The digital rebirth of post-modern retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is the fantastical dream of our past. It refers to how people of bygone eras envisioned the future, and its distinctive aesthetic has breathed renewed life in fashion, furniture and, naturally, across social media. 

Here’s a very basic analogy of retrofuturism: 

In Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future II (1989), all the skater boys are armed with hoverboards instead of the electric scooters we’re making do with now. Needless to say, our 2015 looked a bit more prosaic than Spielberg’s. Not only can we not fly, but we also had to deal with the Thrasher shirt epidemic of 2017. And soon after, 2020 audaciously replaced the (ep) with (pan). 

Although this example stems from arguably ‘low brow’ popular culture, we mustn’t dismiss what it demonstrates; how often humans tend to exercise the creative practice of ‘retrofuturism’. The only difference is that, because our lives take place in modern times, we view our own prophecies, depicted in films and art, as simply ‘futuristic’. 

Modern films about the future tend to be on the more dystopian side; think of 2012 (2009), Maze Runner (2014) and The Hunger Games (2012). But the point of retrofuturism is that it’s futurism only while you’re imagining it. When our future selves look back on our current fantasies, we’re technically creating ‘retrofuturism’ for the next generations to dissect. Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) is set somewhere between 2025 to 2040, and we’re closely approaching that now. 

Contemporary fashion also currently shows a pattern of “blending the physical world with online content” in a way which looks towards future possibilities, according to Matthew Drinkwater, of the London College of Fashion Innovation Agency who spoke to the BBC about the future of fashion in 20 years. Part of his vision for the future includes using AR (Augmented Reality) glasses that overlay digital imagery onto the real world in order to ‘share’ the clothes we want to be seen wearing into people’s glasses. Some more radical retailers, including Norwegian-based Carlings, manifest that clothes will cease to exist completely. Not to trigger your anxiety or anything. 

Modern fashion and film may tend to craft futuristic predictions, rather than a particular aesthetic (such as 70s retrofuturism). Yet, this phenomenon confirms that humans are naturally predisposed to always looking towards the future, while also haemorrhaging ideas from the past. And now that we live in ‘postmodern times’, this has become even more pronounced; an existential loop has been created as, circumventing boredom, we’ve begun to more aggressively adapt the aesthetics which older generations began to design for us. 

Post-modern roots 

The return to retrofuturistic aesthetics can be related to the ashes of modernism and the blurred lines of post-modernism. We’ve become numb to seeing chewed up regurgitations of the same old things, from live action remakes to low waisted denim jeans (let’s not even bring up Baby Phat right now). Little Women was the last straw for me; of course, Greta Gerwig’s directorial style is monumental and almost everyone preferred her remake to the original 90s film starring Winona Ryder, which was always dear to my heart. 

But it made me think back to what my philosophy teacher once said; we live in a post-modern world. What I mean by that oversimplified analogy is that society has adopted a somewhat pessimistic take on original creative, philosophical and technological innovations. That’s why you always hear that the 90s or 80s are ‘coming back’.  

I won’t go into philosophical detail about post-modernism as what I’m describing is more about the contemporary climate surrounding fashion and art. But, in short, the actual concept of post-modernism refers to the philosophical, cultural and artistic reaction against the ideas of modernism and is associated with scepticism, irony and critiques of universal truths and objective reality

It may be the 20s, but we’re far beyond the industrial boom of 1920s modernism, where everyone was looking ahead towards the next best thing, the latest technology, the sexiest trend. I don’t mean to imply that we’re not constantly promising technological innovation and original concepts in the same way our forefathers did. Yeezy and all its iterations (i.e. copycat brands) are woven proof of that. 

But whereas modernism operated on idealist and utopian visions of society as constantly churning towards progress, the scepticism towards reason and philosophical critiques of objectivity were inherently anti-authoritarian and refused to privilege any particular style or definition of art, whether they came from high culture or popular culture. 

Thus, postmodern creators and artists are less concerned with originality; they can break the rules and self-consciously borrow from a range of styles from the past, often pluralistically adopting a “pastiche of ‘dead’ styles”.

The ’20 year cycle’ of fashion comprises the post-modern sensibility of hearkening back to mementos from our past. While the 20th century may also have been guilty of recycling trends, it seems that, now more than ever, we’re obsessed with reviving remnants of past fashion eras, from the 40s all the way through to the 90s.This may be because this was when fashion began to modernise into our current wardrobe staples; women were no longer solely confined to the billowy folds of dresses and clothing became a bit more gender neutral. 

Currently, the 2000s is losing its sentimental virginity as it’s ‘coming back’ for the first time. The nostalgic remnants of Mean Girls and Paris Hilton successfully overshadow any cringey memories of how god-awful the bootcut jeans our mom picked out for us looked in yearbook pictures.

Aspects of these epochal trends are adopted and merged with modern looks, and even blended together. Some things are best left in the burial ground of ugly 2000s trends. Becky, put down that Ryan Evans-esque fedora immediately. 

Retrofuturism and the 70s

Retrofuturism as a concept is in tension with post-modernism; the way retrofuturism is deployed in science fiction narratives like Back to the Future, which romanticise technological progress and change, may not make sense in a postmodern society where objective truths are emptied of their meaning and people seem to be looking towards the past, rather than the future, with rose-tinted glasses. 

The reason society is lamenting images and iconography from past examples of artistic retrofuturism for creative inspiration may be due to the 20 year fashion cycle (the 70s are ‘back in’). However, a paradoxical nostalgia for both the simplicity of the past and the idealistic future it envisioned for us may be at play. The promise of “yesterday’s tomorrows”, whether in film, fashion or architecture, may be a way for us to reconcile the lived realities of postmodernity in the 2020s with the more utopian, modernistic visions of the past that warm us with their hopeful predictions. 

Previous generations envisioned technological dreams like private flying saucers, lunar sunbathing, futuristic kitchens and some things which are actually being realised, like self-driving cars. 

The ‘future style’ of retrofuturism is visible in some postmodern architecture, such as in plans for LAX’s 2008 expansion which featured flying saucer/spaceship themes. It can even be seen in video games like ‘Grand Theft Auto 2’ and ‘TimeShift’. Yet retrofuturism has most intimately immersed into our lives through our clothing choices. 

Retrofuturism. But make it fashion. 

In high fashion, Thierry Mugler’s cyborgian fantasy was rolled out onto runways in the 80s and 90s along with Andre Courrèges’ reintroduction of the mirror-shine PVC and Paco Rabanne’s eponymous metalwork couture. In Spring/Summer 2019, Nicolas Ghesquière, who used to be referred to as a “futuristic designer”, led the way in welcoming this through retrofuturistic accessories which included visionary paper hats. Maison Margiela echoed this with metallic ‘Glam Slam’ bags, encapsulating the historical Space Race of the 50’s and 60’s. 

These trends were seen on runways since 1995, notes Brooke Kelley, fashion editor and Glamour magazine writer. They reflect the science fiction film aesthetics of the 20th century and include reimagined skin-tight, one-piece garments which are often uniform and worn with things like a-line PVC skirts and plastic boots. 

Retrofuturism trends don’t refer to a specific time, mainly evoking “nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance” while also avoiding a universal optimism. 

However, the 70s is when retrofuturism took its current shape — when George Lucas’ Star Wars and Kenny Scharf’s pop art placed their hold on popular culture.  70s retrofuturistic fashion has slightly softer tones, which are present in Fendi’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection and align with the famous 70s bohemian ‘flower power’ resonances.

Flared jeans, leather coats, psychedelic, patchwork jeans, flowy floral dresses, Juliet bell sleeves, cowboy shirts and fringing made their way to the runway in 2019, as models channelled a mix of Twiggy and Farrah Fawcett. 

These rich 70s retrofuturism designs were slightly late to trickle down to fast fashion retailers. But they soon transformed into streetwear as we gradually saw skinny jeans pushed aside in favour of flares; this was partly due to the comfort of quarantine but mostly because trends combined signature 70s looks with staples from other eras, like the 2000s. 

The TikTok rebirth of bohemian retrofuturism 

70s retrofuturism has predictably coalesced into an outflow of social media aesthetics which are now flooding my ‘For You’ page. 

The trivialities of life under lockdown have long made me an avid Tik Tok user. There are three stages of Tik Tok addiction: endless, unproductive scrolling; summoning up the courage to post something which you’ll later find embarrassing; and accepting TikTok as the superior platform as you and the algorithm fundamentally become one. 

My algorithm is filled with women who, contrary to popular belief, have excellent taste in film and fashion which isn’t made redundant simply by virtue of being liked by young girls. 

Stylish women have embraced, en masse, the particular aesthetic of 70s retrofuturism, appreciating its art, architecture, furniture, fashion, design and the pure vibes that the app thrives off.  

The sensibility with which these fashions manifest themselves on the app is postmodern in that it’s peppered with a number of different eras, which many implicitly or explicitly reference. The base of the looks I’m describing has a core of retrofuturistic 70s prints like multi-coloured patterns, interesing silhouettes and striped flares. But different aesthetics are merged with no explanation in ways that don’t exactly make sense, but simply work. Women are not puritanically copying styles from 70s retrofuturism, but rather blending it with a funky cacophony of artistic eras which, as postmodernism dictates, is perfectly acceptable (if not encouraged). It’s also sometimes kind of how Flora from Winx would dress in 2021.

There’s been an influx of ‘niche’ videos naming retrofuturism as a hip “thing I’ve been obsessed with”. Green screen videos show Pinterest pictures of retrofuturistic art like space-ships are paired with architectural interiors that include rounded, aerodynamic furniture in colours of cream, brown, mustard yellow, orange and silver. Fashion videos incorporate key retrofuturistic pieces like short skirts, colour block textiles, square dresses, leather jackets, PVC boots and fur trimmed jackets. 

Often, this is merged with a softer, 70s bohemian edge which rejects anything modern or sleek in favour of 70s counter-culture inspiration like flowy hair, flowers, and green vines that beautiful women wear like regalia. One TikTok user described the aesthetic as “everything slightly but unexplainably wiggly”, another “rich in Europe” and a third, my favourite, “2020s Austin powers”. 

These beautiful outfits sometimes become a triple threat, combined with items from the polar opposite of both aesthetics, such as corsets, belts and suit-pants (channelling Bridgerton). Bohemianism and retrofuturism peculiarly complement each other but somehow, they even tend to work with the opposing force of more bourgeoisie looks. For example, low-rise 2000s jeans can be merged with 70s patterned, squiggly bell-bottoms. 

This digital reimagination of space-age bohemia is a delightful manifestation of 70s retrofuturism, which delivers a paradoxical post-modern sensibility that both accepts and repudiates aesthetic modernity in the same breath. The whimsical nostalgia of 70s retrofuturism is exactly what we need in times as confusing as these ones.  

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