Why Is Futuristic Fashion Still Retro?

New York University professor Nancy Deihl explains why the trend has failed to evolve. 

futristic retro clothing met gala.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Larry Busacca/Getty Images and Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images,

The theme of this year’s Met Gala, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” drew a wide range of interpretations: gowns lit by LEDs to trousers made entirely of recycled plastic bottles. Many of the designs, however, featured daring cutouts and gleaming metallic hardware—a nod to the futuristic aesthetics of the 1960s. Technology is frequently incorporated into fashion with increasing diversity—for instance, wearables popped up on several runways during New York Fashion Week—so why has our conception of futuristic fashion failed to keep up?

For answers to this question and more, I spoke to Nancy Deihl, director of the Costume Studies Master of Arts program at New York University, over the phone about fashion, technology, and the aesthetics of the future. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How would you broadly define the terms fashion and technology?

I think fashion is really intentional stylish dress, whether it’s the style of a group of people that you’re involved with, or it’s your own personal style. While we might think about technology being computers or digital or something like that, technology and fashion really go all the way back to the loom and the sewing machine, and the tremendous impact that the mechanization of those kind of processes had on fashion.

Fashion really takes advantage of any new material that becomes available. When plastic was young, people said, “OK, we’re going to start making our sequins out of plastic. We’re going to start making jewelry out of plastic.” Or when whalebone was a commodity that was out there, whalebone became incorporated into corsets.

What would you ultimately say is the relationship between fashion and technology?

I think it’s a love affair! I really do. Fashion designers are always on the lookout for new and stimulating processes, and materials, and ways of doing things. So I think there’s an enthusiastic relationship. And, well, some people say mass production of clothing might have killed high fashion. I would really very much disagree. Technology and fashion walk hand-in-hand down the runway.

Do you see the link between the two, technology and fashion, as automatic? Or do designers need to make a concerted effort to keep up with technology?

I think your first point is probably the more accurate one. Especially in high fashion, the “work of the hand” is so respected, and we really think the price of a garment is driven up by how much hand-embellishment it contains, or the fact that it’s the finest silk, etc. On the other hand, I think designers, even older designers, are very excited about the possibility of technology. They seem to be really enthusiastically embracing things like 3-D printing, and different ways of weaving things, and different materials. I don’t see any evidence of shying away from technology. So much of fashion is about novelty, and what gives us more possibilities than new technology?

Right now, there’s this really high-level adaptation of technology combined with traditional couture techniques. For example, Chanel [during Paris Fashion Week in 2015] had material 3-D printed, and it had a plaid or check pattern to it, and then kind of a faux quilted look to it. Then they turned that over to their skilled seamstresses, who produced these jackets that really strongly resemble traditional Chanel jacket-suits. That’s a really exclusive application of very sophisticated technology. So technology has affected the whole chain of how we wear our clothes, and how they’re created, and even what we do with them after we’re done with them.

In the pictures from the Met Gala, we saw a lot of “futuristic fashion.” Do you believe there is a distinct category of technologically driven fashion?

That’s a great question. When I looked at the photos of people arriving for the party, I thought that people even in 2016 were still thinking about “futuristic” the way they were thinking about it in the 1960s: a shiny surface, stuff that’s very geometric looking, very streamlined, and also the cutouts! Did you notice how many cutouts there were? It was so ’60s—those portholes you see in a lot of kind of 1960s Space Age fashion. That’s one strain of futuristic.

The other kind of accepted strain of futuristic is kind of the “post-apocalyptic” look. Hardly anybody was really sporting that look. That’s more like The Matrix, or early Mad Max movies from the 1980s, or Blade Runner. Things look more haphazard; they’re kind of post-disaster look. I think our celebrities definitely went more with the metallic futuristic look.

So that kind of metallic, almost very stereotypical idea of what we call futuristic fashion came about in the 1960s?

Well, it actually started a bit earlier than that. There were images, for example, in 1939 in Vogue. There’s a very famous editorial they did about fashion and the future. And you’d be surprised how shiny and metallic some of those clothes are. It really was propelled by science-fiction films; it goes back to the 1920s, the early years of film, when people were thinking about space travel. And some of that makes sense when you think about protective clothing and jumpsuits and helmets.

Why do you think even now, designers are holding on to that same conception though technology has evolved so much since the 1920s?

You know, I think there’s a little bit of optimism there. I think people would rather see the future in those kind of shiny, kind of protective terms, rather than the post-apocalyptic terms, because it’s kind of dreary. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not going to say we all dress in post-apocalyptic fashion, but when you look at the way people are outfitted in The Matrix for example, it’s not so far from sportswear, right? If we look at Kim and Kanye arriving, she was looking very futuristic and he was looking very post-apocalyptic—I think they were encapsulating the two strains of thinking about the future. 

Do you have any predictions of how technology will be incorporated into fashion in the coming years?

We’re able to do predictions at a micro level, like two-and-a-half or three seasons in advance, but in terms of long-term trends that’s difficult. I always use movies as my reference because I think they’re great creative predictors or at least attempts at prediction. Think about the movie 2001—we’re several years past that but we’re still wearing jeans. I don’t know what you’re wearing today, but I bet you’re wearing something knit on the top and denim-y on the bottom. We seem to be stuck with it. I do see an increasing role of technology in fashion at the high-level in terms of aesthetics, but also think about performance clothing. You know, outerwear, and swimwear, like those are great place to really put technology to work for us.

There is a startup called Thesis Couture that is trying to engineer a more comfortable high heel. The Atlantic, in featuring it, suggested the company was redefining the idea that beauty necessitates pain. How you see technology as it relates to the demands of beauty and, by extension, fashion?

Wow. It’s terrible to think about beauty being demanding or that your womanhood is defined by your ability to bear pain. But the visual side of life is very important, and if it makes us comfortable to look a certain way, that’s a different kind of comfort than physical comfort. That’s like psychological comfort. Anything that would make our psychological comfort align with our physical comfort, I’m behind that.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.