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Credit: Columbia Pictures 

Look of the Week: The sleek futuristic minimalism of Gattaca

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Oct 25, 2019

Welcome back to Look of the Week! Celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!

What are people going to wear in the future?

There are a number of routes available to designers crafting costumes for a time period that only exists in fiction. Whether it is the Paco Rabanne plastic and chainmail infused Barbarella (Jane Fonda) get-up, the all-black leather Matrix look, or the high-waisted pants of Her, each concept reflects the wider world of the movie in question.

Fashion is cyclical, so the style of future decades will likely resemble the clothing of a previous period. It is doubtful that we will suddenly start wearing spacesuits (unless something truly cataclysmic takes place). Rather than constructing new and out-there trends, it makes sense to draw inspiration from the past when designing a movie set in the not too distant future.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Released in 1997, multi Academy-award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood approached Gattaca by taking the "purest design from the '30s and combined it with what was contemporary at the time in the costumes." Mid-20th-century architecture also informs the aesthetic of Andrew Niccol's near-future dystopian society, which has a class structure predicated on eugenics and genetic selection. Parents not only determine factors such as gender and eye color, but they can also eradicate diseases and hereditary conditions. Essentially, they are making the "best" possible version of their off-spring that leaves nothing to chance (other than factors of fate after they are born).

If a child is conceived via non-genetic selection methods, they are referred to as a "faith birth" and those people are subject to discrimination for being an "in-valid." Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, a faith birth who dreams of going into space but his low social status restricts the kind of career he can have. He can get a job at Gattaca, but only cleaning the facility and not in the space program.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

By taking on the identity of the now-paralyzed Jerome (Jude Law), he is able to infiltrate a world that was previously inaccessible. His glasses are replaced by colored contacts — a "valid" would never need to wear spectacles — and his height is increased via a painful, but necessary operation. He looks enough like Jerome (particularly in the photo that is already in the database, lucky that).

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Clothes help sell the societal superiority of those who work at Gattaca, in which the sharp-suited silhouettes don't stray out of a neutral color palette. The most extreme pattern you will find is a subtle pinstripe, but tones are muted. Nothing is out of place and for Vincent, an eyelash falling from his face could point to his real identity. A meticulous daily routine is a necessity, ensuring that all loose skin and hair is shed and destroyed before he ever leaves the house. No one remembers the bespectacled and rumpled boilersuit-wearing janitor, now that his suit looks like every other "valid" in the building.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

The structured suits have the feel of a very cool minimalist fashion campaign, marrying '90s sartorial sensibilities with the past. Every vision of the future on screen is influenced by the period in which it is made, plus there are other factors at play including the overall art direction and budgetary restraints.

In an interview, Atwood discussed this element, explaining how she "found a lot of really beautiful '30s men's suits, and I recut some '80s suits with modern fabric to make it work." In this same conversation, Atwood refers to it as "urban timelessness" and this mash-up of time periods makes this world familiar, but with enough visual ambiguities that it takes on this otherworldly futuristic quality.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

The high-neck vest Vincent wears throughout contrasts to the somewhat less rigid attire of the real Jerome. When they go out for a celebratory dinner, it looks like the set of a 1940s noir or a European-set thriller. A couple of years later, Law would star in The Talented Mr. Ripley (in which his identity is stolen without consent) and the fashion aesthetic isn't too far from that period. Jerome is also the only person who wears anything resembling a vibrant color, in a deep burgundy vest (see above) when their identity switch is almost uncovered by the authorities. It is also the moment in which Uma Thurman's Irene learns that the man she knows as Jerome (and has been sleeping with) is actually an "in-valid" called Vincent.

Irene works alongside Vincent at Gattaca and despite being part of the genetic-elite, she has a heart condition that prevents her from going into space. Her medication is kept in a discrete compact that resembles an Art Deco snuff box — this imperfection is Irene's greatest shame. She will never reach the stars and planets that Vincent dreams of. As with the men who work at Gattaca, Irene's attire is minimalist and structured. The grey suit is softened by the silk shirt collar with delicate button detail against the more aggressive large buttons of her suit.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

A piano recital (starring a 12-fingered pianist) provides the romantic setting for Vincent's first date with Irene. Her black strapless dress is chic and minimalist, again defying a specific period. Green-lighting at night is one of the only uses of bold color, enhancing the sleek futuristic quality of the Oscar-nominated art direction. Cars are based on '60s models with a turbine electric-powered sound effect to remind the audience it is the future, and the clean-yet-curved lines of the buildings nod to 1950s architecture. Women in metallic shawls and frocks add a touch of '40s glam to the overall aesthetic and the detectives look straight out of a pulp novel.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Irene lets her hair down on their second date, turning up the Old Hollywood decadence in a jaw-dropping silver halter-neck gown. It is perfect for dinner and dancing, less so for running down a seedy alley to escape the police.

In this scene, Uma Thurman looks like an actress thrust out of time as she could easily star in Double Indemnity or This Gun For Hire. Metallic garments often symbolize a kitsch view of the future, but this sequence proves that silver isn't just for spaceships or foil-themed attire. The recent Maniac depicted a heightened retro-futuristic landscape, whereas Colleen Atwood's work in Gattaca strips it back.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

When Vincent embarks on his lifelong dream of going into space, the tunnel he walks down has a Kubrickian vibe, but in this future, space suits are not required. Instead, Vincent wears the type of smart office-ready garments he has worn for the majority of the movie. In this version of the future, you can fly to space in a regular shirt and tie.

Credit: Columbia Pictures 

Using the past to inform what the future might look like is one way to create a timeless aesthetic — or, in the case of Gattaca, blur mid-century design with the '90s minimalist signature of designers including Calvin Klein, Helmut Lang, and Jil Sander. As with most dystopian societies in fiction, the familiar only makes this vision more terrifying. A nice clean suit cannot hide the horrors of this extreme version of playing God.

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