What we’ll be wearing in the future (if classic sci-fi films got it right)

A new exhibition explores how costume designers on movies like Blade Runner, 2001 and Star Wars imagined the clothes of the future.

Blade Runner (1982)

The imaginative creation of tomorrow’s world, or of life outside our solar system, is one of the enduring fascinations of science fiction. Alongside production design, costume plays a key role in creating worlds and characters that support stories of future societies, space travel and fantastic other worlds and galaxies.

Costume design for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Designers and directors have taken a range of approaches to fashioning the future, from the creation of pristine and functional utopias in films such as Things to Come (1936), to decidedly well-worn future cities that mesh elements of old and new, as in Blade Runner (1982). But in all cases, good costume design works with every element of a film to help viewers believe in the overall reality of what is presented on screen.

Costume can also be a spectacular and pleasurable element in itself. Futuristic fabrics and designs may be influenced by past and contemporary culture, modes of dress and cutting-edge technologies, while also taking inspiration from then-current ideas of things to come.

At the same time – as with film costume more widely – sci-fi costume can also provide inspiration to high fashion and the high street. 2014 collections have seen Rodarte, Preen and Vans use Star Wars characters and motifs on their clothes and footwear, while other designers and design houses such as J.W. Anderson, Versace and Alexander McQueen have taken inspiration from on-screen sci-fi, sometimes in general terms and sometimes with direct reference to particular series or films such as Star Trek and Blade Runner.

This selection of images, drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive’s Special Collections, illustrates just a few key design trends from the history of on-screen sci-fi and shows that its impact on fashion is nothing new.

High Treason

High Treason (1929)

Directed by Maurice Elvey, and released in both silent and sound versions, High Treason features stunning costumes by Gordon Conway. The film is set in the near future of 1940 (although later releases change this to 1950), when the world is on the brink of international war. Terrorists attempt to fuel these tensions, while the pacifist World League of Peace attempts to deflect them.

Conway was an American designer who also illustrated for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Her film career launched in Britain in 1927. She was one of the few designers of the time who received a regular screen credit and she frequently spoke out on the need for “better dressed British pictures”.

She was extremely conscious of the need to appeal to and please female cinemagoers (who were the largest audience demographic at this time) and sought to combine the costumer designer’s art of supporting character and story through dress, with the desire to inform audiences about clothes and fashion.

Conway designed for modern, independent women. The publicists for High Treason exploited this fact in conjunction with the idea that the film presents a female point of view and “credits [women] as a force in world politics”. This press book for the film celebrates the glorious display of clothing on show while suggesting that the practical elements underpinning its design will also appeal to female filmgoers. It notes that daywear will be “eminently practical garb in masculine plus fours for office work and men’s overalls for factory work”. Offices will be “thoroughly utilitarian” so that women can shower on-site, be air-dried and ready for an evening out within minutes of clocking off.

High Treason (1929) press bookBFI Special Collections

Although Conway designed for black-and-white films, her designs utilise colour as well as texture. The designs for the film’s nightclub scene use metallic silver and gold as well as black American cloth (a type of oil cloth) for open overskirts, satin for breeches worn underneath, georgette for sleeves as well as diamante and glass buttons.

High Treason is set in the future, and its costumes are given exaggerated design elements in terms of shape, material and detailing, but the designs are also strongly art deco in style. Like much sci-fi costume, they reflect contemporaneous (in this case jazz age) ideas about fashion while also looking forward in time.

Costume design for High Treason (1929)BFI Special Collections

This design for Miss Lynn is the ultimate in 1920s-imagined future fashion. As the press book suggests, in this future “bizarre designs” will be favoured for evening wear. Made of black and silver satin and American cloth, its shape and sense of movement suggests a monochrome interpretation of the designs of Léon Bakst for the Ballets Russes.


This High Treason design also highlights the immediate importance of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), made two years previously. This film influenced many aspects of High Treason – not just its wardrobe of breeches, overalls and outlandish evening wear, but also its futuristic cityscape.

In the years since, Metropolis’s dystopian vision of a future society of the workers down below and the wealthy up above has gone on to inspire countless filmmakers, designers and performers including Madonna, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga. Its most iconic image is of the robotic false Maria (Brigitte Helm), pictured below in a promotional brochure created for the film’s original release.

Metropolis (1927) press bookBFI Special Collections

Helm had to suffer for her art, as Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the actor who plays the inventor Rotwang recounts here. The costume designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff was light but rigid and Helm sustained cuts and bruises during her long stints in costume. It was also hot under the studio lights, with Helm having to remain in costume for hours at time.

Star Wars

Polaroid taken on the set of Star Wars (1977)TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization. Preserved by the BFI National Archive.

Although the Star Wars films are set “a long time ago”, they bring together elements of past styles with futuristic looks and technologies.

Conceptualised by Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars’ droid C-3PO was inspired by the false Maria and is described in the original Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) script as “a tall slender robot of human proportions” with “a gleaming bronze-like metallic surface of an ‘Art Deco’ design”.

Star Wars drew upon a wide range of influences, both cinematic and cultural. Rotwang’s metal hand, shown above, is suggestive of the robotic hand Luke Skywalker is given after his battle with Darth Vader in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Other design influences on the original trilogy include serials such as the 1930s Flash Gordon (evident in the scrolling titles and art deco sets onboard the Death Star), westerns (Han Solo is essentially a cowboy smuggler in space) and Japanese movies (Darth Vader’s helmet recalls samurai armour, while Luke’s Tatooine farm boy costume and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi robes are both Japanese influenced).

Blade Runner

With Star Wars, Lucas wanted to create a galaxy that was dirty and worn, a world that moved away from the clean and pristine – and hugely influential – vision of space travel seen in 1968’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although the films are very different, a similar ambition underpinned the design of Blade Runner (1982), made a few years later. Director Ridley Scott has described it as “a film set 40 years hence, made in the style of 40 years ago”. He was determined to avoid a shiny, pristine vision of the future so Blade Runner is set in a modern, ‘retrofitted’ city that still bears strong traces of its past.

This was a notion that costume designers Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode developed in their striking designs for the film. Influenced by film noir costume, and the style of legendary Hollywood designer Adrian, they created tailored suits with broad shoulders and luxurious faux-fur coats for the character of Rachael (Sean Young).

Blade Runner (1982)

These have deliberately exaggerated details to propel the clothes into a different, futuristic realm. At the same time, the film references then-contemporary trends such as the 40s revival as well as the 1980s urban style, with elements of punk and street fashions such as Pris’s dog collars and ripped tights, and Batty’s leather duster coat and sneakers.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner has proved to be a long-standing inspiration to designers such as Alexander McQueen whose autumn/winter 98/99 collection was directly influenced by the film. The house of McQueen has recently returned to the film with the campaign for its spring/summer 2014 collections.

Promo film for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2014 collection

Things to Come

The clothing of the more distant past has also frequently influenced science fiction design, with designers often looking to the classical and ancient worlds to imagine the future. The original inspiration for the robot Maria of Metropolis was an ancient Egyptian statue, while Things to Come (1936), an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, is heavily inspired by classical Greece and Rome.

Costume design for Things to Come (1936)BFI Special Collections
Costume designs for Things to Come (1936)BFI Special Collections

These styles are fused with modern technology and textures such as Rhodoid, a plastic moulded to look like glass (Rhodoid was also a favourite with Paco Rabanne who designed for cult 1968 sci-fi movie, Barbarella). The ‘glass’ hats seen in the film presented challenges to the wardrobe department who had to keep them wrapped up in polythene until the very last minute. Actors were dressed on set to avoid fingerprints and smudges on the hats’ pristine surfaces.

Things to Come (1936) press bookBFI Special Collections

H.G. Wells was known as a prophet of future societies and technologies, so the film’s publicists sought to promote him as a fashion trend forecaster as well. The film’s pressbook cites sportswear as a “Wellsian fashion prediction” and Things to Come was in fact quite on trend as critic Alistair Cooke pointed out in his review of the film: “it must be heartbreaking for Mr Wells to be told that the costumes he predicted they’d be wearing in 2030 are to be the very thing in beach-wear this summer …” (The Listener, 18 March 1936).

Things to Come (1936) press bookBFI Special Collections

The film’s publicists struggled to promote the film’s male attire to a 1930s audience. Recognising that bare legs and sandals would appeal to only a small percentage of the male population, they instead suggested exhibitors focus on placing a display in a traditional tailors with a caption reading:

“The shape of THINGS TO COME. Clothes may be tailored like this in the days to come, but for the latest in today’s styles be tailored by –”

2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps the ultimate tie-up between tailoring and science fiction occurred with Hardy Amies’ now legendary collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick enlisted the Savile Row designer to create the costumes for 2001. Amies was renowned for his classic tailoring for men and woman, and was official dressmaker for the Queen from 1952 until his retirement in 1989.

Kubrick and Amies’ sartorial vision was very much in keeping with the futuristic fashion trends of the 1960s and the ‘space age’ work of designers such as André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne. Millinery for the film was by Frederick Fox, Amies’ favourite hat maker. The ‘crash helmet’ style hats he designed for 2001 are classics of modernist design and make reference to the designs of Courrèges.

Costume design for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001 demonstrates two styles of Amies’ design: the largely traditional, well-cut suits seen in the earlier sections of the film, and the equally well-cut but highly modern space suits and uniforms worn throughout. These are simultaneously of the future, of the 60s, and also timeless.

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