The Future Is Shaped by the Past: The Costumes of Blade Runner

Blade Runner costumes Rachael 
Less than a month since the release of Blade Runner 2049, and thirty-five years after the premiere of Blade Runner, I am still celebrating the original. Set in a dystopian 2019, Ridley Scott’s film envisioned a decaying Los Angeles, bleak and neon-lit, with overpopulated streets and striking, cutting-edge cityscapes of dark buildings soaring up into smog-covered skies and acid rain. It is a world in which technology is so ingrained – a haunting foresight of the world we are living in – that it is forcing the characters, and us viewers to ask ourselves, “What makes us human?”

The Los Angeles of the future has become an environmental disaster, a mutant hybrid. Everyone who can afford it has moved to one of the “off world colonies”. The Tyrell Corporation has designed humanoids called replicants to be used as slave labour on the foreign planets. The androids are virtually indistinguishable from real humans, but the law forbids them from setting foot on Earth. Yet some of these androids manage to slip through and it is the job of the “blade runners” to hunt them down. It is not called execution, it is called retirement. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Blade Runner, both visually striking and philosophically charged, remains a landmark movie in the sci-fi genre, having reached cult status and influenced a generation of film-makers and designers alike.
Blade Runner costumes

Blade Runner Rachael costumes 
The costumes are just one of the many details that make Blade Runner so timeless, and much of the inspiration for the clothes came from film noir. The entire feel of the film is film noir. The movie was shot by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth in high contrast, sparingly using colour and employing instead unusual camera angles and shafts of light, evoking the depth and style of black and white classic movies.

“After reading the script, we definitely felt that Blade Runner was of that film noir genre, and we looked back to the films of the 1940s for inspiration. Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character) was as much a Gumshoe as Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart),” said Michael Kaplan, one of the costume designers (Charles Knode was the other one) in an interview. Scott himself saw Blade Runner as a film noir set 40 years in the future, complete with femmes fatales and detectives in trench coats. Harrison Ford’s trench is indeed a clear analogy to noir (in Blade Runner, too, the time of day is appropriately night and the rain is everlasting), but that unpredictable combination of shirt and tie plants his hardboiled detective on completely new territory.
Blade Runner trench Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford costumes Blade Runner 
Sean Young’s sharp costumes, a mashup of retro and futurism, were largely influenced by the tailored suits that Adrian designed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The wide-shouldered look for women is the style innovation most often attributed to the Hollywood costume designer. “I liked the idea of combining different shades of suiting fabrics to create patterns – something Adrian did,” continues Kaplan. “In this case I used amazing vintage suiting woollens in shades of grey and beige, with metallic threads that I was lucky enough to find, which created a subtle luminous quality.” Adrian excelled in the use of black and white, but he was a master of colour, too, and often adopted the strong V-line of the military silhouette in his creations.

Adrian believed in “dressing the mind”, designing a costume to help the actress “feel” the period or the role she was playing. The padded shoulders, tapered waistline and pencil skirt would be the predominant silhouette for women from the mid-1930s through most of the 1940s, reemerging as the “power suit” for women in the 1970s and 1980s, and which, thanks also to Blade Runner, has continued to be regularly reinterpreted by fashion designers throughout the last decades. “I wanted to create a futuristic heroine who was believable in the future, but with her feet firmly planted in film noir past,” Kaplan further explained.
Blade Runner futuristic costumes

Blade Runner costumes Pris costumes 
The clothes in Blade Runner seem realistic, believable for the world that’s created, unlike in many other science fiction movies. The clothes were innovative and daring, but had familiar references, like the Old Hollywood glamour in Rachael’s case, or the early 1980s punk scene in the case of Daryl Hannah’s character, Pris. Hannah came up with the blacked-out “raccoon” eye make-up herself. One of the replicants, Pris is described as a “basic pleasure model” in her police file.
Sean Young costumes Blade RunnerSean Young as Rachael, wearing a fur coat. The different shades and fabrics, and the V-shapes of the pattern, two of Adrian’s signature elements.
Blade Runner costumescostumes in film Blade Runner 1982

Syd Mead art Sean Young Blade Runner
Conjured from a variety of haunting images, like Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks”, the skyline of Hong Kong at night, the fiery industrial landscape of Tyneside and Teesside of Ridley Scott’s childhood, the French comic book Métal Hurlant, and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, the street sets in “Blade Runner” were rendered on paper by neofuturistic artist Syd Mead and duplicated by creative team Laurence Paul and David L. Snyder almost exactly. Left image above: “Blade Runner” concept art by Syd Mead/Right image: Sean Young as replicant Rachael, in a brocade and fur coat designed by Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode
Ridley Scott saw Sean Young as a classic beauty, and Philip K. Dick, after looking at a photo of Sean Young, he called her the “super destructive cruel beautiful dark-haired woman that I eternally write about and now I’ve seen a photograph of her and I know that she exists and I will seek her out and presumably she will destroy me.”

From her very first scene, Rachael’s image and look are something you can not forget. Dressed in a black silk and snake skin two-piece suit with exaggerated angles, with her alabaster complexion, black smudged eyes and red lips (Marvin Westmore, who worked as the make up artist on the film said Sean Young’s lips were the best red lips he had ever worked on), she is one of the most distinctive characters to have ever been seen on the silver screen. Of a sensual yet fatalistic beauty, strong, mysterious, and utterly modern, she seems to belong simultaneously to the past and to the future – “she’s more human than human”. There are no science fiction clichés in 1982’s Blade Runner costumes. Thirty-five years on, the fashion still looks futuristic, while the sequel succumbs to stereotypes. I am afraid that, as in other artistic fields, in fashion, too, everything that could have been invented already has, even the future.
Film costumes Blade Runner 1982

Blade Runner costume Rachael 

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photos: movie stills, except for images 8 (publicity still) and 11 (see capture below image) | The Ladd Company, The Shaw Brothers, Warner Bros.

Sources: interview with Michael Kaplan, Another Magazine / interview with Syd Mead, Vice magazine / Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites, edited by Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller

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