It’s amazing to me how a world of whimsical bubbles, space suits, and retro mod clothes can exist in the same room as the bleak and dimly-lit warning of a distant nightmare that could await humanity. The SCAD FASH show is currently featuring the utopian retro futuristic garments of famous French designer Pierre Cardin and the costuming works of Ane Crabtree for the hit Hulu series, A Handmaid’s Tale, based on the popular dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. Both of these exhibits feature clothes from futuristic settings, but with radically contrasting narratives. Cardin’s world is bright and reflects an era’s pop culture which is full of enthusiasm and new hope for humanity, while Crabtree’s works brings the grim world of Atwood’s dystopian novel to life with gas masks and pilgrim-style dresses that exist alongside a modern wardrobe. The big question I had was how could these two worlds exist together in the same room? Well, to answer that question, we need to look at a bit of history on pop culture and the events that inspired these cultural movements.
Pierre Cardin and the World of Yesterday
Let’s first talk about Pierre Cardin. This 96-year-old veteran has been in the fashion world for more than half a century. The collections featured in the exhibit are a series of outfits from his earlier works in the 1950’s all the way through his 2017 collection. What’s remarkable about his pieces is that even after fifty-some-odd years, his choice in the mod-inspired, retro space age aesthetic still remains consistent. However, it would be almost impossible to discuss Cardin’s work without going into detail on the historical context that influenced his vision.
In the early 1960’s when Cardin was launching his empire, retro-futurism—or at the time simply know as futurism—was in full swing. When people think of retro-futurism the first images that come to mind are the iconic Jetsons television show, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, or perhaps even newer media sensations such as the Fallout or the Bioshock franchises. Other images that come to mind that influenced the pop culture at the time were global struggles for political dominance such as the space race and the red scare. What’s truly fascinating is that even with the immediate and persistent threat of nuclear destruction on everyone’s minds, the themes and the overall tone of the genre during the 50’s and 60’s was still one of optimism and hope for a brighter day.
Yes, NASA made huge strides in space exploration, but so many people today fail to discuss the influences of retro-futurism and its direct impact on domestic, medical, and leisure technology. While things like the computer mouse, the first computer systems, refrigerators, washing machines, toasters, smoke detectors for domestic use, ATM machines, and credit cards seem completely standard, these were major changes which directly affected the lives of the everyday working Joe. For the first time, people were living with everyday luxuries that just a generation ago seemed totally out of reach. Not to mention the boom of the auto industry, highways, and rises in international travel that connected the world in ways which were unimaginable just a few decades earlier.
It almost totally goes without saying that Cardin’s garment number 15 was inspired by NASA’s astronaut suits. Garment number 18 is a major staple piece in Pierre Cardin’s exhibit. The piece showcases his use of solid, vibrant colors and geometric art. The number 18 piece in the SCAD FASH expedition is a prime example; the garment consists of a blood-orange, turtleneck bodysuit made from wool with a vertical stripe pattern which serves to elongate the figure. The outfit also has a skirt with thick grey fringe, and each fringe section ends with a circular cut. The jet-black vinyl necklace, which acts as a glossy statement piece, has a thick collar that conceals most of the turtleneck and has three separate fringes with the same circular design as the skirt. Finally, the outfit is completed with a clear circular helmet that pays homage to the astronauts’ helmets but without the bulk or weight. From this design of his 1968 collection, Cardin clearly showcases his love for “futuristic” space wears. He was also inspired by bubbles and added that to the helmet, thereby creating a complete look for the space age.
Another item worth mentioning is garment number 22. From the front, the coat looks casual enough to use while strolling along the streets of London on a rainy day. The back of the coat has these striking and dynamic edges that jut out with perfect symmetry and precision. According to my SCAD FASH sources, Cardin was inspired by computer parts and early software designs and integrated their shapes into his creations.
However, I am not an older viewer who grew up during that era of optimism. The works of retro-futurism that I grew up with either loosely borrow from the 50’s and 60’s aesthetic, or they heavily borrow, giving the works a vastly different tone.The optimism is gone, and the atmosphere is grim. For example, in the Fallout games, there are decayed images of 50’s and 60’s Americana, radio voices talk in the Transatlantic accent, and the music sounds like it could be played at an old malt shop, but those elements invoke a mocking connotation as the world around is full of radiation and destruction from the aftermath of a nuclear war. So why the shift? Why the cynical tone?
The Handmaid’s Warning for Our World
To put it bluntly, 60’s pop culture gave a promise of a future that never came. The decade was filled with wild fantasies of jetpacks, colonies on mars, clean and vibrant cities on Earth, and intergalactic travel (and all by the turn of the millenia no less). As the decades past, so did the post-war economic boon. Creators today look back critically on the past, especially during the 60’s. Because of the gap in time, modern writers and creators saw past the gleaming new technological advances and saw the absurdness of the Red Scare, racial tensions, unethical medical “treatments” for homosexuality, monstrous cooperate pollutions, and, in later decades, urban decay as a result of redlining and gentrification. Not only is the utopia that retro-futurist pop culture painted a lie, but so are all the hopes and expectations that came with it.
Our current media landscape is cynical—at least much more so than the age of the 60’s fearless space traveler. Our bullshit-o-meters are wired to maximum capacity, and we are tired of laugh tracks, perfect images of unrealistic families, or the hero that is immune to death. A Handmaid’s Tale is a perfect example of media that doesn’t patronize the audience with predictable corporate images. While Atwood herself is a Canadian, her novel was (and is) extremely relevant to the gender politics of American society. A Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 during the height of the Reagan administration, otherwise known as the original Mr. Make America Great Again. The novel is a deep warning that touches on heavy issues such as the gender dynamics between men and women, women’s objectification as sex objects, and the image of the fallen women versus pure motherly figures. The issues of Atwood’s time persist in our modern political landscape, which is one of the reasons why her novel has come into such popularity. The obvious reason is, of course, the disturbing commentary that the commander-in-chief has made concerning women. There is also a growing nervousness among many women who feel Reagan-era gender politics are returning.
The outfits in the show serve as a warning to modern audiences about not only the rise of tyranny, but also how we, as a current society, view and gender women. The color symbolism in the women’s clothing is a clear reflection of our current day gender politics. One of the biggest themes is the division of women into pure, but sexless, motherly figures and fallen whores. If you know nothing about the show, then you’d likely only see women in bright scarlet-red, pilgrim-style dresses and white bonnets walking in single file. These women are the handmaids who serve as reproductive objects. They are the most fertile women whose sole objective is to bear children for infertile wives and mothers. Although the handmaids’ dresses are ankle-length and long-sleeved, they are meant to represent desirable sex objects for men. The red in their gowns represent passion, fertility, and desire. These are the fallen women, and in the novel many of these women were once criminals of “moral injustices” such as lesbianism, sex work, adultery, etc. What’s fascinating is that while these women are sexually desired, they are not given much social dignity.
Along with the handmaids’ dresses, there was another dress on display worth mentioning: a champagne-white, mini flapper dress with glittering sequins, embroidery, and a revealing open back cut. It certainly stands out among the thick wool and flat monotone robes. This dress was worn by our main protagonist, a handmaid named Offred, in the first season. The flapper era of fashion represents the first period in modern history when women were able to take control of their sexualities. The dress is an iconic staple piece of the roaring 20’s, a time in history that is strongly associated with debaucheries, excessive drinking, and women’s sexual liberation. This symbolic dress was given to Offred by Commander Waterford (the man that she is assigned to in order to produce children). Furthermore, the design of the garment draws the eye down to Offred’s pelvis by using dynamic lines and placing a diamond over her reproductive organs.This shows that Offred is ultimately desired for her reproductive abilities instead for her personhood. In this context, the dress is used as a tool for the Commander to objectify Offred.
The top social class and highest-ranking position that a woman can have is the role of a high-ranking commander’s wife. These women primarily wear a variety of blues. They are not sexually desired and don’t even really serve as life companions for their husbands. These wives mostly fill the role of the mother once the children are born. It’s interesting to note that their dresses are on the opposite end of the color spectrum than the handmaids’, which further reflects the dichotomy. The cut of the dresses is also slightly more modern when compared to the handmaids’ pilgrim-inspired looks. The wives’ dresses are vaguely reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s style with the vintage neck bow and slim cut on the waist. The reason why could be because the 50’s and 60’s were periods we associate with images of the “ideal” nuclear family with women being encouraged to fulfil the role of a stay-at-home mother and the husband as the breadwinner.
These pieces were a few that were the most noticeable. There are also costumes from the “aunties,” women who train and discipline the handmaids, the commander’s clothes, and other background law enforcement and civilian attire featured in the collection—all worth seeing.
Overall, the two exhibits are a match made in sci-fi heaven. The tones are vastly different and are, arguably, a bit awkward side-by-side with the Cardin exhibit being well-lit, spacious, and vibrant and the Crabtree exhibit looking like a dystopian Abercrombie and Fitch with the dim lights and a dark setting. They paint a narrative on the transition of pop culture from a time of 60’s hopefulness and current day warnings of a future which could come to be if we aren’t careful.