Dystopian Movies, Real Crises, and How to Dress for the End of the World

dystopian fashion in The Lobster
Screenshot from The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

The day things went from epidemic to pandemic, I changed from a button-up and rigid denim jacket into an XL blue thermal my dad used to wear on weekends. I wore it for weeks after he died. I packed it to wear to bed during my first week of graduate school. After a breakup, I spent a weekend in it. Before I could open my phone and face the news, I needed to be wearing it. I looked out my window onto the emptying streets of Brooklyn, the female lead in my own dystopian narrative. I felt the familiar threadbare comfort of the waffle knit texture. I’d discovered my end times uniform. 

The complicated question of what to wear is particularly distressing in a global crisis. Social distancing and self isolation have separated us from those we love, leaving us to create reciprocity in creative ways. We dress to feel, generally subconsciously and oftentimes collectively. But isolation has employed simple acts, like cooking, reading, especially dressing, as tools of connection. Those back-of-the-closet, sample sale purchases feel distant and pointless. Despair is best survived in sweatpants and over video chat. In a crisis, most mental capacity is allocated for carrying on. Dressing becomes functional, not frivolous. A study in 2012 from Northwestern University looked at  a concept they called “enclothed cognition,” or the examination of  what your clothes are saying to you, not about you. The report concluded that clothing has a “strange power” over the wearers. Advice like dressing for the job you want and putting your best foot forward takes on an optimistic, borderline nostalgic hue in crisis. Social distancing leaves us dressing for life apart. There’s no reason to project and all the more reason to protect whatever semblance of comfort we can control. The idea of dressing for self preservation feels like a manageable, more modern approach. 

The world’s impending demise has long held the cultural imagination. Films and their characters have grappled with these themes since the medium’s inception. They are something we can share in collectively, queuing them up and pressing play from the safety of our own homes. Modern takes on the genre have seen a sharp rise in viewing. Recently, films like Contagion (2011) and World War Z (2013) have made their way into Top Ten charts across entertainment platforms. We are looking to films for how to live, and maybe even what to wear. 

It turns out, market crashes and plagues aren’t the time for pops of color. Universally, the dystopian genre produces characters in muted shades of destitute but determined earth tones. Neutrals are non offensive and grounding. Plus, they allow the citizens of the imagined society to adhere to some sort of collective identity. The effect is  usually a Dorthea Lange-Depression Era uniformity, on the surface. These costuming choices create an eerie timelessness, the inability to place the characters in a singular time and space. In The Hunger Games (2012), the effect is exercised in each distinct district in the newly assembled continent of Panem. District 12, home of the movie’s main characters, is in modern day Appalachia. Katniss (Jennifer Lawerance) is dressed drearily, that is, until she is thrust into the bright lights of the ultra-wealthy Capitol. Stunned by high fashion silhouettes and screaming color, she barely recognizes the version of herself paraded before the games. It’s a similar feeling to the silent masterpiece, Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang. A splintering class divide punctuates the film. The poor are sent to work in uniforms while the wealthy watch from above in opulent outfits, their individuality on full display.

In post-apocalyptic films, where the world has experienced a catastrophic restructuring, the rules of what to wear feel eerily similar. The barely there wasteland uniforms of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), provide protection, but give the characters just a hint of vulnerability. The film’s main character, Max (Tom Hardy) wears the franchise’s earlier lead, Mel Gibson’s faded leather jacket, found in the moldy basement of a studio, throughout. When we wear neutrals, a part of us disappears into the sea of universality. There is solidarity there, especially in unrest. Walking the streets of Brooklyn, behind the panic and under the fear, there is a pulsing of collective hope in the masks almost every pedestrian wears–homemade, medical grade, a scarf from the back of a drawer. There are totems that serve a deeply functional purpose, whose unforeseen side effect is to remind us of who we were surviving with or on behalf of. 

An exception to this norm is the near future film Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze. The movie follows a heartbroken man’s burgeoning relationship with an operating system. Jonzes’s idea of the future isn’t overtly bleak. Digital relationships dictated by present isolation and technological advances shift the quotidien markers of connectedness, and not always for the worse. Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is dressed in bright reds in a world of Mid Century Modern reinterpretation. The film’s costume designer, Casey Storm, explained the choice in a 2014 interview, saying, “We went backwards in time rather than forwards for influence, mixing different garments from different eras. I knew I wanted silhouettes to be slightly different than contemporary silhouettes, but the goal was to not be distracting.” As his relationship to phone restricted Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) deepens, he begins to sport shirts exclusively with chest pockets, where she can watch his world unfold through the device’s camera and with the help of a safety pin. He was outfitted for connection, not comfort. 

In the days of dressing for quarantine, I also find myself dressing for the technology that will help me feel less alone–big button ups with pockets I can slip my headphones into while I’m on calls, loose dresses I can video chat for hours in, even the same worn in Levi’s that are starting to show an outline of where I stash my phone. Some nights, when the news feels particularly bleak and there are no Zoom happy hours to attend, I’ll try on my favorite outfits and dance with my cordless headphones in. I imagine the way the velvet could never translate over a pixelated screen or how impractical the pocketless satin trousers feel. I luxuriate in the optimistic hope of a reason to embrace frivolity before coming back to earth, changing into my pajamas and emailing a friend. 

Class dictates contact beyond clothing in the film. New technology comes with a cost, upgrades and gadgets aren’t universal. The privilege of romanticising the past from the top floors of a high rise in an unnamed futuristic city gives Theodore’s heartbreak a different hue. Samantha comforts Theodore with the eerie line, “The past is just a story we keep telling ourselves,” as he confides about his lost love. Not only are Theodore’s color choices bold, but his penchant  for a high waisted trouser agrees with the idea of dressing for a happier, more stable time. The film’s supporting characters dress in a host of similarly retro silhouettes, opting out of overly body conscious cuts. What’s different this time around is the sense of gender neutrality in the looser, simplified pieces. 

Even in films that present a parallel past, like 2010’s Never Let Me Go, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley as children raised in the 1970s to be organ donors at a seemingly idyllic boarding school, the outfits feel as interchangeable as their cloned personalities. The three main characters dress so similarly that they seem to function as a unit. In the real world, uncertain how to act, their ignorance feels shielded by their collective identity. Steven Noble, the film’s costume director, explained it in a 2010 interview, saying, “I hope audiences start off thinking this is a strange, eerie film about peculiar people; but as the film goes on, I hope they see it is a story about all of us…until, finally, what Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are going through is what we all go through in life.” 

The Lobster, a 2015 film about a futuristic society where citizens are forced to find a mate within forty-five days at a seaside hotel or be turned into an animal, explores the desire for groundedness as a form of group think. Characters played by Rachel Weisz and Colin Ferrell seem to mirror each other in identical or coordinating outfits throughout the movie. Upon arrival, guests are assigned matching trousers and shirts, even matching cologne. In a scene at a mandated ball, every woman is shown in the same floral dress, one that would normally appear inconsequentially festive, but in the hue of dystopia, feels ironically sad. But love, like hope, can find footing in even the most unlikely of hues. David (Ferrell) and The Shortsighted Woman (Weitz) prove that morality may be grayscale, but the things worth living for, can’t be confined to uniformity.  

There are no rules for how to dress. There are especially no rules for how to dress in the wake of something as unprecedented as COVID-19. I’m writing this from the same wool sweater I put on every morning while I wait for my morning coffee to boil. When I dial into video calls with my friends, we all sigh into bunched up sweatshirt sleeves and pull back our unwashed hair. We reminisce on the reasons we had to get properly dressed–dinners out, long nights of dancing, last minute plays. I called my sister, who admitted she was in an old sweater of our brother’s she’d found during a quarantine inspired cleaning spree. Even changing out of pajamas feels like an act of hope these days, one we can participate in collectively. On video call, three of my friends from fashion school all agreed to show up in our favorite nightgowns, another exercise in exceptions. I, like a man destined to become a crustacean and like a hopeless romantic in high waisted trousers, am dressing for the future I want, not the future I have. 

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Erika Veurink is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Iowa. She received her MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Review, Cheap Pop, Hobart, Midwest Review, Fairy Tale Review, and elsewhere.