Since emerging in the 80s, cyberpunk has more to it than cyborg movies and sci-fi video games
We have all heard of the cyberpunk aesthetic with its chrome details, leather ornaments, technology-inspired fabric design, spikes, shape-shifted cuts, and extraordinary use in patterns and colours. Even if, with recent games like Cyberpunk 2077 and movies like Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the aesthetic around futuristic elements in clothing seems to be a rather contemporary phenomenon, cyberpunk has its origins further back.
When it surfaced in the 1980s, cyberpunk started as a philosophical concept before it has merged into an aesthetic supported by, for instance, movies like Blade Runner (1982), Hackers (1995), Terminator (1984), and the Mad Max (1979) series. Important roles were also played by the French illustrator Moebius, the novel Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson, and the Japanese anime Akira (1988). According to them, a dystopian futuristic setting dominated by artificial intelligence, augmented reality and cyborgs – a fusion between a human being and a robot – is set as the idealistic environment of the cyberpunk movement.
Fashion and Philosophy
Aidan Ghoul, who has a degree in philosophy and interdisciplinary studies, cuts it down to the core by describing the philosophy behind cyberpunk as a certain nostalgia for the future and that new technology and the democratised internet are supposed to set us free. “Especially now that we’ve seen the course that history has taken ways that technologies have been used is so different from when people were writing cyberpunk manifestos, and it’s too late to retroactively go back and reclaim those technologies,” she says. On TikTok, Ghoul became successful by posting short explanatory videos about the history and analysis of specific fashion movements, starting from a philosophical point of view. She says: “We use vintage fashion all the time to evoke cultural memories and what we used to value and what we currently value as a society. Cyberpunk is a really good example because it was literally retro-futurism back in the 90s. Technology is not what we thought it could be, so that’s kind of what I meant for nostalgia.”
Like many other subcultural developments, cyberpunk had and still has a subtle yet significant influence on the fashion world. In the past, many high-fashion brands have used recognisable attributes of the cyberpunk movement in their designs. For instance, seen in the ’95 Fall Haute Couture collection by Thierry Mugler displaying seductive cyborg attire with elements of chrome and latex as well as the 2007 Spring/Summer collection by Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière featuring sci-fi inspired robot leggings. A rather recent example would be the Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2019 Couture fashion show featuring futuristic fabric design and metal face coverings.
S/S 2007 Balenciaga sci-fi inspired robot leggings via @astt_fashion
A contemporary take on the cyberpunk aesthetic is the science-fiction game Cyberpunk 2077 launched on December 10, 2020. Taking place in Night City, an open-world setting, the game has similarities to the world of Blade Runner, and influences of Japanese culture with distinctive futuristic attributes and full-on resembles the namesake aesthetic. Played in a first-person perspective, the mercenary called V can be customised according to personal preferences. Face, hairstyles, body modifications, background, and clothing can be adjusted by the player.
Talking to the founder of the website Cyberpunk404, which operates as a lookbook for Cyberpunk 2077 admirers, she amplifies the fashion of the game. “I think for me at least, it’s having that great blend of almost sci-fi futuristic textiles combined with bold and interesting new shapes and cuts of clothing articles. The simple yet very complex co-existence of very different textures and materials blended into one cohesive design is something Cyberpunk does well. It can be as simple as current-day fashion on one side and far beyond this realm on the other.” Apart from this, the game and its approach to the initial idea of cyberpunk experienced reasonable critique from the world outside of game enthusiasts.
Cyberpunk 2077 look book (cyberpunk404.net)
The monetisation of subcultures
At some point, almost every subculture has made its way into the mainstream, and the aesthetics and values that the movements had stood for had to give way to capitalism. This has also happened to other subcultures like grunge or the liberal hippie movement in the early 70s. The curator of the visual mood board @gastt_fashion, which features exceptional pieces in the history of fashion, takes a rather critical view of the development over the years: “I think we are at a point where cyberpunk (and even just punk in general) has been stripped of any political and/or philosophical value it might have held, and it has been reduced solely to its aesthetic qualities. It’s been heavily commodified – we frequently see it utilised as a component of advertising campaigns to market and sell various products and media.”
A specific example for this phenomenon would be Elon Musk – also known as currently trying to maintain the title for the richest man in the world – promoting not only the beforementioned game Cyberpunk 2077 but also his Tesla sales through the game. Aidan Ghoul agrees: “The commodification of those aesthetics, especially exploited by fast fashion brands, means there is nothing revolutionary about it anymore.”
The cyberpunk movement definitely has its right to exist in the past as well as in the contemporary fashion world, but it has to be considered that every subcultural movement will be diluted through the mainstream market caused by the concept of capitalism. The owner of @gastt_fashion elaborates on this by saying: “Any philosophy aligned with a punk ethos should, at the very least, maintain anti-establishment positions. It’s just another buzzword marketing teams can use to communicate that their product is edgy and futuristic.” On the other hand, as the founder of Cyberpunk404 adds, taking the technological aspect to another level, it can lead to unanticipated scenarios where: “tomorrow’s fashion designer superstar might just be bits of 1s and 0s working its magic.”
In the closer future, early adopters might bring the already established y2k style to the next level and adapt pieces from movies like Hackers. Aidan Ghoul says: “Maybe cyberpunk, and more specifically vintage cyberpunk, is becoming more popular than the classic y2k sooner or later.” As seen on many subcultural movements and trends before, the change of one’s aesthetic is heavily influenced by society and its structures, leading to a reappearance of certain tendencies of fashion through the years over and over again.