Awix in Exile: Tie Fighters and Cloaked Vessels

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Awix in Exile

Tie Fighters and Cloaked Vessels

Science fiction writers and artists tend not to agree on much when it comes to their depictions of the future, but there does seem to be at least one point of consistency and agreement when it comes to what future attire awaits those of us who manage to struggle an appreciable distance into the yet-to-come: mastery of the Windsor knot will become a lost art, because the days of the common-or-garden necktie are numbered. Roll-neck sweaters and t-shirts are clearly where fashion is going to be in coming centuries.

Perhaps this is the reason why the Terminator and various other time-travellers who pop back to visit us take such a casual approach to their costuming: as noted, Mr Schwarzenegger's alter ego is definitely a T-shirt wearer, and while the liquid metal chap from the first sequel does indeed affect to be wearing a tie, it's actually just moulded onto him. Clearly this is not just the result of random chance: if you think about it, the truth is obvious – hardly anyone in the future has a clue about how to put on formal neckwear.

Well, maybe. Sci-fi costuming is there to serve whatever narrative effect the writer and director are looking to create, of course, and this is often to evoke a sense of the unfamiliar and exotic. Given this is the case, perhaps it's not surprising that the one garment that doesn't exist in the wondrous futures they envisage is the one most closely associated with the humdrum world of clockwatching and the nine-to-five routine. Nothing quashes escapism and a sense of awe faster than the implication that even centuries or millennia from now, everyone is still going to be arguing over the holiday rota.

When someone does turn up in a tie in a piece of futuristic sci-fi, it's almost always because the people responsible are attempting satire, usually without a great deal of finesse. In these kinds of situations, the tie is functioning as a piece of symbolic shorthand, and may even be accompanied by a suit and a bowler hat (there's a Doctor Who story from the late 1970s where the main villain is a tax-obsessed glob of fungus, whose identity as a maniacal bureaucrat is signified by the fact he nevertheless wears a pinstripe suit).

This is understandable and even to some extent acceptable: movies, certainly, don't usually have a lot of time to spend on detailed world-building and the use of this kind of coding is a very effective way of setting a tone and establishing the right kind of audience expectations, though it's still the case that the tie seems almost uniquely established as a signifier of mundane reality – if characters are wearing ties, it means we're in a world which is fundamentally like our own. If they're not, then we're somewhere different, mysterious and exciting.

Of course, for movies and other entertainments looking to establish that instant sense of 'we are somewhere different', there are other more pro-active and visually striking options available. Shiny, metallic-looking clothing is one option, as is that of the asymmetrical costume design (more often than not on the younger female members of the cast). Nor can you really go wrong with a good helmet, once again usually a shiny one, while boots are much more acceptable than anything with laces on them.

In this particular area, we must of course acknowledge the debt sci-fi costumiers owe to the artist Alex Raymond, creator of the Flash Gordon cartoon strip in 1934. While it's true that Flash Gordon is much more of a sword-and-planet romance than something closely resembling actual science fiction, the same is true of many of the most popular and successful films which somehow manage to trade under the banner of sci-fi. A look at the Flash Gordon serials made by Universal between 1936 and 1940 is quite illuminating, although on this occasion the costuming choices seem rather dependent on what the studio happened to have in their wardrobe department: the good guys are dressed in old Robin Hood costumes, while Ming's minions are kitted out in what looks like Ruritanian uniforms from The Prisoner of Zenda.

Naturally, capes and cloaks are frequently present on both sides. If the necktie has a counterpart in the wardrobes of sci-fi productions down the decades, then it is the cape. The tie is mundane and ordinary; the cape is alluring and exotic. Hardly anyone has worn both at the same time since Queen Victoria was still around (although I will concede there were doubtless some dodgy moments back in the 1970s).

I am not suggesting that the whole of visual sci-fi falls into either the tie-wearing or cape-wearing category – this would exclude most of the Star Trek canon, which actually does a better job of genuinely being science fiction than other, cooler, more popular movies and TV series. But capes and cloaks sometimes seem compulsory in mainstream sci-fi.

Of course, a lot of modern sci-fi movies are taking their cue from Star Wars, which is stuffed with cape-wearers of different moral persuasions and itself owes an enormous debt to Flash Gordon. Star Wars is at heart another sword-and-planet confection, albeit somewhat updated, so it's not surprising it's giving off the kind of visual cues that lead the audience to expect old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure. (Amongst other things: see also the western trappings of some characters and settings, not to mention the borderline Nazi-chic of senior officers in the Galactic Empire.)

In the real world people have pretty much stopped wearing capes except in very unusual circumstances: in virtually any situation a coat is a more effective and practical garment, and the main advantage of a cape, the fact it is much easier to produce, has been rendered – ahem – immaterial by advances in textile production technology. The choice of a cape or a coat in a space opera is not informed by normal considerations of practicality, but by more rarefied storytelling concerns.

If, therefore, people are wearing capes in sci-fi because it creates the sense of being in a classic historical fantasy, we have stumbled upon a deeper truth – mainly that most science fiction movies are really nothing of the sort, but old-fashioned adventure films with most of the surface details tweaked a bit. This should not be a great revelation in and of itself. But hopefully we have perhaps stumbled across a new way of assessing sci-fi: the Wardrobe Theory of Speculative Gravitas.

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