The late Pierre Cardin may have been fashion’s original futurist, but today’s designers are still craving escapism that only an idealistic future can provide.
In a 1962 episode of “The Jetsons,” family matriarch Jane Jetson switches out of her familiar magenta uniform into an inky gown. With its cinched waist and sharp, elongated shoulders, the dress isn’t all too dissimilar from what may appear today on the Paris Couture Week runway. This one, however, also plugs into the wall, illuminating sections of LED embroidery.
“It’s a Pierre Martian original,” Jane gushes, telling her friend Gloria via teleporter that she bought it on clearance at the Satellite Shop: $10.98 for the dress, $50 for the extension cord.
“Pierre Martian” is, of course, an adorable, intergalactic nod to the late Pierre Cardin, who helped spearhead the Space Age aesthetic of the 1960s and passed away late last month at age 98. He was both an audacious businessman and a prolific licenser, having been among the first of his peers to create ready-to-wear for not just fashion’s patrician class, but for the everyday shopper, too. In 1959, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne expelled him for it.
Cardin was futuristic not just in his democratic modus operandi, but in his designs themselves: “The dresses I prefer are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist,” he said in the late 1960s. Today, we call those dresses “retro-futuristic.” But rather than prescribing to an overarching aesthetic, this forward-leaning perspective was simply how he viewed the world.
Retro-futurism can be defined as the past’s vision of the future, and as seen through the eyes of designers and creatives during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In an extreme sense, this imagination includes flying cars, ray guns and a kind of beautiful, global lifestyle. But retro-futurism can also be as subtle as the triangular bodice on Jane Jetson’s Pierre Martian score.
“While not exclusively utopian, retro-futurism is remembered primarily for its optimistic mood that fused modernist concepts of scientific progress and technology with elements of pop culture and a playful science-fiction aesthetic,” says Charlotte Casey, senior strategist at trend-forecasting agency WGSN.
So, what does retro-futurism look like? Streamlined silhouettes, sleek ergonomic designs and a fresh approach to materials are some of the movement’s signature elements. In a 1964 collection, Cardin even deemed it “cosmocorps,” with his astronaut-like garments — think jumpsuits with asymmetrical zippers — replacing the stiffly-collared shirts then currently en vogue. In 1969, NASA even commissioned Cardin to design a spacesuit of their own, for actual space travel.
Today, you may recognize retro-futurism in Paco Rabanne‘s polished chainmail or Marine Serre‘s alien unitards. Like Cardin once did, designers are craving the sort of optimism that only the idealistic future may provide.
“The spirit of this genre offers an antidote to our own uncertain times because it embodies ideas of freedom, liberation and hope that made the future feel exciting and full of potential,” says Casey. “These ideas are combined with designs and materials that still feel fresh today and allow contemporary designers to give the look their own spin.”
Though retro-futurism hit its peak in the poppy Swinging Sixties, its roots lie more than half a century earlier, against the industrialization of the late 1800s. As Lisa Yaszek, a professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, explains, the mobilized shift toward mass manufacturing gave way to an entirely new kind of living. A certain string of capitalist propaganda helped bolster this, as if to say, indeed, labor could grant a better future not just for the individual, but for all.
“What you see right from the turn of the last century is this utopian dream of doing away with the past, and especially its divisive economic and social and political polarization,” says Yaszek. This veneration of the future, she adds, tended to focus on physical objects like cars, furniture design and very frequently, clothes.
Through the Russian Revolution, for example, Constructivists sought to eliminate the inequities of class, race and gender distinctions through dress reform. Clean, simple and rational clothing, both comfortable and stylish, was distributed to everyone. The color schemes tended toward Space Age colors — impractical whites, silvers and metallics that, as Yaszek notes, would be difficult to keep clean in the “often very dirty present” of the nineteen-teens.
Cleaning solutions may have vastly improved since the Bolsheviks promised “peace, land and bread” to the Russian people, but here we are, still looking to clothing to help fix our most ingrained problems.
“We live in a moment where we strongly feel we need better visions of the future, and the past has a lot of them to offer us,” says Yaszek. “The past gives us templates for surviving in the present and for trying to work out our own better futures.”
In this strenuous present, there’s no shortage of events to be “worked out.” We’re living in a kind of rebooted Space Race, after all. With some recent success in the privatization of space travel, Earthlings have their sights set on Orbit City once again. Fashion-wise, the retro-futurism of 2021 may be slightly less literal than that of an equalizing uniform or a blinking cartoon dress that plugs into the wall.
“The relevance of retro-futurism falls in line with the consumer’s ongoing interest in comforting nostalgia,” says WGSN Senior Strategist, Textiles Julia Skliarova. “Today’s retro-futuristic ideas embody utopian simplicity, reimagined today with honed levels of comfort, as well as a sense of fun that is a welcome touch since the onset of the pandemic.”
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Is something hyper-comfortable, like loungewear, retro-futuristic? Not explicitly, no. Easy, practical garments — like sweatpants — just happen to be one of many interpretations of how we may dress for hopeful days ahead. We can also find retro-futurism in materials, colors and hemlines, and even in qualities as intangible as holistic brand messaging.
Take Paco Rabanne, which dabbles in all of the above. Since joining the Parisian label as a freelancer in 2013, designer Julien Dossena has been tasked with returning Paco Rabanne to its ’60s heyday. Once beloved by the likes of Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy, the brand had previously diverged from the now-retro chainmail minis that had made it a Space Age staple. But in September 2018, Dossena reeled it back in, debuting a sophisticated collection that was every part a Jane Jetson fantasy.
Elsewhere in Paris, Maria Grazia Chiuri has been known to play with the graphic, mod references and transparent, reflective fabrics that Casey suggests recall the original positivity of retro-futurism. Most recently, Dior‘s Pre-Fall 2021 range dives into the sort of groovy youthfulness that Cardin himself enjoyed the first time around.
The genre isn’t always so cheery. It’s human nature to look at the future as an abstract lily pad on which to plop one’s most complex hopes and dreams. But Yaszek warns we can get obsessed with retro-futuristic objects in ways that become paralyzing: “They become fetishized pieces of nostalgia for a past that didn’t really exist.”
This is where Marine Serre shines. “Her complex and ambivalent vision blends retro futuristic tropes such as sleek minimalist shapes with upcycled fabrics and sustainable messages,” says Casey, of the LVMH Prize-winning breakout. “Her presentations explore the dangers of environmental destruction and the potentially catastrophic scenarios that could be caused by climate change.”
There are many more retro-futuristic contenders, of course, and many of which are French — like Coperni, Patou and Nina Ricci. Jacquemus, Rick Owens and even Rei Kawakubo‘s more abstract Comme des Garçons tick some of the genre’s boxes. And in fact, it’s Courrèges‘ founder, André — not Cardin — who’s widely considered the “father of Space Age fashion.”
But Cardin did something that even his closest colleagues did not, and that was to intentionally sell the future as a truly better, more inclusive place.
“He was an idealist, but I don’t think he was selling escapism,” says Ruth La Ferla, a New York Times reporter who wrote Cardin’s obituary for the paper. “People who now make reference to him are indulging an escapist mentality because, God knows, we need a change.”