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Does the Future Look Like Space Age Optimism, or Handmaid’s Dystopia?

Two new exhibitions at SCAD show the aesthetic possibilities of what is to come.

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May 25 2018, 3:24pm

Photograph courtesy of SCAD.

What does dressing for the future look like? It depends on whether you see the glass half-full or the glass half-full of toxic waste.

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At the Savannah College of Art and Design Fashion and Film Museum in Atlanta (SCAD FASH), two exhibitions—Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future and Dressing for Dystopia: Costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale—offer opposing visions of what the future looks like through clothing. How close are we, really, to one vision or the other?

Museum goers begin with Cardin’s space-age hub (the exhibit is modeled after the bubble-shaped Palais Bulles near Cannes, France, a “futuristic place and a labyrinth of modern times” that Cardin owned as a holiday home in the 1990s). A few dozen pieces from the 1950s through 2017 are on display, featuring the gravity-defying shapes, 1960s glamour, and go-go sexiness for which the designer is known.

Photograph courtesy of SCAD.

It also happens that Cardin was the first couture designer to offer a ready-to-wear collection, a move that “democratized” fashion, according to Alexandra Sachs, co-curator of both exhibitions and the executive director of SCAD FASH and Atlanta Exhibitions. (Her co-curator, Rafael Gomes, is the director of fashion exhibitions the museum.) But the sense of hopefulness is contrasted with the totalitarian, rigidly hierarchical world of The Handmaid’s Tale, as envisioned on television by Ane Crabtree, the Emmy-nominated costume designer tasked with interpreting Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision for television.

The Handmaid’s Tale exhibition, the first show at SCAD FASH focusing on costume design, is connected to the Cardin exhibit through an ominously lit corridor with walls created from burned wood, transporting visitors directly into the gloom of the show’s fictional Republic of Gilead.

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Color is an integral part of Crabtree’s vision for a class-based future, Sachs says. Commanders and secret police wear understated gray and black suits, “aunts” in khaki, wives in teal. A small but significant detail from the first season: Only one woman, the Mexican ambassador, wears a bright yellow pantsuit, which is on display at the exhibit. “The other women in the series wear full-length dresses with sleeves to their wrists, yet she comes in in this pantsuit, and it immediately signals that she’s from a completely different universe,” Sachs says.

And of course, the Handmaids wear a bright crimson, signifying that they are, as Sachs says, “literally the lifeblood of civilization, since their fertility will enable the Republic of Gilead to continue.” Their bonnets, sourced from puritanical dress, contrast with the workman’s boot the Handmaids wear (their laces confiscated so to keep them from hanging themselves).

Exiting the two exhibits, one can’t help but wonder which future we’re actually approaching. Does it look like Cardin’s vision of short hemlines and inventive shapes? Or does it more closely resemble Crabtree and Atwood’s apocalyptic wasteland of barren women?

Designers are also grappling with this question on the runway. Last summer, Vaquera presented a capsule collection of The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired garb in collaboration with Hulu that showed both the oppressive and liberating possibilities of rooting one’s identity in dress. (The Vaquera shoes in particular—a medieval slipper with a winklepicker toe and ballet ribbons—are a whimsical alternative to the workman’s boots the Handmaids wear in the show.)

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But even those whose aesthetic aligns more closely with the Cardin brand of futurism aren’t necessarily optimistic. Moschino’s Fall 2018 alien Jackie Kennedys borrowed from 1960s silhouettes Cardin perfected (minus most of the playfulness in Cardin’s shapes), but the futuristic shapes were subtly twinged in darkness and conspiracy rather than harbingers of a bright future.

A more optimistic look at the future may be Muccia Prada’s neon and nylon vision, or Stella McCartney’s smart fabric athleisure. Prada offers waders to protect us from whatever much we’ve managed to stir up, without foregoing the feminine sensibility that tulle affords us, while McCartney has made environmentally conscious fabrics both the motive of her creative impulse and a proposition for protecting the earth from what humanity has wrought.

Cardin had the optimism of the space age to compel him, but at the moment, the future is less a symbol for the promise of the unknown than a holding place for our anxieties about what’s to come—on the runway, on TV, and in our lives.

Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future is on view at SCAD FASH through September 30, and Dressing for Dystopia: Costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale is on view through August 12.

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