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Otherworldly Fashions in Film

May 14, 1999|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN

Costumes in fantasy and sci-fi movies have become more sophisticated since the days of Buck Rogers' and Flash Gordon's shiny, awkward spacesuits, first introduced in the late 1930s.

Hollywood gives fantasy fashion another wild spin in the "Star Wars" prequel. The costumes in "Episode I The Phantom Menace" can trace their lineage through decades of actual and cinematic fashion history. Hollywood has portrayed other worlds and times as coolly militaristic, sexy and cartoonishly barbaric, but never as ordinary.

In the 1960s, TV's "Star Trek" introduced a unisex uniform that has become a standard in science fiction. Jane Fonda gave the future sex appeal in "Barbarella." Then in the 1980s, Tina Turner showed that animal skins could be just as provocative, if primitive, in the post-apocalyptic "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." And the perfect attire for the Los Angeles of the next century? Translucent raincoats over a bikini in "Blade Runner."

Costume designers for science-fiction movies have a dual challenge: To take the viewer into a remote new era and maintain a sense of reality. Until recently, that task split most futuristic movies into two camps, says costume historian Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"They either looked like the ancient past--like mini-togas--or they were unisex bodysuits with lots of white and silver and diagonals, a la Courreges. As all of these things become more of a cliche, it means costume designers have had to push further afield," she says.

Following a path set by modern fashion, architecture and other design fields, movie wardrobes have freely sampled ethnic styles and bygone eras. It's a look Steele calls "intergalactic fusion dressing."

Fusion and cross-ethnic fashion is not only more important in costume design, but also an interesting reflection of society, Steele says.

"If you envision other planets as kind of being like other cultures, then it's a good metaphor," she explains. "This was one of the great moral lessons of sci-fi movies. When confronted by someone from another planet, no matter your class or race on Earth, you were bound together in space as homo sapiens with a common goal: Let's keep the giant cockroaches from eating us."

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