Is Cyborg Couture the Future of Fashion?

From McQueen to Dior, robots might be the runway's logical inheritors.

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Mar 6 2019, 3:04pm

A pet peeve of mine is the way runway photos are cropped. The frame hugs the model, ignoring the space around them. Which is a shame, since so much can be deduced from the set design—“the atmosphere”—of a show. The runway is a clue into the mind of a collection.

Take Dior's Homme’s Fall 2019 show in Paris, for example—creative director Kim Jones’s second for the house. The runway, a conveyor belt. The models, unmoving. They glided down the mechanical runway like dolls on an airport walkway. The models’ ability to stay still was uncanny—there was nary a blink! The effect was eerie, more a photograph than a walk. The model’s walk holds semiotic importance; the catwalk has shifted multiple times throughout the years, reflecting either the optimism or tumult of the times. Which leads me to wonder: what does it mean when a model doesn’t walk down the runway? When the role is outsourced to technology?

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Models walk the runway during the Dior Homme Menswear Fall/Winter 2019-2020 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 18, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Peter White/Getty Images)

The use of technology on the runway is a reflection of our ever-increasing digital lives. Balenciaga’s Summer 2019 show, a collaboration with the artist Jon Rafman, also embraced an aura of the technological. Digitally-composed videos encompassed the set, both the runway and tunnel meshed into a seamless screensaver, the opposite of a sensory deprivation tank. The neon on black graphics—replicating a certain 90s hacker vibe that Balenciaga is running with—could very well be a visual representation of inside the body of a cyborg.

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A model walks through an arc of LED screens at the Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 fashion show.(Photo by Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A typical connotation attached to cyborgs is a negative one: a mechanical entity capable of agency and, therefore, evil. For many, the Dior show unsettled because of this reason. The models were no longer in charge of their own bodies, but static and content to let technology to carry it to its destination. But that doesn't have to be the case. When I first read Donna Haraway’s 1984 Cyborg Manifesto in my first year of university, I didn't understand Haraway’s claims that the boundaries between humans, animals, and technology were blurring. “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence,” writes Harway. “No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household,” she continues.

Re-reading the manifesto recently, I felt a surge of excitement. Yes! I am definitely a cyborg. It’s as if I was subconsciously searching for something to identify with and found it within Haraway’s notion of being a machine. I feel inherently and irreversibly connected to technology and devices, more so than the idea of being male or female. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” Haraway writes, replicating the disconnect I, too, feel with nature. The notion of being a cyborg allows for the utopian hope of re-writing the female origin story, shedding the misogyny and patriarchy attached to the contrived notion of gender.

A Wired article from 1997, written by Hari Kunrzu, explains, “if women (and men) aren't natural but are constructed, like a cyborg, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed,” Kunrzu writes. “Everything is up for grabs, from who does the dishes to who frames the constitution. Basic assumptions suddenly come into question, such as whether it's natural to have a society based on violence and the domination of one group by another,” he continues. While we often think of the ills of technology—social media bullying, cyberterrorism, government tracking—there are many elements of technology that propel feminism. Yet technology has allowed the spread of information and the dissemination of whisper networks across continents, online services provide birth control and the abortion pill to people in places where such things are outlawed, anyone can take classes online, and medical advances save lives. There’s reason to hope that the cyborg in fashion likewise sheds fashion’s patriarchal skin, resulting in cyborg couture.

Cyborg couture is the opposite of camp—it sheds folk tradition in lieu of futuristic potential. It only exists in gender-neutral styles (the fact that the cyborg doesn’t have a traditional gender is what allows it to be revolutionary and feminist). Masculine or feminine styles are simply costumes that the cyborg inhabits for a period of time. Cyborg couture accepts the future of technology, while remaining rooted in un-alienated modes of production. Cyborg couture doesn’t use technology simply for the sake of it, a principle of fast fashion which results in mistreated employees—it uses technology to further advancement. It rejects neoliberalism and remains an outlier. It is harsh, effective, and detached, all the while being self-aware. A chaotic good, cyborgs are fashionable and alive. As Haraway wrote, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

It was arguably Alexander McQueen that introduced the cyborg to the runway. The famous finale of McQueen's Spring Ready to Wear 1999 collection saw a face-off between robot and model. As the model rotated on a platform, she appeared aghast. As her body rotated on a platform, a robotic arm spray-painted the white A-line dress. A metaphoric fight between humans and technology, with the human perhaps resisting becoming a cyborg, but cumulating in something beautiful: both the performance and dress.

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Shalom Harlow sprayed with paint by robots during the finale of the Alexander McQueen Spring 1999 RTW show. (Photo by Guy Marineau/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

From there, McQueen leaned into cyborg couture. McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2006 ‘Widows of Culloden’ show in Paris featured a hologram of Kate Moss appearing like the apparition of the witch from Macbeth. The white ruffled dress billowed in the non-existent wind. For the last two-and-a-half minutes, the show was transported into the land of the ethereal, until the hologram dissipated into shining orbs. A few years later, McQueen’s Spring 2010 collection, titled Plato's Atlantis, was the first show to be live streamed from the runway: the robotic cameras glided alongside the models, side by side with their cyborg counterparts.

The Dior show introduces an interesting irony in the cyborg couture manifesto. The conveyor belt is perhaps best known for introducing alienation into the means of production, which is used to streamline the factory, creating a productive work-flow that fragments the worker into completing individual tasks. While the assembly lines were considered a triumph of innovation, it quickly became co-opted as a fodder for satire. In the 1936 film, “Modern Times,” Charlie Chaplin moves with the conveyor belt—the opposite of the frozen workers and Dior models that allow automation to do the movement for them.

When Chaplin attempts to gain reprieve from the assembly line by having a cigarette in the bathroom, he discovers he’s being surveilled via technology and is demanded to go back to work. Comedy became a way to critique the alienation that the assembly line introduced. As fast fashion becomes the norm via the assembly line and automation (which is notably not cyborg couture and instead represents the downside of how capitalism uses technology), couture remains rooted in craftsmanship and the atelier. Dior re-appropriates the conveyor belt for a new purpose—an aesthetic one that plays a metaphorical role, embracing cyborg couture, rather than a literal one. Dior’s use of the conveyor belt is a metaphor of the tension between advanced technology and craftsmanship, signaling to the audience that they are co-existing in both the past and the future. Dior is embracing tech, while rejecting a fragmented means of production—very much in line with cyborg couture.

As technology rapidly advances, one might fear cyborg couture will go too far. In fact, we’ve already seen an edition of this with AI models such as Lil Miquela and blawko22 . But one does not need to be made of metal or pixels to be a cyborg. A walk can be outsourced to technology: it’s no longer a catwalk but a cyborg-walk, demonstrating s seamless integration of technology into our lives. It’s a collaboration of sorts, a blurring of boundaries. “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities, which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work,” writes Haraway.

Welcome to the future!!