Sci-Fi is the New Black: How Contemporary SFF TV and Film Went Fashion Forward

Two weeks ago, after a long night out, I retired to my apartment to eat junk food and rewatch some Torchwood. Midway through the episode “Adam,” my roommate walked in and un-did his tie. I glanced at the screen and noticed Ianto’s tie and then looked down and noticed my own. Neither my roommate, myself or Ianto are required to wear ties for our jobs. We just like wearing ties. Then it hit me that most of the characters in the best SFF TV shows are pretty well dressed these days.  And while much has been written about how and why science fiction shows are crossing into the mainstream, at that moment I had a small epiphany:  I think it’s all about the clothes.

The current incarnation of the Doctor has certainly made bowties cool again, though as we’ve pointed out before, our favorite Time Lord has (almost) always been stylish.  Historically, he’s the exception to the rule here. Frequently, science fiction TV shows have had the protagonists rocking some kind of spacey uniform. The actors on Star Trek: The Next Generation affectionately called these costumes their “space suits.”  But now, two decades after TNG, one would be hard-pressed to find a honest-to-goodness old-school spandex spacesuit on a popular science fiction show.

The initial explanation for this could be the simple fact that more realistic-seeming science fiction is in vogue. Hence, the uniforms and flight suits on Battlestar Galatica look functional and militaristic. The whole style of that show is designed to make things seem as gritty and accessible as possible.

BUT, having your characters wear clothes that essentially look “real” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dealing with an overly realistic science fiction show.  Though billed as a more “adult” show than Doctor Who; the exploits of Jack Harkness and Co. on Torchwood are certainly not the work of hard science fiction. If anything, part of the show’s charm is its mix of goofiness with sexy sci-fi thriller action. And here everyone is dressed damn well and not “spacey” at all. Sure, the in-universe explanation for this could be that they are a secret organization and as such, don’t want to draw attention to themselves. But you have to admit, Jack running around in that big coat, or Gwen’s chucks might not be the most efficient way of operating. Surely, an organization like Torchwood could have benefited from some kind of uniform.

One could point to the X-Files as the start of this trend, as it was a science fiction show that took place on contemporary Earth. And as such, the same argument could be made for the fashion on Torchwood; they wear normal clothes because the show takes place in the present day. However, I think the setting isn’t enough to explain the amount of good fashion on SFF shows right now. Jack, Ianto and Gwen are way better dressed than Mulder and Scully anyway. So are the Fringe people and Warehouse 13 too!

Series setting aside, having good fashion is probably a good enough reason for having good fashion. For proof, we can go back to Battlestar Galactica, a spacey show that takes place in space. And guess what?  The ROBOTS on this show dress snazzier than most the humans. All the Cylons wear pretty good clothes; frequently suits with blazers. Of course Number Six is infamous for some sexy dresses, but even later versions of Number Six (like Natalie) were rocking some solid pantsuits.  And male Cylons like Simon are almost always in awesome suits.  (Though let’s face it, Leoben is a fashion fail almost every time.)

On the recent V re-make, Anna (Morena Baccarin) is the leader of the alien Vistors and makes no bones about being from space. And yet Morena Baccarin is strutting around in pretty chic outfits that seem to be borrowed from the pages of Elle or Glamour.  She’s an alien.  She doesn’t need to look that great, and yet she does.  Because science fiction is stylish now.

Thinking about Morena also brings up the costumes on Firefly.  While definitely slanted towards its whole space-western thing, Firefly didn’t feature any kind of clothing that seemed like it couldn’t be purchased now.  For the most part, Captain Mal, Zoe, Wash and everybody are wearing stuff you could probably get for yourself. While not as immediately contemporary as some of the fashion on BSG, Torchwood, or V,
everything on board Serenity was nonetheless recognizable. Captain Mal didn’t need a space Stetson with, like, a holographic reflective brim or something.

When I was a young child, I dressed up as Spock for Halloween two years in a row. As an adult, I’ve realized it’s hard to dress up as characters from Star Trek because through a certain lens, you’re not dressing up as one of those characters, but rather, dressing up as a Star Trek fan. Now in the era of science fiction heroes also being totally fashion forward, this may no longer be the case.

Hell, even the new Captain Kirk spent most of the new Trek film in a plain black shirt.  Can it get anymore obvious than this? We all know what the new black is. (It’s still black.)

Ryan Britt’s work has appeared here, with, Opium Magazine and elsewhere. He wears a lot of blazers.


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