of fashion, though the Mad Max franchise is a notable exception. The leather-clad hero and terrifying roaming gangs of junk-armoured punks have a bit of an ’80s feel, but they’re still pretty wild. Remember The Humungous, that hockey-masked, muscle-bound lord of the wasteland? That guy is still terrifying – and plausibly futuristic – because his look is so outlandish, it can’t possibly go out of style.

Taking it all to another… world

In the world of contemporary cinema, no one has ever done a better job of creating a rich and varied aesthetic universe than Jean-Paul Gaultier did in the 1997 classic   The Fifth Element  (yes, I called it a classic, and I dare you to argue that it’s not). Gaultier’s bondage-inspired costumes for Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo, his sexy stewardesses, his over the top, flamboyant outfits for Chris Tucker and even the creature design on that  blue singer lady  all combine into a fully realized and complex world. The true genius of Gaultier’s work is most visible in crowd scenes, where he displays a diverse array of styles that all feel as though they’re of a common time and place. There’s no “single planetary fashion” syndrome going on here, but 15 years later, the film still manages to look futuristic.

Incidentally, the blue lady was called Diva Plavalaguna, which means blue lagoon in Serbian. Do you suppose that’s some weird inside joke on the fact that half-Serbian Milla Jovovich’s first film role was in   Return to the Blue Lagoon ? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Going wildly contemporary

Sometimes, building a realistic, or at least pleasingly imaginative, future is more about set design than costumes. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey . If only we were lucky enough to live in a world as stylish as the one Kubrick conceived for that film. But then, Kubrick has always been a master of style. The jackboots, bowler hats and suspenders worn by Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange represent a wonderful retro-futurism, a frightening funhouse mirror version of 19th century dandy that works precisely because that’s how fashion works. We’re constantly reappropriating and recycling style elements from the past in new, weird ways.   Blade Runner used a similar approach, combining wild contemporary styles (see: Pris’s punky ’80s vibe) and retro elements (see: Rachael’s ’40s-inspired tailored suits & coif).

Style is complex and constantly evolving, incorporating elements of the past with glimpses of what is yet to come. Successful futuristic costume design must do the same, combining past and present influences to create myriad new looks that will reflect the diversity found in the real world. It’s a tall order to predict future fashion trends, but when it’s done well, it stands the test of time.

This month Toronto Film Scene is unzipping the mystery surrounding  Fashion in Film. Who are the people behind the clothing choices, where  in Toronto do they shop and what are some examples of great costuming? We’ll also check in with CAFTCAD,  revisit  the relationship between Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock and look at films that have inspired fashion trends.