In the 35 years since the original Blade Runner movie came out, fashion designers have looked to its unusual mashup of retro and futurism as a regular source of inspiration. What it got right was the way it took familiar references—1940s Hollywood glamour, early 1980s punk, film noir tropes—and threw them in a dystopian blender. Each character’s wardrobe signaled a type you understood, dislocated just enough to make it something strange and new.
“I was mesmerized by the mix of what was then futuristic with what was already retro,” designer Jeremy Scott told CNN. “That is what makes Blade Runner the gold standard (among) sci-fi dystopian worlds, as it’s believable. Because we do not live in a world where everything is from today … We live in a chaotic world of various decades of architecture, automotive design and fashion, combining and colliding all (in) that same moment.”
Blade Runner offered a vision of the future nobody had articulated before, and its influence is easy to see in the work of numerous designers. Among the high-profile examples are Alexander McQueen’s 1998 collection for Givenchy, which played off the remixed 1940s look of Rachael, the near-human “replicant” android who is the movie’s female lead. There was the overt reference to the punkish hair and makeup of “basic pleasure model” replicant Pris in Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2008 couture show. This year, Raf Simons showed a men’s collection on the streets of Chinatown in New York that reproduced the dark, rainy atmosphere of Blade Runner down to the umbrellas, while Bottega Veneta’s runway stylist admitted to the Financial Times (paywall) that she was inspired by Rachael’s look.
But there is little of the fashion magic from the original at work in director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, which takes place 30 years later.
The clothes in Blade Runner 2049 aren’t bad. There’s a lot of attractive outerwear. But too much of it feels like a cliché. It’s what we expect the fashion of the future to look like, and have for decades now. Other movies including The Hunger Games and the Star Wars films have fallen into a similar trap.
“Futuristic” fashion hasn’t changed that much since the 1960s, Nancy Deihl, director of New York University’s Costume Studies Master of Arts program, told Slate last year. There are two strains of stereotypical ideas that we’ve developed about clothing’s future, she explained. One is the space-age fashion of the 1960s—”a shiny surface, stuff that’s very geometric looking, very streamlined” with plenty of cutouts. The form it takes keeps evolving, but the stereotype is still evident when people refer to the angular designs of Rick Owens or Gareth Pugh as futuristic, even if their aesthetics are much darker and more aggressive than 1960s space-age fashion. Jean Paul Gaultier’s work occasionally gets pegged with the adjective, too. (He even designed costumes for the sci-fi movie The Fifth Element.)
Then there’s the “post-apocalyptic” costume, Deihl told Slate. “Things look more haphazard; they’re kind of post-disaster look,” she said. “That’s more like The Matrix, or early Mad Max movies from the 1980s, or Blade Runner.”
But while the original Blade Runner helped set that template by doing something novel, Blade Runner 2049 too often succumbs to these stereotypes. Luv (played by Sylvia Hoeks), a ruthless replicant, wears a variety of streamlined, geometric jackets in the space-age vein. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) appears in a sleek black kimono-esque shirt that fits the description. Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) similarly turns up in a high-collared, asymmetric coat that seems strangely out of place on a member of the Los Angeles police department.
The most obvious example in Blade Runner 2049 of the post-apocalyptic image is K (Ryan Gosling), the hero of the story. He wears a rugged, distressed shearling officer’s coat, though in keeping with the world of the movie, it’s not leather at all but a heavy cotton that’s been laminated and painted. As fashion goes, it’s the centerpiece of the movie, and it is sure to inspire many guys to go looking for a shearling this winter. (The shearling also recently got a star turn on Bane, the villain in The Dark Knight Rises.)
But K’s look isn’t nearly as original as that of Deckard, the hero in the original. His trenchcoat was a trope of noir, but his clashing shirt and tie made his look subtly unexpected. It was a hardboiled detective’s look, but one you’d never seen before.
There are some fun fashion moments. Throughout the movie, the hologram Joi (Ana de Armas) cycles through a variety of looks in different styles and from various periods, reflecting the way she’s intended to be all things to her user. One highlight is a clear plastic jacket that recalls the one worn by the replicant Zhora in the original.
But much of the clothing feels like stereotypes we’re used to seeing. Thirty-five years ago, Blade Runner presented a mesmerizing vision of a dystopian future in fashion—one that still feels fresh today.
The chaotic energy and idiosyncrasy that animated the original, however, didn’t quite survive into the sequel.