The Future of Fashion Never Looks How We Imagine It Will

Le Sortie de l’Opéra en l’An 2000, by Albert Robida, circa 1882, predicts the year 2000. Photo: Library of Congress

“The clothes that I prefer are those that I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet — the world of tomorrow,” said Pierre Cardin, the designer whose ’70s-designed, futuristic Bubble Palace on the French Riviera served as the setting for Dior’s resort collection this spring. But fashion has a funny way of predicting a world of tomorrow that never actually comes to pass.

Sixties designers like Cardin, along with André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne, thought we’d be dressing like kicky astronauts come the 21st century, when in reality our space shuttles have been grounded and we’re all wearing jersey separates from Uniqlo. Courrèges went further: A room above his studio was called his “secret laboratory,” and his wife designed bubble-shaped electric cars to accessorize his Jetsons dresses.

By the time the much-heralded year 2000 rolled around, things were even more muddled. That year, downtown Minneapolis played host to the “Brave New Unwired World” fashion show. While the mock gadgetry correctly predicted the wearable-tech side of things — people would, in fact, spend the ensuing decade and a half edging closer and closer to the handheld internet — they got the fashion angle all wrong. Shiny silver Star Trek vests, orblike belts, and the rest of the Web 1.0 cyberchic on display have been supplanted by our beloved athleisure.

But in the end, it’s not about being right. Fashion predictions tell us a lot more about our present than our future — about our hopes and fears for the world to come, not just what we’ll wear in it. And there’s a certain pleasure in our utter unpredictability.

Perhaps the only designer to tackle the past and the future in one garment is Hussein Chalayan. For his spring-summer 2007 collection, he created animatronic dresses that cycled through every permutation of 20th-century silhouettes with the precision of a gavotte. An arch wink at our ongoing obsession with the next next thing, the dresses mutated from corseted Gibson Girl to flapper, through Dior’s New Look and Rabanne’s Barbarella moment, and ended, finally, with nudity.

*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Fashion Never Looks How We Imagine It Will