Details matter, in any form of science fiction. I’ve covered similar territory in the past, but I believe that this territory needs to be elaborated on with a more specific focus.
A science fiction idea might be so original, thought-provoking or both that it actually make our hearts race, but it will ultimately be a letdown if its details aren’t internally consistent and contemporaneous with its story’s time period. These details consist of large factors such as dialogue and setting, and what might be called the ‘little things’ (despite their varying degrees of importance to each individual story): Architecture, the role and presence of nature, transportation systems, food and clothing, musical styles and other forms of entertainment, household devices, the presence or lack of cultural vices, domestic environments, the weather, and so on. These little things that exist in the background have to be as watertight as those large factors that exist in foreground, otherwise the story risks quickly becoming dated – if the characters in a story speak like private detectives from the 1940s or hippies from the 1960s, then the stories in question should feature 1940s-style private detectives or 1960s-style hippies. If not, their creator is merely betraying the influence of particular cultural and literary movements of the times in which they were writing. Likewise, if a story is set in a future more then four or five years ahead of the present, then the little things in said story must accommodate this passage of time, even if only in subtle ways – some of these little things will quite probably be the same as they are today, but some will definitely change even if they have to share the stage with their predecessors. The world of 2017 is both different and similar to the worlds of 2012 and 2007 – think the ubiquity of smartphones, the rise of nationalist populism, the dominance of the McMansion and the mainstream integration of the archetypal hipster – and likewise the slang of today will become part of everyday language in a year or two, and then retreat into the realm of daggy and old fashioned a few years after that. In crafting their science fiction worlds, creators must make decisions about which of these factors to address to ensure that these worlds are logical and convincing – nothing removes us from a story and makes us aware of our suspension of disbelief like one of these factors being illogically out of date.
This brings us to clothes and their importance in ensuring that a story is internally consistent. This importance rests upon two distinct reasons: The sense of historicity that is inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology, and clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity. A brief word of warning is necessary before unpacking these ideas, however – I have done no further research on the role of clothes in society, instead relying solely on my own observations and reflections.
In many ways, clothes are one of the chief signifiers of specific time periods, especially since the rise of post-World War 2 youth culture. Even a layperson who knows very little about a time period in question will probably be able to identify clothes belonging to that period, especially if that period is part of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Think of hipsters and the rise of activewear in the 2010s, rave and retro in the 2000s, grunge and homies in the 1990s, hair metal and bigger-than-big in the 1980s, disco and punk in the 1970s, hippies and mods in the 1960s, rockers and apple-pie-American in the 1950s, all the way back to the flappers and bohemians of the 1920s. Even in the far-flung past, clothes are still one of the chief signifiers of the times – think of gladiator sandals and togas, top hats and monocles, suits of armour and leather jerkins, buckle-up shoes and pantaloons. Even those will little interest in history will probably be able to identity these items as respectively belonging to the ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean, Victorian England, Medieval England and Renaissance Europe. With just a glance, these types of clothes establish a specific time period, and when used in a story they effectively ‘place’ it in time and consequently ‘bleed’ contextual associations and historical references (a point that we’ll return to). In written fiction, for example, the description of a character in a Victorian-era story as being dressed in ‘top hat and tails, sporting a cane and a monocle’ allows us to take an educated guess at the story’s time period, extend by association this manner of dress to the other characters and make inferences about the rest of its world (once again, a point that we’ll return to). In other words, with a few judicious touches in terms of describing clothes, a writer allows the reader to fill in the blanks thanks to their prior cultural knowledge of the story’s time period. Visual fiction is different, of course, as we are able to see the clothes of every character that appears on screen. What remains the same is the principle: The inherent historicity of clothes.
The upside of this historicity is that, for the same reasons as it allows a story to be ‘placed’ in time, it also allows a story to be ‘displaced’ if taken advantage of. On one hand, nothing screams futuristic like a dramatic and striking change to the clothes that people wear. On the other hand, if a creator is more interested in showing how even in the future some things might never change, then the inclusion of clothes from our present amongst the story’s futuristic mise-en-scene is a simple and effective way of doing so.
In terms of bedding-down the futuristic setting of a story, the use of clothes in A Clockwork Orange (1971) is still the example set for every other piece of visual science fiction, despite its age and the fact that much of the rest of the film has become dated. Even today, just one look at the uniforms/gang-colours worn by Alex and his droogs tells us that the film takes place in a science fiction future connected to and yet distinct from history as we know it. This can be seen in the contrast between their all-white jumpsuits and codpieces with their black bowler hats and bovver-boy boots: The jumpsuits and codpieces signify the future – all-white being one of the defining colours used to illustrate this – while the hats and boots connect the story to the real world through their inherent historicity (Victorian-era and punk). In combination, a sense of displacement is created, effectively defamiliarising the familiar and presenting it anew. And while dressing gangs and teams et al in matching uniforms/colours is an ancient part of our culture, and so could be used to argue that A Clockwork Orange takes place in some kind-of alternate past, the futurism of the droogs’ outfits also extends to the clothes worn by the secondary and background characters. Velvet, silk and polyester; lace, frills and oversized buttons; burnt primary colours; scarves, ruffles and brocade – it’s as the clothes worn by its characters are a mish-mash of fashions from the Georgian and Victorian eras and the 1970s, in a future that is taking place not long after our own present has concluded.
In terms of using clothes to show how even in the future some things might never change, Alien (1979) is probably still the example to which all other works of visual science fiction will be compared. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, its future is radically removed from our present, as it concerns a spaceship in deep space and the crew’s battle with a hostile alien that they inadvertently bring on board. However, even though this future is far removed from our present, when the crew are revealed we see that they’re wearing work shirts, coveralls, bomber jackets and sturdy boots, with each member sporting individual touches to their uniforms. If these clothes sound familiar that’s because they’re the quintessential outfit of a blue-collar worker – a factory hand, garbo, street sweeper, labourer, cleaner, gardener or mechanic et al. And that’s exactly what the crew are. They aren’t typical science fiction heroes – scientists, explorers, soldiers etc.– but people working a blue-collar job with all its pitfalls: Bad pay, lousy conditions, unsociable hours, unsafe environments. These associations and others (a sense that the characters will be practical, down-to-earth, unpretentious and maybe a little rough) immediately come to mind the first time we see the crew, thanks to the historicity attached to their uniforms. In other words, these clothes help define and emphasise the characters’ blue-collar traits, unlike in A Clockwork Orange where the primary purpose of the clothes on display is to solidify the film’s futuristic mise-en-scene.
The second reason why clothes are important in ensuring that a story is internally consistent is because of clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual personalities. They might identify us as being a particular type of person – sporty and active, in the case of exercise wear and muscle tops; outdoorsy and practical, in the case of solid boots and durable fabrics; relaxed and comfortable, in the case of thongs and shorts; narcissistic and vain, in the case of revealing or obviously expensive attire. Furthermore, they can identify us belonging to a specific subculture or social group: Punk, goth, surfie, hippy, raver. Lastly, they can also identify us as belonging to a particular socio-economic segment, from the previously mentioned boilersuits all the way up to bespoke business suits. As we can see, clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual identities is actually an exchange between the wearer and witness. For the wearer, their clothes are an expression, a part of their personality that they have decided to show the world. For the witness, however, they are an identifier, even if the identity thrust upon them is a stereotype or generalisation.
When harnessed by a competent creator, these two factors can be an incredible tool for establishing a well-rounded character. By relying on the audience’s cultural awareness of clothes, a creator can use them in their fictions as a kind-of shorthand, whereby the associations they conjure are used by the audience to fill in the blanks and add layers of meaning. Think of Deckard’s overcoat in Bladerunner (1982). We immediately associate such attire with hardboiled private detectives of the Phillip Marlowe-type, and so we make assumptions about his character, ascribing to him traits such as cynicism, world-weariness, possession of an individual moral code and bachelorhood (which is fitting for perhaps the greatest science-fiction noir ever created). A creator using clothes to instigate this process of association-assumption-attribution is employing one of the ultimate forms of ‘show, don’t tell’ – when supported by appropriate mise-en-scene, a massive amount of narrative information can be encoded into something as simple as a hat, a coat or a pair of shoes. For other examples, think of Max’s leathers in the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), which tell us so much about his scavenger-nature, practicality and ability to handle himself in a fight; or the chrome sunglasses and shiny black coats of The Matrix (1999), which mark their wearers as fully-fledged cyberpunks; or the way different outfits are used to differentiate each incarnation of the titular Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-2017), from the shabby bohemian-chic of Patrick Troughton’s cosmic-hobo portrayal of the character, to the linen suits and cricket-influenced attire of Peter Davidson’s English-gentlemen portrayal, to the young-man-in-tweed-and-a-bow-tie of Matt’s Smith whimsical portrayal. In each case, what these characters wear helps us create a story for them outside of that proscribed by the creator, whilst simultaneously allowing the creator to designate the character in their own particular way.
As we’ve seen, clothes matter if a story is aiming to be internally consistent and contemporaneous with its time period, and if its creator wants their audience to remain somewhat ignorant of their suspension of disbelief. As well, the sense of historicity inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology allows a futuristic setting to be more convincing than it would otherwise, while clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity is a fantastic way of quickly and easily giving a character depth. But no matter which way clothes are used, a creator must show an awareness of these functions if they want to create the best story they can.