Back to The Future – How retrofuturism could help save mankind (or at least make life less boring)

Oscar Wilde once said that fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. This is certainly not the case if I look at the trends in fashion and design, of my own generation, in the environment I grew up in. I am no fashion connoisseur, but In terms of design trends, it seems like we have been stuck in Groundhog Day for the last 30 years.

I remember the fashion my older brothers followed back in 1997. The death of Kurt Cobain, the king of grunge, didn’t mean an end to the grunge era. On the contrary, the fashion he incited flourished. Torn denims and dirty All Stars were seen everywhere. Then there was Tony Hawk – the pioneer of vertical skateboarding and a fashion icon to any high school kid who managed to pull off an ollie. Skateboards were carried around everywhere and it was the status symbol of anybody who was against status symbols. 

Now that I’m married and have two little kids, I don’t have any time to ponder or be concerned about fashion. I’ve been wearing the same non-descript clothing for years and I realised that my peers, who also have children, are stuck in the same mode. But then I looked at the younger gen-z, I saw that the fashion has shifted back to the 90s. This time around, the pop-culture of the 90s, rather than grunge, is the in-thing – high-waisted jeans, crop tops, parachute pants and bowl cuts seem to be the uniform of our time. It also appears that there is even a slight aversion towards modern technology. A few years ago, vinyl records made a comeback. And last year, the US saw a sharp increase in sales of the antiquated cassette tape. 

There is no fashion inspiration from anytime earlier than 30 years ago, but this wasn’t always so. Maybe we feel that there is nothing new under the sun. That everything is just a copy of a copy. That there is not a single new idea to be explored in the world of trends and fashion.

If this is the case, then we should probably leave the past in the past and looks elsewhere for inspiration – the future.

And I know what the more pessimistic (and perhaps more realist) among you might think – what future? David Attenborough has made it clear in his recent documentary, A Life on our Planet, that the planet is in deep trouble and the earth would become uninhabitable if we don’t collectively pull up our socks and start cleaning up our act. And the movie Don’t look Up showed us that this is unlikely to happen since we are too caught up in frivolous nonsense to be concerned about the survival of the planet. But, life on earth was never a garden of roses. No matter how gloomy the times, there has always been a handful of glass-half-full visionaries, who were future-inspired in their fashion sense and designs.

After World War II, people lived in fear of a nuclear Armageddon as countries were pointing their biggest missiles at each other during the cold war. But instead of shying away from the paranoia of the age, trendsetters, artists and designers embraced the power of the atom to fuel their own work. Nuclear war was not just a dangerous possibility – it was exhilarating and fun, as encapsulated in the title of Stanley Kubrick’s satirical black comedy Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The a-bomb was the central motif in comic books and interior designers used the shape of the atom in their designs (like the Ball Wall clock from the industrial designer, George Nelson). Some people envisioned a less sombre future. A future of space travel, which was reflected in the sleek and modern architecture of the time. The Space Needle in Seattle, an observation tower (which literally looks like a UFO mounted on a 184-meter high tower of concrete) was built in 1962, just a few years prior to man setting foot on the moon and David Bowie wondering if there is Life on Mars.

Rewind even further back in time to the 30s – the global economy is in the dumps, but some people seem to have rose-coloured retro-futuristic glasses on, despite their dire economic circumstances. They imagined technological advances that would automate all our work. Robotic servants would take care of our mundane tasks, leaving us with ample time to live a life of luxury and ruminate about bigger things, while we commute in flying cars.

So, the bottom line is that nostalgia is getting us nowhere. If we want to move forward, we actually have to look forward. Our inspiration does not have to be based on the doings of the past. Looking forward can be scary, since we don’t know what lies around the bend. Neil Gaiman, an English author, uses a beautiful analogy that describes the process of how he writes a book:

“Writing a novel is like driving through the fog, with one headlight out. You can’t see very far ahead of yourself, but every now and again the mists will clear.”

I think this is applicable to all walks of life – look forward and know the mist will clear.

Nicolaas Steenekamp

Nicolaas is a graphic designer, developer, photographer, musician and writer. After he received a BA degree in Creative Brand Communications in 2014, he worked as a graphic designer, translator and Afrikaans copywriter at various corporate groups. In his free-time he enjoys summiting all the peaks of the Outeniqua Mountain range or attempting to break his PB on a half-marathon.

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