Cyberpunk Fashion: Sci-fi, anime, gaming, television, film, and beyond
Science fiction is an expanding genre characterized by speculative scenarios involving significant future discoveries, scientific innovations, and technological developments. Along with its numerous subgenres, it provides fans with an array of themes and motifs, fantastical beings, and settings ranging from Earth to outposts at the edge of space or the end of time, and even virtual worlds. One particular subgenre that stands out for its innovative nature as well as its unique and visually striking presentation is cyberpunk
Rooted in the 60s and 70s’ New Wave of sci-fi, and inspired by the emerging hacker culture of the 80s as well as some aspects of drug culture, cyberpunk was defined and developed by authors like Bruce Bethke, Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling. Famously described as “high tech, low life,” cyberpunk typically explores dystopian or near-dystopian futures in which advancements in engineering and technology have collided with societal development to create some level of dysfunction.
Cyberpunk has an idiosyncratic look to it. Because it’s often inspired by densely populated cities such as Tokyo in Japan or Shanghai in China, it usually mimics the tech-heavy and advertisement-prone natures of these cities. Furthermore, cyberpunk societies appear to have high levels of cultural hybridization and pluralism; individuals in these societies often range from suit-and-tie corporate types to countercultural nihilists. Much of cyberpunk fiction, however, leaves the daywear of its characters to the imagination of readers.
At least some works in the genre have elucidated the looks of the citizens of their cyberpunk societies. In Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson’s near-future novel set in 2035, we get a glimpse of some of the characters’ clothes and hairstyles. “She wore mirrored glasses. Her clothes were black, the heels of her black boots deep in the temper foam,” we read of Molly Millions, a cyborg blade-for-hire who develops a close relationship with the novel’s main character.
“The glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag. The fingers curled around the fletcher were slender, white tipped with polished burgundy. The nails looked artificial.” Note that the mentioned “fletcher” is a needlegun and not an accessory or a piece of clothing. Her ability to extend and retract blades from beneath her nails—an example of the bodily augmentations common in cyberpunk fiction—adds a menacing and even darker quality to her character.
Molly’s inset lenses bring another character to mind, this time from a Japanese media franchise described as “post-cyberpunk,” Ghost in the Shell. White-haired Batou, one of the primary characters of the franchise that began in 1989 and ran until 1991 as a serialized manga series of the same name by Masamune Shirow, has circular, cybernetic eyes that look almost like bottle caps. But far more interesting for her outward appearance is the protagonist of the series, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg and member of a hi-tech intelligence agency, counter-terrorist organization, and police force.
In the manga, Kusanagi is typically limited to business attire when off-mission. However, there are also instances when Kusanagi can be seen wearing dark, futuristic military gear, including a padded and buckled black leather jacket with knee-high jackboots as well as a purplish-black bodysuit contrasted by a pair of yellow, blue-trimmed combat boots. Kusanagi’s appearance seems to indicate, as is stereotypical of sci-fi in the popular imagination, that synthetic fibers and other artificial solids, especially textiles similar to rubber or latex or hard plastics, will have an ever greater place in the future fashion, and at least future tactical gear.
Both the manga and Oshii’s anime adaptations, she is sometimes shown wearing a distinctive bomber jacket with rolled sleeves and glovelettes. Oshii also tends to depict the Major in darker everyday wear, and, during battle, in gray-black bullet-resistant armor combined with boots and some kind of greaves—perhaps metallic or polymeric material—tights, and an augmented-reality headset to give the look a definitive future chic. (Kusanagi wears a similar, all-black form of armor with a beveled breastplate, bracers, and pauldrons in the manga’s second installment.)
Indeed, cyberpunk characters often display some sort of intriguing augmentations, making use of either changes to their physical bodies or novel implements attached to their clothing. Take Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the cyberpunk action game series Deus Ex’s third and fourth installments, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016). As a former SWAT officer, he has many implants and a number of bodily augmentations, notably a pair of gunmetal-colored bionic arms which reach up to his shoulders and upper chest, contrasting his pale skin and smooth torso. Continuing with the trope of glasses without temples to hold them to the head, Jensen has inset shades that attach to implants underneath his eyes.
Because certain cyberpunk short stories, novels, and films with a detective or mystery genre have been received with popular acclaim in the last several decades—notably Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner films and the novel-turned-Netflix series Altered Carbon (2018)—cyberpunk continues, in many cases, to be conflated with most futuristic mystery or crime fiction, and thus is overlapped by hi-tech expressions of neo noir. Indeed, the steamy streets, quiet musings over lonely bar tops, trench coats, and curling wafts of cigarette smoke common in noir are not unfamiliar in a cyberpunk cityscape, though settings may be heavily modified to suit sci-fi motifs.
In 1982, Blade Runner’s main character, Rick Deckard played by Harrison Ford, wears a tan trench coat, khaki slacks, and a speckled or striped button-down with a tie. His look is rather unremarkable and consistent with what we’d expect from a detective in a film from the early 80s. However, most of the other characters in the film actually do stand out. For example, the movie’s central antagonist, the android or “replicant” Roy Batty played by Rutger Hauer, sports an almost wraparound dark, double-breasted coat with a strangely tall and thick collar and rather showy belt.
Batty’s cohort, Priscilla “Pris” Stratton played by Daryl Hannah, juxtaposes Deckard’s unassuming attire with a flamboyant blond punk rock tease, coupled with a studded choker, black mesh shirt, leopard-print jacket, torn leggings and, later, a heavy caking of white foundation alongside a thick stripe of black eyeshadow - infusing the film with cyberpunk fashion. Deckard’s acquaintance and colleague, Eduardo Gaff played by Edward J. Olmos, also adds a strange, intriguing touch to the movie’s wardrobe with his cliche trench coat, fedora, bow tie, a button-down and waistcoat combo, and a signature walking cane.
By contrast, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) gives its “punks” tattered clothing, but nothing notably transgressive. It’s perhaps more worth mentioning the attire of the prostitutes who approach the film’s main character, Officer K played by Ryan Gosling. Actually, most of 2049’s cast sports fairly contemporary commonplace clothing or very sleek designs. The latter category mostly applies to the wealthy, namely antagonist Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, and his gynoid enforcer Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Wallace usually wears either a near-black three-piece suit, or a white-trimmed black top which appears similar to a kimono. Luv is sometimes shown donning a perfectly smooth, pure-white, knee length dress with a centered waist sash.
It would take a lot longer than these few thousand words to get a truly comprehensive view of fashion in cyberpunk media, just as science fiction is an expanding genre characterized by speculative scenarios involving significant future discoveries, scientific innovations, and technological developments – so is cyberpunk fashion.