Sci Fi references come in and out of fashion as futuristic aesthetics periodically capture designers’ imaginations. However, references that may seem forward thinking at first can turn out to be retro-futuristic on closer inspection. Unravelling these unexpected connections is one of the many things that makes studying fashion history an exciting enterprise. Looking at Versace’s Fall 2014 couture collection with its asymmetric, monochrome dresses adorned with sleekly cut geometric patterns for example, I was reminded of the little known British science fiction film High Treason. However, it wasn’t completely incidental that I should recognise familiar motifs because I wrote my dissertation on Gordon Conway’s costumes for the feature. Analysing her designs and thinking about how contemporary viewers may have perceived them allowed me to consider how the sartorial language of science fiction fashions powerful images of life in the future.
High Treason, directed by Maurice Elvey in 1929, takes place in the mechanically-driven world of 1940 and focuses on a love story that unfolds while an escalating international crisis threatens with a second world war. The film addressed contemporary concerns regarding technology and depicted a world where machines were not inherently good or evil, as the outcomes of their use depended on human responsibility and a commitment to world peace. Despite its lofty themes, the feature’s principal aim was to astound viewers with its portrayal of the future, therefore flying machines, automated showers and real-time conversations over television screens are shown as the perks of life in 1940. The movie especially sought to appeal to female audiences, as they were considered the primary consumers of cinema at the time. As a result, women were shown to be equal partners in society, whose participation in public life was a key ingredient to world peace.
Fashion played a defining role throughout the film as an added source of entertainment because it was thought that women would pay more attention to costumes than to anything else they saw on screen. Gordon Conway’s futuristic sketches and costumes therefore reflected on the way that women could be both glamorous and practical in a mechanised world. An imaginative range of evening dresses in the film’s nightclub scene illustrated the combination of these two concepts. Actresses appear in hybrid garments; in dresses with daring slits that reveal short trousers underneath. These costumes were decorated in varied ways, but geometric patterns, asymmetry and the use of reflective textures such as black leather and silver silk characterise the pieces shown. Although these costumes appeared futuristic, they also built on an established association between trousers and emancipation that originated from 19th century American feminists. Conway’s costumes therefore reinterpreted avant-garde aesthetics and referenced forward-thinking political movements from the past in order to craft a believable image of the future, one that seemed new yet familiar at the same time.
It is this mix of familiarity and futurism that seems to have been quite prominent in the 2014 fall couture collections, and perhaps it is not a complete coincidence that designs such as Atelier Versace’s geometrically streamlined collection bring to mind science fiction aesthetics. Fashion is always in dialogue with its own past, even when the futuristic is concerned. Due to its propensity for novelty, it has frequently been used to envisage life in the future over the course of the twentieth century. These sartorial prophecies could be viewed at world exhibitions, in films and on the catwalk. As a result, a visual vocabulary of the futuristic has developed, components of which we can recognise without knowing their precise origin. The influence of science fiction aesthetics on high fashion indicates the extent to which technological advances stir the collective imagination. Furthermore, it calls for a comparison with earlier periods when futuristic fashion proved popular, in order to understand how we approach the future, the body and technology today.
High Treason can be viewed for free at the BFI Southbank Mediatheque.