Sci-fi, horror, and fantasy don’t come with a set dress code. The way the future is portrayed on film is rarely the same, and this also applies to the clothes these characters wear. From plastic kitsch to sleek minimalism, varying tastes are accommodated; flowing gowns, leather pants, swimwear and office-ready attire all feature. Film and runway fashion often overlap in terms of sartorial influence, which is one of the major factors that came into consideration while compiling the entrants on this list. There is also the issue of recency bias, so to ensure this wasn’t dominated by picks from the last ten years there is at least one movie per decade from the 1920s to the present day.
It is clear there are a lot of well-dressed characters in genre with super stylish looks in space, dystopian futures, the past and present day. These are some of the best fashion moments in genre film over the last 90 years.
Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
The Machine Man/Maria (Brigitte Helm) - Metropolis (1927)
The enduring power of Metropolis for filmmakers and fashion designers is what makes it one of the most influential movies of all time. Fritz Lang’s Machine Man is a marriage of Art Deco with industrial materials, playing with form and texture, which has provided inspiration for designers from Nicolas Ghesquière to Riccardo Tisci. In the transformation, the fake Maria gains some heavy eyeliner to denote the difference. Now, where is the YouTube makeup tutorial for how to copy this look?
The Monster’s Mate (Elsa Lanchester) - The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
For the best in onscreen bridal couture, look no further than Ella West’s caped wedding dress as worn by Vera Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. Bedsheets and bandages have never looked this glamorous. At the 2012 Oscars, Gwyneth Paltrow in Tom Ford was a sleeker version of this iconic costume. And long before Zachary Quinto got his Vulcan eyebrows, the Monster’s Mate championed this dramatic brow trend. This is an extreme makeup look that you might want to save for Halloween, but dark bee-stung lips and lashings of mascara work all year around.
Jennifer (Veronica Lake) - I Married a Witch (1942)
There are a lot of stylish witches out there, but Veronica Lake as Jennifer in I Married a Witch is one of the most glamorous, turning oversized men’s pajamas into an outfit that wouldn’t look out of place in 2018. Legendary costume designer Edith Head was behind these stunning garments, delivering a number of chic ensembles with Old Hollywood glam getting its shot too — it isn’t all just menswear. During the climax of this wonderful witch rom-com, Jennifer wears a black chiffon frock complete with an embellished bodice, and while promoting the movie Lake went all in on the witchy accessories.
Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) - The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
For swimwear, it doesn't get more iconic than Julie Adams’ white one-piece in Creature from the Black Lagoon. While promoting the movie, a publicist for Universal claimed Adams had “the most symmetrical legs in the world,” adding that they had also been insured by Lloyds of London. This was all movie spin, but at the time this garment and how much leg it revealed bordered on the racy side. Retro ‘50s-style swimwear has been on trend for the last few years; this costume by Rosemary Odell is a classic, much like the movie itself. And visually it really pops, particularly in the underwater ballet sequence.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) - The Birds (1963)
This is costume designer Edith Head’s second entry on the list — her legacy is well-earned, and Head was a long-term collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. In The Birds, Melanie’s skirt suits and fur coat look out of place on the island, but the shade of green also matches the lovebirds she is delivering. It is a garment similar to a suit Grace Kelly wore in Rear Window — also designed by Head. Hitchcock’s fondness for green can also be seen in the lighting choices made in one of his other films, Vertigo. Six versions of the green tailored suit were made, and this is a timeless ensemble. The fur is dated, but grab yourself a faux version and you have a chic fall-to-winter office-ready look.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) - Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Thirty years before Keri Russell caused a stir by cutting her Felicity locks, there was Mia Farrow’s iconic pixie cut. As with Russell’s chop, truth and fiction are blurred, as there are claims the haircut caused Farrow’s husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, to file for divorce. But unlike Rosemary’s husband Guy (John Cassavetes) who calls this Vidal Sassoon cut “the worst mistake you ever made,” Sinatra was actually a fan. Sassoon was part of a big publicity push for the film, but instead of cutting Farrow’s hair from a bob to this pixie style, he actually only took half an inch off. In fact, Farrow first appeared in Vogue two years prior with this look. Even though the story behind the style is far less salacious, there is no denying how influential this moment is in movie hair history.
Barbarella (Jane Fonda) - Barbarella (1968)
Visions of the future don’t often resemble the actual thing. While we are not dressing like Jane Fonda as Barbarella just yet, Paco Rabanne’s chainmail crop top, plastic embellished leotards and white bodysuits have influenced both the runway and at least one other entry on this list. The space race was still dominating the Cold War when Barbarella was in production, influencing Rabanne’s designs even if they don’t resemble anything someone at NASA would wear. This is kitsch Space Age fashion at its best.
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) - Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
There was no way Princess Leia wasn’t going to end up on the list; it was just a question of which look was going to serve her style icon status. There is, of course, the white pants and quilted vest ensemble in Empire Strikes Back and the battle-ready Endor green in Return of the Jedi, but there is nothing more striking than the white gown in her A New Hope introduction scene. This is a look fit for a princess from costume designer John Mollo that also feels like a callback to one of the many stunning outfits worn by Katharine Hepburn in A Philadelphia Story.
Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) - Blade Runner (1982)
Where Metropolis mixed Art Deco with industrial, Blade Runner paired 1940s silhouettes with retro-futurism designs from Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode. Rachael’s suits are all big shoulder pads that you expect from the ‘80s, but this is really a nod to designers such as Balenciaga from 40 years prior. Fashion, like movies, is cyclical, constantly borrowing from itself. Blade Runner 2049 produced some solid outerwear, but Deckard’s trench coat is just as enviable as Ryan Gosling’s waxed black number in the long-awaited recent sequel. Blade Runner has been influencing the runway from as early as 1983 to the present day. Now that is a sartorial legacy.
May Day (Grace Jones) - A View to a Kill (1985)
Over 50 years of the James Bond franchise dazzling us with some super stylish looks, it is hard to beat Grace Jones as May Day, with legendary fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa bringing his unique beautiful creations to her villainous attire. Extravagance levels are ‘80s high, with Jones decked out in hooded body-hugging dresses, tight pants, and leather jackets. Jones’ makeup is just as dramatic given the villain-turned Bond savior she plays in A View to a Kill.
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) - Back to the Future (1985)
Someone who ends up ahead of his time is Marty McFly in Back to the Future with a number of people enquiring about his ‘life preserver.’ What is truly great about this Marty McFly ensemble — other than his amazing layering skills — is that it walks the line between timeless and the most ‘80s. Denim tends to reveal what decade it is thanks to the cut and color, but as a whole, this could be worn today without too many eyebrows raised. Ditch the gilet, or at least pick one in a different shade, and that will probably reduce the number of people thinking you’re cosplaying as a time traveler.
Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) - Batman Returns (1992)
The Catwoman costume has seen several iterations over the last 50 years, but it is Michelle Pfeiffer’s latex and silicon version in Batman Returns that instantly springs to mind whenever this character is mentioned. Mary E. Vogt designed the suit with Bob Ringwood as they set forth a new chapter in comic book heroes and villains on screen. The stitching detail gives it a worn look and there was a very real fear the garment would rip during Pfeiffer’s action scenes. The designers made 40 Catwoman suits in total; now that's how you make sure you never run out of your favorite item of clothing
Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) - The Fifth Element (1997)
Fashion isn’t necessarily meant to be practical as you can see in The Fifth Element, blending the runway and film not only via famous designer Jean-Paul Gaultier but also in the casting of model Milla Jovovich as the orange-haired Leeloo. This was always going to deliver a strong aesthetic, one that was inspired by Paco Rabanne’s work on Barbarella. The cycle continues with Jeremy Scott’s New York Fashion Week collection, which debuted earlier this year and featured several garments — and wigs — that wouldn’t look out of place in Leeloo’s wardrobe.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) - The Matrix (1999)
The future is leather in The Matrix; its impact on the runway was instant as the Christian Dior show, which arrived just a few months after, was "deeply inspired" by the film. Neo and Trinity’s matching trench coats, leather pants and tight black tops — a long-sleeve tee for him, tank for her — is their uniform. The tiny sunglasses of the ‘20s made their later ‘90s comeback and have been doing the rounds once again; in fashion, everything old is new again.
Agent Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) - Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Effortlessly switching between super glam frocks and tactical gear, Maggie Q as Agent Zhen Lei in the third Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible movie dresses the part whatever the mission. Costume designer Colleen Atwood made sure to put Zhen in an outfit that was both practical and super stylish whether she is collecting intel, making sure Ethan Hunt receives cover fire, or riding on a speedboat.
Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
In the world of The Hunger Games, no one leans into Capitol fashion quite like Effie Trinket with her crowning moment coming in the second movie in the franchise, Catching Fire. Trish Summerville used pieces from the Alexander McQueen fall/winter 2012 collection for a number of Effie’s costumes, but it is the stunning butterfly ensemble that is truly breathtaking. This was also made by this fashion house; feathers are painted to resemble monarch butterflies. She also has butterflies in her hair, on her arms and even her eyelashes. Effie is never understated when she takes on a theme.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) - Her (2013)
The future doesn’t have to feature wild and wacky clothing. Her costume designer and long-time Spike Jonze collaborator Casey Storm opted for minimalist garments for Theodore, but this doesn’t mean they lack color. Instead, Theodore wears button-down shirts in sherbert hues. The high-waisted pants instantly give an old-timey feel, mixing past and present trends. Accessories such as belts and ties are absent; this is ultimate smart-casual fit for the office and dinner. Fashion brand Opening Ceremony produced a Her inspired capsule collection in 2013, featuring block color sweaters as a nod to Theodore’s wardrobe.
Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) - Ex Machina (2014)
Also keeping with the ‘future equals minimalist fashion’ theme is Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex-Machina. Unlike Her, color doesn’t play much of a role in Sammy Sheldon’s costume design; instead, neutrals reign. Kyoko’s attire is striking in a series of white outfits with black detailing. Even if you haven’t seen this movie you will probably be familiar with the dance scene in which Kyoko wears a version of the fantasy outfit: an oversized shirt with some underpants. For a more monochromatic future look, Ex Machina has got you covered.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) - Black Panther (2018)
Wakanda is a very stylish nation. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter took inspiration from a variety of sources for Black Panther including a number of African tribes, Afrofuturism, technology via 3D printing, and James Bond for the casino scene. But it is cool teen Shuri we are honoring on this list for her take on athleisure. Sneakers are an important part of her whole sport-chic aesthetic; her style is age-appropriate, with a nod to her STEM work — the white dress is her version of a lab coat — and is still super feminine.
Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) - Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
No one has a better space cape collection than Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars prequel. Lando has capes for all occasions and climates, but it isn’t just his outerwear that is highly covetable. This is a man that also knows how to accessory, throwing on a silk scarf really sets off his ensemble. All of this makes him the best-dressed guy in a galaxy far, far away.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!