How Blade Runner’s Rachael encapsulated a moment of fashion zeitgeist.

The 1980’s saw a rapid use of fashion as a declaration of modernity for women in the workplace through the emerging trend of power dressing. One of the earliest and most easily definable system of power dressing was seen in the 1930’s, through a fashion system that was established and perpetuated by Hollywood costume designers. Both of these eras represented a moment of striving to represent the truly assertive, modern and progressive woman by challenging expectation of the ‘feminine’ in silhouette and comportment. By drawing on the fashions that were artificially created for narrative and emotional purposes in the golden age of Hollywood, an element of mechanization of the body was created. This new formation of the feminine body in the work place was perfectly encapsulated in the iconic 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner. In its vision of a future fashion built on the past, developed in convergence with contemporary fashion trends rather drawing inspiration directly from them, Blade Runner managed to encapsulate a shared zeitgeist of the modern woman.

Blade Runner was a film that seemed like a surefire hit, with guaranteed-success director in Ridley Scott, freshly minted star Harrison Ford, and source of the most prestigious genre source work in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? With this strength in front of and behind the camera, a great amount of money and attention was directed into its production making it, at the time, one of the most conspicuously expensive science fiction films in cinema history. At its heart, Blade Runner was a noir detective story following Deckard (Harrison Ford as the titular ‘blade runner’) on an assignment to track down and destroy rogue replicants – androids that were faster, stronger and more intelligent than their human counterparts (Scott, 2007). These ‘replicants’ are near indiscernible from humans, bar a few specific tells. On his journey through the crowded, dirty and dangerous Los Angeles of 2019, Deckard comes across a woman named Rachael.

Sean Young as Rachael in ‘Blade Runner, costume designed by Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode.

Ambiguous, beautiful and impeccably dressed and beautifully coiffed, Rachael is ‘deployed’ from the shadows (Jermyn, 2005, p. 160) both against the audience and against Deckard like a femme fatale stepping straight out 1940’s noir cinema. Presented initially as a powerful human, a sharp and composed business woman in a vast and echoing office in the heart of the dubious and duplicitous Tyrell Corporation (the manufacturer of these replicants), it is revealed that she is, unwittingly, a replicant herself. Despite – or perhaps because of – Deckard’s mission to destroy wayward replicants a romance of sorts develops. Introduced wearing a suit with broad, heavily padded shoulders and a neatly trimmed waist exaggerated through horizontal panels in shades of grey, beige and metallic silver Rachael is a ‘futuristic heroine who was believable in the future but with her feet firmly planted in…[the] past’ (Lack, 2012). Costume designers Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode described this suit as ‘whacked out’ (Aftab, 2011) in its exaggerated angles, whilst remaining perfectly symmetrical. The lines of the suit blend a notion of careful construction and shadow into a recognisable silhouette that is, over the course of the film, deconstructed and softened as layers are removed.

The key influence in the overall costume aesthetic for the film was, logically, 1940’s noir detective stories, with Deckard clearly presented as a ‘Sam Spade gumshoe type’ (Lack, 2012). Developed through a lengthy pre-production process in 1980, the film saw the birth of the ‘retrofitted’ science fiction film (Sammon, 1996, p.74), building a future from pieces of the past in order to achieve an authentic reality of relatable detail. At the time this was a radical break from the b-movie pulp and French-influenced aesthetic that was widely favoured by science fiction in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, instead giving a relatability to the world and characters by rooting the setting and dress in the distantly familiar.

Futurist artist Syd Mead described the approach to designing Blade Runner as a natural, imagined continuation of the cycle of fashion, ‘you could take someone… and whisk him back to the Times Square 40 years ago… a contemporary man wouldn’t be puzzled by forties clothing since we’re seeing something of a resurgence of forties fashion…’ (cited Sammon, 1996, p.74). The conscious and direct construction of a future through the adoption of the past created a look that, while striking and perhaps new and innovative in this realm, managed to perfectly encapsulate a contemporary fashion moment in its extremity.

When it came to Blade Runner’s leading lady, Knode and Kaplan turned to the work of Adrian for MGM Studios in the 1930’s and 1940’s for inspiration, in particular the striking innovations developed for Joan Crawford. Costume designer Adrian spent his career developing and refining the feminine silhouette, and arguably came to define the ‘American look’ through his attempts to dress Crawford’s, at the time, unfashionable figure that was considered ‘archaic’ (Gutner, 2001, p. 112). Before long Adrian took the extreme measure of accentuating Crawford’s figure rather than disguising it with a‘ streamlined broad shoulder and tapered waistline,’ (Gutner, 2001, p. 9), often elevated through the use of stark contrasting panels and fabrics. This crucial design decision was declared by Edith Head herself in 1932 to be the most crucial contribution from Hollywood to American fashion (cited Gutner, 2001, p 103) allowing women to fully embrace and possess their own bodies (Holloway, 1994, p. 165).

Adrian was firm in the belief that what was designed for screen did not equate to fashion, stating, ‘There are some clothes that are not in good taste if worn off the set. They are put into the picture like futuristic scenery…’ (Nadoolman Landis, 2007, p. 75.) Despite this, Adrian worked to create costumes that read as real clothes, that contained character and had functional worth; he was noted for a distaste of other designer’s emphasis on dramatic moments captured in cloth rather than in consideration of the bodies wearing them and the experiences of real life. In this way, and in consideration of his innovation in cut to favour Crawford’s figure over pre-existing trends, Adrian created the truly modern style that many American woman coveted and had endlessly copied by affordable dress makers, eventually giving Crawford the nickname of ‘Most Copied Girl in the World’ (Berry, 200, p. 22). Again, Edith Head declared this ‘the spirit of modernity’ (cited Gutner, 2001, p. 104), a belief that MGM studios quickly capitalized on through advertising campaigns declaring the work of Adrian to be ‘a year ahead’ of fashions with the ‘Crawford Look’ (Gutner, 2001, p. 122.)

Adrian’s ‘futuristic furniture’ transcended the initial purpose of on-screen mood and character, taking on a life of their own on the street and dress shops. His silhouette became a reflection of a progressive country borne represented by actresses like Crawford and Katherine Hepburn. These women challenged the expectation of women on screen and in dress, meeting their male co-stars head-on both in performance and in dress through Adrian’s ‘adaptation of the masculine for the feminine’ (Berry, 2001, p. 156). These new silhouettes allowed women to carry themselves differently, allowing the physicality of the Hollywood star to enter the everyday as as increasing numbers of women of all classes began to enter the workplace to emulate their screen icons. A form of shifting androgyny that had been restricted by previous fashions emerged, causing great concern among conservatives about the role and proper presentation of women. In World War Two, Adrian’s sharply constructed suits became a staple allowing women to both remain smart, modern and unwaveringly American in identity whilst working within restrictive fabric rationing.

Following World War Two, Adrian’s silhouette, eventually overridden in popularity by the French-imported New Look with its rounded shoulders and padded hips, reappeared in the early 1980’s as women readopted the strong lines to tackle the work place in what became known as the ‘power suit’. The concept of power dressing – dress for success in the business place – was one that developed throughout the late 1970’s defining a workplace uniform of sorts that indicated proficiency and business acumen through the body. Its purpose was to render the body powerful and therefore suited to wield power. In its essence, it was a mechanization of the male body through tailoring. From this form of hyper-masculinity, the idiom of power dressing was assimilated by women looking to enter the workplace and achieve triumphant success on a par with their male peers (Holloway, 1994, p. 164) . The masculine lines of power dressing were feminized through softer fabrics applied to an exaggeration of the masculine silhouette through the strongly padded shoulder. By drawing directly from Adrian’s widely popularized 1930’s and ‘40’s silhouette, a new modern woman was defined for the evolving, increasingly technological workplace.

Although power-dressing was already in a state of evolution, the first ‘power suits’ for women began to appear on the catwalks in 1980 with Giorgio Armani’s 1981 spring/summer collection. Arguably a direct product of second wave feminism and its focus on women in the workplace, Armani described his womenswear collection as a response to a physical need for women rather than an act of feminism: ‘I soon realized that women, with their increasingly busy working lives, needed clothes that…. Would give them dignity, and attitude that helped them cope with their professional lives.’ (Gan, 2015).

Despite Armani’s insistence that the power suit was about comfort, this newly established fashion allowed women to visually declare themselves men’s equal in the work place. However, despite considerations of softer fabrics and tailoring lines, this was ultimately achieved by denying the feminized body and any potential or inherent sexuality that was inferred by the fact of being female. but without denying fundamental femininity. Masculinise tailoring was expected to ‘get ahead’ but it ought to be paired with soft blouses, scarves, considered accessories and, most definitely, the pairing of a tailored skirt to complete the suit (Entwhistle, 2015, p. 189). Contradictory, the skirt eroticises and creates a form of sexuality that would otherwise be hidden by an imposing male-gendered form of dress, allowing women to have their own authority and purpose in the workplace but without becoming overbearing or excessively imposing in what had traditionally been a male-dominated space. Even in assertion of self and self-worth through dress, a level of willing objectification and othering from the masculine was still expected. This manipulation and management of dress was expected of women engaging with power-dressing at this time almost rendered the wearer an androgynous and ambiguously defined cog in the machine of business.

The adaptation of male dress for the feminine body was an act of transformation that had an underlying purpose to truly modernize (Hollander, 1994, 190). The rapidity with which women were expected to dress through these exaggerated forms if they were to be taken ‘seriously’ created a form of sliding, uncomfortable androgyny  Elizabeth Wilson described this exaggeration of form in fashion as the ‘dissonance…. key to twentieth century style… the thirst for change and the heightened sensation that characterize the city societies… that make this modernity.’ (cited Breward and Evans, 2005, p. 6) These were fashions for an increasingly metropolitan and evolving world.

On it s release, Blade Runner, despite being a box office failure that critics were uncertain what to make of, had an immediate impact on the world of fashion. Vivienne Westwood cited the film as a key influence in her 1983 ‘Punkature’ collection, the oversized shoulder and plays on trenchcoat shapes a key feature throughout (Fard, 2017). The influence from Hollywood on fashion is inescapable; the expression of ideas and characters within a narrative being retrofitted themselves to suit a wider cultural moment. Fashion creates fiction, but fiction also creates fashion (Hancock et al, 2013, p. xi) However, more interestingly is that as Armani was preparing to send his first power suits down the catwalk in 1980, Rachael was already well into the process of being created in Blade Runner’s pre-production. The ‘retrofitted’ aesthetic of the masculine to the feminine through the extreme exaggeration of typically male silhouettes was, it seems, appearing near simultaneously both in fact and in fiction. This convergence in style inspiration suggestions that beyond the direct influence of created Hollywood costume on everyday fashion, instead they had come to share an inspirational moment about the role of women in the future. Fashion and art came to exist simultaneously, visibly expressing the zeitgeist of a new decade (Vinken, 2005, p.41).

In drawing liberally from the past to create a fashion that is, seemingly, new and relevant to the driving ambitions of the 1980’s working woman, a form of historicism is created that fuses and hybridises the immediate need of comfort and form through an act of preservation. The silhouettes of Adrian’s one-time ultramodern silhouette that had fallen to the wayside has, through the cycle of fashion, become once more modern. A new, evolving modernity that is a ‘method of effacing the past through its reanimation’ (Hancock et al, 2013, p.68), rather than a nostalgic historicism longing for a time past. This ‘reanimation’ creates a tension between the past and the present, the old and the new, in the individual that is, in many ways, an act of artifice: conscious historicism to evoke the new, powerful woman of the future, borne of second wave feminism.

This is mirrored in the tension between expectations of the feminine and masculine to exist simultaneously in the power suited woman. Through this fashion that lay balanced in its duality, women arguably alienated themselves from their own bodies (Vinken, 2005, 6). Fashion is in itself inherently and inevitably performative, and these conflicting dichotomies were reflected back to reality as Rachael stepped out of the shadows, suited and coiffed and ambiguous in her humanity. The artifice of the modern is suddenly elevated and made a statement beyond the intention of being equal to men in the workplace and it becomes something that is valuable.

That awkward tension that saw women simultaneously deny their sexuality by adopting the dress of men whilst carefully acknowledging and maintaining their femininity through ‘acceptable’ means is suddenly writ large in the vast extremity of her padded suit, tightly defined, pencil skirt waist. The unreality of this new workplace woman is made literal in this woman who is, it is revealed, not a real woman. (Brooker, 2005, p. 171). In her introductory scene Rachael is perfectly poised and polished in her presentation, not a flicker of emotion in her voice or expression despite Deckard’s interrogation. She is near statuesque in her perfect comportment, a composed mannequin. She is a commodity that has been presented to Deckard, and to the audience, for its consideration.

Vinker argues that fashion is an act of destruction, ‘the more ephemeral it is, the more perfect it is,’ (Vinker, 2005, p. 42) and so in this balance the closer fashion is to a perfect encapsulation of the future. Rachael, the perfectly dressed living mannequin (Vinker, 2005, p.47), is in herself an ‘inorganic other’ (Hancock et al, 2013, p. 47) that is, by the internal logic of the film and it’s presentation of ‘replicants’ that can only be destroyed by highly trained individuals, near indestructible. Her Adrian-style suit writ into extreme exaggerations contradictorily perfectly preserves the past in her own potential invincibility whilst simultaneously destroying it by being something utterly and literally new. Rachael’s dress forms her into the embodiment of that perfect balancing point between the past and the future, and so she comes to represent the present and contemporary fashionable women.

The cycle of fashion drawing inspiration from Hollywood through adaptation of costume to affordable and real world costume was one that was established and utilized by women across America since the 1930’s. Given the meaning and purpose imbued in dress explicitly designed to express a specific character, emotion or purpose in a specific and potentially aspirational moment, this influence is unsurprising. The dialogue between fantasy and reality in dress is inherent in the formation of the truly modern woman. The 1980’s power dressing movement, however, saw this cycle become a captured and shared moment. The zeitgeist of the created, essentially artificial woman who would stand equal to men in authority in the workplace was shared simultaneously between reality and fiction. Rather than creating a fiction of a fantastical and aspirational future, Blade Runner instead created a reflection of the contemporary woman in its presentation of Rachael. Rachael’s extreme suiting, exaggerated to ‘whacked out’ proportions mirrored the artifice with which women fashioned themselves for a new decade.



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Vinken, B. (2005), Fashion Zeitgeist, Trends and Cycles in The Fashion System, New York, Berg.

A professional costumier working in the UK film industry since 2010, I spend my working day helping to create costumes for screen and my free time over-analysing costume on screen. This blog is a collection of my meta and analysis. By marrying historical, pop cultural and professional knowledge I hope to share the nuance and narrative importance of costume. All thoughts are subjective and entirely my own.

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