it all depends who you are

By Sterralda Osias

Do you like me outfit?

The allure of the dystopia is an everlasting one. We can’t seem to get enough of everything going wrong. From “Hell” to the latest Mad Max, dystopia sells and especially at the movies: every year Hollywood releases a film that seems to catch the essence of the look of dystopia. But not all dystopias are made equal. The Fifth Element takes place in the twenty third century, where the cabs and cops fly at the same level as high-rise buildings. The Matrix’s dystopia takes place in a computer-generated dream, and in the film, Snowpiercer, the last survivors on earth are trapped in a train that circles an icy earth over and over again. You couldn’t ask for more different dystopias. Yet, no matter how different each dystopia, you can count on the clothes always being the same. Yes, I said that, it’s as if the same costume designer has worked on every dystopian film for the last twenty years, wait thirty, no forty, fifty years. It’s always the same.


"It's cold now, but I hear it will be hot later, and so I'm wearing layers."
Poor people are never clean in dystopias. Now, one might say that that’s also true of poor people in general, but not entirely. Dystopias need a certain type of poor person and that person has to be wearing dark or muddy-colored clothing. They’re “white” shirts are never white. The clothing they wear also tends to look dirty, even if there are no obvious or visible stains (Maze Runner). Knit sweaters are often worn (The Matrix) and they must be torn or ripped (Snowpiercer). Why do these choices appear over and over again? Well, the obvious answer is to show that the clothes have been lived in, and nothing says lived in more than ripped knit. Knit or not, the poor’s clothing is usually loose fitting and layered (The Book of Eli).

Now, of course, there’s something to be said about representing the poor in this way. Poor people can’t afford lots of clothes and are more likely than others to wear them again and again. Yet, it’s also a gross generalization to think that all the poor are like this and it’s interesting how dystopian films almost never depict a wide range of poor people, at least from the point of view of what they wear.


"Listen to me, Katniss, I don't have normal ideas. That's what happens when you're rich!"
The antagonists, the evil rich, are usually clean, and at least slightly eccentric or flamboyant in appearance. This sort of appearance is usually similar to their ideas, which is why they make such good antagonists. One interesting detail is that their clothing tends to be similar to the French Aristocracy before the revolution (1789). In The Hunger Games, everyone who occupies The Capitol looks like they’re at a party for Marie Antoinette. This is especially true of the women who prance around in gigot-sleeved costumes, flower headdresses on piled hair and overly made-up faces. In Snowpiercer, the main antagonists’ sidekick, Mason (Tilda Swinton), wears clothing reminiscent of 1940’s Nazi Germany. This is fitting considering the fact that she is the sidekick to a man who dictates everyone's position on the train. We could also look at Mad Max’s War Boys who look like members of London’s 1960’s skinhead subculture. The eccentricity of the antagonist wardrobe varies from film to film, Zorg in The Fifth Element to The Vice Cardinal in Ultraviolet, but they all share in common the aristocratic, flamboyant ideal.


The police are always ready for the inevitable combat that will arise in every dystopia. They are usually portrayed as bad guys because they are working under the command of the elite. Usually, they look like SWAT teams, in a vest or armor, combat helmet, and protective padding similar to those in Brazil, V for Vendetta, and Children of Men. Police in dystopias are also usually anonymous. This is proven in their eyewear, which not only works as a shield but also prevents anyone from being able to identify them. Occasionally, depending on the film, there is a modern twist to their classic style. In Fahrenheit 451 the police uniforms lean more to the contemporary side of fashion. While in The Fifth Element, the police wear becomes more futuristic with their title located on their odd-shaped helmets, which extend to cover their eyes. They also wear an oversized flashlight on the right side of their chests. But even then, the uniform remains relatively the same.

I look cool, I'm a dystopic cop!
They still wear all black gear, and padding that gives the appearance of muscle. This pattern begins to take a turn with more recent films, beginning in 2012, where the most drastic change is a color switch. In the films, The Giver and The Hunger Games the uniforms are much lighter, neutral greys and whites. However, these uniforms, despite the change in color, follow both the contemporary and futuristic model of the faceless policeman. Uniforms have always represented authority. In most of these films, the police attempt to control both the protagonist and the group that that protagonist represents. You can see this in I, Robot, The Matrix, and The Hunger Games. Most importantly, their job is to uphold society and dress absolutely alike.


We are all visual people and we like to judge others based on their clothing. Because the plot of a dystopian film is never the same we need to be able to identify heroes and villains really quickly. We need underdogs who are dirty and poor, bad guys with crazy ideas who look the part, and large groups of nameless policemen.

But this need to identify with the characters based mainly on their looks is also where a film can deceive us. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men the main protagonist (Clive Owens) is not poor, but decidedly middle class; although you wouldn’t call him rich either. He exists in that comfortable, uncomfortable state of having enough money, but not really enough. He is the single man with no attachments and what used to be a nice suit, which might actually represent another class of the dystopian movie.

"Put on your best revolutionary clotting, now!"
Another odd aspect of the film is that the rebel group he first associates with, who appear to be the “good” revolutionaries, are really the bad revolutionaries. This is subtly reflected in the costume design. They look just a bit too nice for true revolutionaries, at least in dystopian movies: Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor are the type of revolutionaries you might find in downtown Oakland or even Hollywood. So, the costume designer is setting you up again with a new model of dystopia: the clean, but bad, revolutionary.

But Children of Men eventually returns to the standard dystopian costume design. The real hero of the film isn’t Clive Owen, but pregnancy. The young pregnant woman, named Kee, get it, "Key," actually looks poor and by that I mean Katniss poor and like all the other poor people caught in Hollywood dystopias. In the movie, she is hindered by her pregnancy, which allows Cuarón and his costume designer to go back to basics. She doesn’t have money, and her clothes are ragged, and she is truly an outsider: she's the only pregnant woman in the world. In that Children of Men both upsets genre expectations and fulfills them.

Are clothing's going to crap!
Another film that doesn’t follow the rules of dystopic fashion is Logan’s Run, a film about a supposedly utopian society where everyone is “disposed of” after the age of thirty. The film follows Logan, a futuristic cop, who goes undercover to hunt down all the offending thirty-somethings. It is through this journey that Logan’s wardrobe begins to change, as well as his consciousness. His quilted knit funnel neck sweater and trousers exhibit tears as he slowly comes to terms with the fact the “utopian” world he is living in is actually a dystopia. With each tear he realizes more, and more, and more. Finally he sees that the poor old people who reside outside his perfect domed city are actually the ones living in a utopia, where they are not controlled by a robot and can actually develop wrinkles.

Although films like Snowpiercer and The Hunger Games fulfill our need to watch (sloppily dressed) heroes triumph in a world of perpetual misery, in the end it is how these films twist the elements of dystopia that really interest us. When characters are out of touch with the reality they live in, they break the normal costuming requirements (Clive Owens and Michael York). By reversing the way fashion usually works in dystopian film, directors and costume designers can challenge common ideas of good and bad. We question how films portray basic characters and how they are represented in a dystopic world, especially when its effects are only apparent after the dystopia has been destroyed. What’s funny is that no matter what, all these films end with one central idea: destruction. Which is kind of funny, when it comes to clothing.

©Sterralda Osias and the CCA Arts Review

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