Monday, July 25, 2016

The Peculiar Challenge of Costuming Science Fiction

My husband and I are watching Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time and I find myself deeply intrigued by the costuming. Not because it is aesthetically pleasing, but rather because of the story it tells. As I watch the show, I find myself guessing at the costumer's thoughts. For, despite the extremely dated look of the show, I can tell that a great deal of thought and planning went into the clothing design.


Nathan was surprised when I told him how much I was thinking about TNG costuming. "But it's so awful!" he said.

"I know, but there's so much thought in it," I replied.

"Like the pajama costume?" he said, referring to the onesie type thing worn by "The Traveller" in an early season 1 episode.

"Actually, yes!" I told him. "It looks really simple, but up close I could see that there was actually a really intricate quilting design to the fabric. It looked weird and simple, but someone put a lot of forethought into how it was constructed."

It's a shame that so much effort is unlikely to be appreciated until the 80's styles swing back into vogue (no, they have not really made a full comeback yet).

This got me thinking about how this is a typical problem for science fiction films - except Star Wars. Why? Well, the typical science fiction show tries to be as futuristic as possible. That means they take whatever is trendy now and try to imagine how that thing will look in x years - or (as in Back to the Future) they just try to make up extreme trends in a ironic poke at humanity's tendancy to go to the extreme. It sort of worked in BttF because of the general point that trilogy was trying to make, but it's not a good blueprint overall - it distracts more than it enhances.

Star Wars, on the other hand, makes full use of the 'long time ago' part of their description. Most of their futuristic technology is modeled on historical designs. The Empire is based on both Nazi Germany and communist Russia. Padme Amidala's wardrobe is inspired by cultures all over the world. There are a few things that date them, here and there (most notably the haircuts), but over all, reaching into the past rather than anticipating the future creates a more grounded feel.
But... let's be fair. Star Wars is not the future. It's "the past." So how do you costume something like Star Trek, which actually IS supposed to be the future?

I think the trick is to stick to classic looks, those styles that evoke many periods, rather than the present trend. The truth of fashion is that it cycles. Nowadays fashion cycles quicker than ever before. In fact, in the last three years, vintage has become so popular that I have to wonder if we are transcending 'universal' trend altogether. With the internet forging us into a monoculture, individual expression is (oddly enough!) more acceptable than ever, as everyone can find their own microculture.

I don't think the future will look like Star Wars in that we'll be wearing elaborate hairdos like Padme Amidala. But I do think that a variety reflecting many eras of human history is a plausible projection - and least likely to be dated! So if I were costuming a futuristic science fiction show, I would look at classic looks that come back over and over, and build off of that. I'd stay away from anything that has only been a trend in the most recent decade.

Which, let's be fair, they did achieve quite well with the Star Trek uniforms. Although each ST series has had it's own incarnation of the uniforms, overall the main style has remained similar, iconic... and plausible. The new movies may have updated the look of some technology, but they went back to the classic uniform colors - and it worked.

One final note - The Hunger Games is another recent franchise that deals with this problem in notable depth. I think, perhaps, that they may have done a good job of combining historical, present, and ridiculous irony (as required by the message of the story). But I'll only be able to tell for certain when I go back and watch the films in 30 years - and ask my kids what THEY think of it! If blogs still exist and I'm still writing... I'll be sure to do a follow-up post. ;)

(If you are interested in how I would do costume designs in the Star Wars world, you may enjoy this post!)

1 comment:

  1. I just finished watching Star Trek: the next generation for the first time, and I am surprised by your comments! I really liked the costumes of the show - I found most of them very elegant and simple.

    I remember thinking in the first season that the series, visually, has stood well in time. There are some dated elements, but for me that was mostly the hairstyles. As for characters, Deanna Troi is probably the one that dates the crew(and the show) the most - but her 'different' clothing and hairstyle I think were so, to remind viewers that she was actually alien. (and to show some of the extravagance of her mother?)


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