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    Dressing For Dystopia: The Future of Fashion According to 19th Century Novelists

    Clothing can tell a lot about a society, and for generations, artists and writers have envisioned dystopian futures with…let’s call it interesting fashion. In contemporary times, we’ve encountered the colour coded faction fashions of the Divergent future, the red cloaks and hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale, and the bizarre, eccentric styles of the Capitol in the Hunger Games Series. But predicting the styles of a dystopian future is certainly nothing new. Here are a few concepts of what the fashion of the future may look like – although in some cases, let’s hope not!

    Literature scholar Justyna Galant writes that back in the nineteenth century, fashion was particularly ideologically charged. It’s no wonder then, that many authors of the time chose to let clothing play a central role in their dystopian stories.

    According to Galant fashions changed dramatically during the nineteenth century – particularly women’s fashion – and of course many people had strong opinions about it. “Among all the developments in female dress,” she writes, “the corset, bustle, and crinoline undoubtedly stood out as the favorite targets of satire and faced serious criticism by health professionals, feminists, and the part of the population more skeptical of accepting new ideas of beauty”. Naturally, the press at the time was full to the brim of both advertisements for these new trends, as well as drawings and poems lampooning those who decided to adhere to them. 

    Galant goes on to discuss two dystopian novels which emerged about that time: J.L. Collins’s Queen Krinaleen’s Plagues (1874) and Walter Besant’s The Inner House (1888). The former narrated the way a Foreign Queen tricked tourists from Amrika into following fashion trends so horrible they permanently disfigured the women who wore them, while simultaneously costing so much that the Amrikite men became corrupt and money-hungry in order to pay for them. The villain of the latter is a socialist leader who forces everyone to dress exactly alike, until eventually, the socialist leaders are overthrown, and the people can and once again embrace the beauty of the past.

    Both Queen Krinaleen and The Inner House differ from most nineteenth-century dystopias by using fashion as their main plot-driving device. These writers chose to associate fashion with the psychosomatic well-being of human beings, going so far as to link it with the essence and of the human experience. But Galant argues that despite this similarity, the writers’ approaches differed somewhat.

    “For Besant, fashion is an aesthetically and semantically appealing, and therefore artistically useful, sign of meaningful social relations,” she writes. “As it stands for an entire set of values he sees as threatened by modernity, his depiction of fashion is necessarily marked by oversimplification and idealization innate in the nostalgic approach”.

    “In contrast, Collins uses the plague of haute couture as an incarnation of a threat to national stability and illustrates the consequences of what he recognizes as American national flaws—unbridled consumerism and uncritical imitation of all that seems exotic and (therefore) superior. Its evidently negative impact on the human body makes fashion especially pertinent for the context of Darwinian evolution”.

    It’s clear that fashion has a symbolic role in these nineteenth century novels, but this is not only true in the case of fiction. In every day life, the clothes we choose to buy and wear serve as signs – their semiotic meaning often deeper than we choose to explore. It’s interesting to analyse how and why the fashions we’ve accepted over time have come to be popular trends – particularly when in many cases this happens in spite of discomfort or impracticality.

    Dystopian writers often use the fashion of the future as literary plot devices or as signs that convey important about the societies they’re writing about. In the same way the fashion trends that emerge and re-emerge in real life may hold valuable information about our own societies.

    We’re already living in the future – whether it’s a little dystopian or not is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder – The fashion of the future then, is…probably whatever you’re wearing right now. What does it say about you?

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