Retro Futurism Explained – Definition, Aesthetic, Fashion Examples (2021)

Retro-futurism for everyone; what do the ‘Back to Future 2’ sneakers and Elon Musk’s Cybertruck have in common?

Both are Retro-futurism inspired creations, however, with a key difference.

‘Back to Future 2’ sneakers are a piece of ‘Proper Retrofuturism,’ an aesthetic depicting how previous generations thought their future might look like one day.

back to the future 2 nike sneakers

On the other hand, Elon Musk’s Cybertruck is ‘Futuristic Retro,’ an aesthetic that attempts to show how the past should have looked like, as seen from a not-so-far future.

Tesla cybertruck futuristic retro

The retro-futurist aesthetic impacts every corner of the world we live in; from culture to media, and from art to design, technology, and fashion.

This article is a comprehensive Retro-futurism guide.

I’ll start by detailing the origin of Retro futurism, and the definition of this unique aesthetic.

We’ll then explore the main Retro-futurism themes, visuals, and genres, and the best examples of Retro-futurism right now, in 2021.

We’ll then look at the Retro-futurist aesthetic and how it draws inspiration from the factories, buildings, cities, and transportation systems of the early “machine age” to influence contemporary art, literature, music, and fashion.

We’ll continue with the top retro-futuristic genre right now, such as Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and so on.

Finally, we’ll explore the role of Retro-futurism in Fashion, from the early days until now, and see which are the most influential Retro-futurism designers of our times.




What is Retro Futurism?

Retro Futurism (also known as Retrofuturism, retrofuturistic, or retrofuture) is an artistic movement that depicts stylistic combinations of old-fashioned “retro styles” with futuristic technology.

Part utopian and part dystopian, the shortest retrofuturism definition is:

A cultural movement depicting how the future was viewed in the past: flying cars, zeppelins, laser guns, floating cities, tube transportation, time travel, the conquest of the galaxy, personal robots, and submarines.

Retrofuturism was born as a skeptical approach to futurists’ dreams and fevered visions of flying cars, robotic servants, space colonies, and interstellar travel.

While overall positive, Retrofuturism also explores themes of potential tension between past and future and the alienating effects of technology on humanity.

Retro-futurism in 1940s
Air travel for the Marco Polos of tomorrow! 1940’s. Image courtesy: Reddit

Retrofuturism can be separated into several genres, each according to the depicted technological and cultural era.

The most popular retrofuturist genres are cyberpunk, steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, and raygun gothic.

Driven by a general sense of dissatisfaction with the present and the world today, there is a good amount of nostalgia in retro futurism.




Who Invented Retro Futurism?

The retro futurism meaning is linked to its earliest use, as recorded by the history books.

The first time the retro-futurism term appeared was in a Bloomingdale advertisement, in a 1983 issue of The New York Times.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the advert describes jewelry of “silverized steel and sleek grey linked for a retro-futuristic look.

Retro futurism in New York Times, 1961
An Art Almanac Sunday, New York Times, December 24, 1961, P. 14

However, the genre’s birth can be traced back to the 70s retro futurism vibes, when technology was changing the world fast.

From the advent of the personal computer to creating the first animal clone, this period was characterized by profound technological changes.

Retro Futurism 1970s
The Luigi Colani office chair, 1970. Image courtesy: Reddit

Times of question about how the coexistence of past, present, and future in the light of preserving culture, history, arts – without being crushed by the accelerated technological progress.

But they also wondered, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, at the scientific positivism evinced by earlier generations.

These fantasies depicted how our grandparents used to see a not-so-distant future, eventually becoming the subject of retro futurism artwork.

Nowadays, Retrofuturism is found in literature, architecture, design, movies, retro futurism wallpaper, retro futurism decor, computer games, music, and fashion.





Retro Futurism Themes

The most modern concepts of retro futurism design blend cultural elements of the past with pop culture, concepts of scientific progress, innovative technology, and lots of science-fiction aesthetics,

Said Charlotte Casey, senior strategist at WGSN, a trend-forecasting agency.

However, regardless of the constituent elements used to describe a retrofuturistic vision, all of them cover two main themes:

  1. Proper Retrofuturism: The future as seen from the past.
  2. Futuristic Retro: The past as seen from the future.

PROPER RETROFUTURISM

Retro Futurism Los Angeles
L.A. 2013. Los Angeles Magazine, April 3, 1988. Image courtesy: Reddit.

The first trend, Proper Retrofuturism, is inspired by the writers, artists, and filmmakers of the 60s and their visions of the future.

When explored now, in modern times, those futuristic visions confer a nostalgic feeling of what the future might have been but is not.

FUTURISTIC RETRO

Futuristic Retro
Futuristic Retro Ads by McClay Design. Image courtesy: mcclaydesign.com

The second trend, futuristic retro, is the inverse of the first.

It is built on an appeal of old styles of retro futurism art, clothing, movies, with futuristic technologies grafted onto it.

The aim here is to create a mélange of past, present, and future elements, often found in fashion styles.

Often debated on the retro futurism Reddit page, Steampunk is an excellent example of both trends:

Proper Retrofuturism – by ‘infusing’ futuristic technology into past events to create, for example, an alternative Victorian age.

Futuristic retro – by using old Georgian styles in a modern technology context to create futuristic looks of a neo-Georgian flavor.

Wild Wild West Steampunk
Steampunk-inspired outfit by the Wild Wild West Movie (1999). Image courtesy: Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention

It is hard to distinguish the lines separating these trends in fashion as both contribute to a similar retro-futurist vision.

Another critical aspect to both retrofuturistic trends is that neither is time-bound.

Whenever a time period is used in a story, the historical truth is preserved, but the future is always, as expected, of an imaginary nature.





Retro Futurism Aesthetic

Early Retrofuturist concepts drew inspiration from art, literature, music, and fashion from the factories, buildings, cities, and transportation systems of the early “machine age.”

The fashion industry tapped into the retrofuturist aesthetic depicted by Kraftwerk’s 1970s albums, combining futuristic pioneering electronic music with nostalgic visuals.

Retro Futurism Aesthetic by Kraftwerk 1970s albums
Kraftwerk 1970s albums depicting Retro Futurism aesthetic. Image courtesy: thevou.com

Kraftwerk’s retro-futurist visual imagery and language, as expressed in their 70s albums, has been referred to by the Irish-British music scholar Mark J. Prendergast as “nostalgia for the future.

Prendergast went further explaining that the imagery describes a futuristic progressive Germany that never was but could have been, and now, thanks to Kraftwerks’ work, could – hopefully – happen one day.”

The color schemes of the retro futuristic aesthetic cover two key themes:

Pre-Post Apocalyptic Aesthetic

Pre-post apocalyptic retro futurism aesthetic
ACROPOLIS by J.Otto Szatmari. Image courtesy: artstation.com

The first theme explores black and dark shades of grey, brown, and dirty white.

Often called pre-post apocalyptic styles and colors, these are more prevalent in Steampunk and Cyberpunk genre – heavily inspired by retro futurism architecture.

Space Age Retro Futurism Aesthetic

Retro futurism Aesthetic of 1950s Space AgeTM cover, Russia 1953
TM cover, Soviet Russia, 1953. Image courtesy: Reddit

The second central theme of retro futurism aesthetic explores the Nuclear Age and Space Age styles and colors.

There are lots of polished silver, metallic elements, and impractical whites that would be difficult to keep clean in the often “very dirty present” of the nineteen-fifties.

Nevertheless, both aesthetics follow a shared adoration of the future: steam cars, electricity, flying cars, laser guns, personal computers, futuristic architecture, and furniture, beautifully reflected in clothes.





Retro Futurism Genres

Some of the most popular genres of Retrofuturism are Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Atompunk, and Raygun Gothic, each depicting a potential future from a specific time.

CYBERPUNK
(Synthwave & Vaporwave)

Cyberpunk retro futurism aesthetic

Originating in the early 80s Cyberpunk, was the first to be recognized as a retro-futurist genre.

Compared to other genres, Cyberpunk describes a dystopian future or a post-apocalyptic world helped by outlaws hacking the futuristic machines controlling humanity.

If you are looking for a quick explanation of Cyberpunk, watch the 1982 Blade Runner movie – see the Blade Runner 1982 poster below.

Blade Runner 1982 movie
Blade Runner, 1982

The movie has almost all characteristics of the cyberpunk genre, from architecture to fashion and back.

The post-apocalyptic variant is associated with Retrofuturism, as the characters recourse to a mixture of old and new technologies to survive.

As a retro-futurist powered aesthetic, the Cyberpunk clothing style is one of the richest and most loved in streetwear fashion.

Two other genres worth mentioning here, part of the retrofuturist Cyberpunk aesthetic, are Synthwave and Vaporwave, more recently seen transgressing into Fairy Grunge clothing.

STEAMPUNK

Steampunk retro futurism aesthetic

The second retrofuturist genre recognized as a genre of its own was Steampunk.

Although the steam engine was invented in the 18th century by James Watt, steam was a symbol of progress throughout the nineteenth century, and that is the time Steampunk is aiming at.

The steampunk genre has a distinguished aesthetic compared to Cyberpunk.

The cyberpunk genre encompasses the theme of “high tech – low life” fears of the late 80s.

On the other hand, Steampunk describes a retrofuturistic universe that incorporates technology and aesthetics inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machines.

The Time Machine, 1960, retro futurism
The Time Machine, 1960

In that light, Steampunk references electricity as a mysterious force considered the power source of the future.

Electricity is also regarded as possessing mystical healing powers, similar to how nuclear power was perceived around the middle of the 20th century.

The genre builds on H. G. Wells and Jules Verne’s utopic novels, key literature such as Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone (1959) and Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb (1967), and with films such as The Time Machine (1960) or Castle in the Sky (1986).

In essence, Steampunk takes the contemporary digital world and puts it into the Victorian age.

DIESELPUNK

Dieselpunk retro futurism aesthetic

The most recent retrofuturistic genre is Dieselpunk.

The term Dieselpunk is also associated with Decodence – a contemporary movement of Art Deco – but in a more sophisticated form.

Dieselpunk covers the 1920s to 1950s, and it is infused with the alternate history of a different World War II, where the Axis claims victory.

The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk by Sean Wallace
The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk by Sean Wallace

As a retro futurism design genre, Dieselpunk is often referenced in retro futurism interior design, cinematic styles of film noir, and German expressionism.

In a more complex way, Dieselpunk’s graphic design recalls earlier aesthetics of optimistic futurism and popular culture, blended with formal symmetries and futuristic temporalities.

ATOMPUNK

Atompunk retro futurism aesthetic

Atompunk is an aesthetic centered around a view of the future from the perspective of the 1950s.

Atompunk envisions a utopian future characterized by bubble domes, glittering cities, and hover cars for everyone, all powered by nuclear energy.

Atompunk styles and fashion draw inspiration from the SCI-FI magazines and movies of the 50s-60s, their vision of the future, and the “traditional American values,” nuclear family, and suburban lifestyle.

Atompunk retro futurism aesthetic: Paris in 20th Century
The Lost Novel: Paris in the 20th Century by Jules Verne, 1997

Atompunk has a distinct, brightly-colored art style.

The genre is depicted on t-shirts adorned with graphics invoking the covers of pulp SCI-FI comic books of those times – which can also be sexually suggestive at times.

RAYGUN GOTHIC

Raygun Gothic Retro Futurism Aesthetics

Raygun Gothic is a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retrofuturistic science fiction environments.

Raygun Gothic is mainly used and applied in SCI-FI images.

Raygun Gothic retro futurism aesthetic

The term first appeared in “The Gernsback Continuum” is a 1981 science fiction short story by American-Canadian author William Gibson.

The “Gernsback” in the title alludes to Hugo Gernsback, an American pulp SCI-FI magazine pioneer of the early 20th century.

Raygun Gothic The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson
Amazing Stories Pulp January published by Gernsback, 1928

Raygun Gothic is most similar to the Googie or Populuxe styles:

  • Originated in Southern California, Googie, or Googie architecture describes a type of retro futurism architecture influenced by the emergence of cars, jets, Space, and Atomic ages.
  • Populuxe term is a portmanteau of ‘popular and luxury,’ used to describe a consumer culture and aesthetic popular in the United States in the 50s and 60s.

Populuxe gained traction after people began seeing semi-luxury commodities as luxury ware and mass consumer goods.





What is Retro Futurism Fashion?

Retro futuristic clothing describes garments created to depict an imagined vision of what people might have worn in the distant future.

The cliché of futuristic clothing has now become part of the idea of Retrofuturism.

Retro-futurist fashion is mainly driven by past media creations depicting the garments of the future as either dystopian survival kits or space travel uniforms.

Most retro-futurist fashion pieces are created as skin-tight garments, leotards, often paired with army-like plastic boots.

Futuristic fashion plays on these now-hackneyed stereotypes and recycles them as elements into creating real-world clothing fashions.

For the last 20 years, fashion has reviewed the times of past, decade by decade. What we see now is a combination of different eras into one complete look,

explains Nathalie Kirsheh, Creative Director at Glamour magazine.

And Nathalie is correct, as each retro-futurist fashion apparel tends to follow a historical theme of a particular era, augmented to accommodate a contemporary context.





Retro-Futurist Fashion Examples

PIERRE CARDIN

Pierre Cardin's 1969 collection, in the exhibition “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion.”
Pierre Cardin’s 1969 collection, in the exhibition “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion.”

In a 1964 collection, Cardin even deemed it “cosmocorps,” with his astronaut-like garments — think jumpsuits with asymmetrical zippers — replacing the stiffly-collared shirts then currently en vogue.

In 1969, NASA even commissioned Cardin to design a spacesuit of their own for actual space travel.

Pierre Cardin Moon Uniform for Nasa
Pierre Cardin’s Moon Uniform for Nasa, 1969

That being said, it was Courrèges’ founder, André — not Cardin — who’s widely considered the “father of Space Age fashion.”

Andre Courreges 1964 collection
Andre Courreges 1964 collection. Image courtesy: Kurita Kaku/Gamma-Rapho (Getty Images)

But Cardin did something that even his closest colleagues did not, and that was to intentionally sell the future as a truly better, more inclusive place.

Pierre Cardin 1964 retro futurism collection
Raquel Welch wearing an outfit from Pierre Cardin’s 1964 collection. Image courtesy: Terry O’Neill – Iconic Images

“He was an idealist, but I don’t think he was selling escapism,” says Ruth La Ferla, a New York Times reporter who wrote Cardin’s obituary for the paper. “People who now refer to him are indulging an escapist mentality because God knows we need a change.”

PACO RABANNE

Paco Rabanne polished chainmail 1967

Today, you may recognize retro-futurism Paco Rabanne’s polished chainmail.

Since joining the Parisian label as a freelancer in 2013, designer Julien Dossena has been tasked with returning Paco Rabanne to its ’60s heyday.

Once beloved by the likes of Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy, the brand had diverged from the now-retro chainmail minis that had made it a Space Age staple.

Paco Rabanne 2018 retro futurism collection
Paco Rabanne 2018 retro futurism collection

But in September 2018, Dossena reeled it back in, debuting a sophisticated collection that was every part of Jane Jetson’s fantasy.

Similarly, in Paris, Maria Grazia Chiuri returned to graphic, mod references, and transparent, reflective fabrics that recall the original positivity of retro-futurism.

DIOR

Dior Haute Couture spacesuit in 2006

Most recently, Dior’s Pre-Fall 2021 range dives into the sort of groovy youthfulness

And just like Cardin once did, contemporary designers are craving the sort of optimism that only the idealistic future can provide.

Dior pre-fall 2021 collection
Dior pre-fall 2021 collection

The spirit of retro-futurist fashion acts as an antidote to uncertain times. That is because it embodies ideas of freedom, liberation, and hope that the future is exciting and full of potential,

says Nathalie Kirsheh.

Modern retro-futuristic ideas embody utopian simplicity reimagined with honed levels of comfort, as well as a sense of fun that offsets the global pandemic.

It is this retro-futurist simplicity that aligns beautifully with the consumer’s growing interest in comforting nostalgia,

completes Julia Skliarova, Senior Strategist at WGSN.

MARINE SERRE

Marine Serre retro futurism collection

It is in human nature to use the future to plop one’s complex hopes and dreams.

As such, retro-futuristic fashion isn’t always so cheery.

However, in the process, pieces of nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist, become fetishized as we see in Marine Serre’s creations and her alien unitards.

Marine Serre Apocalyptic 2020 collection
Marine Serre Apocalyptic 2020 collection

Serre’s complex and ambivalent vision blends retro futuristic tropes such as sleek minimalist shapes with upcycled fabrics and sustainable messages.

Serre’s unique presentations explore catastrophic scenarios caused by climate change and the dangers of environmental destruction.

Many more retro-futuristic designers are worth mentioning here, such as Jacquemus, Rick Owens, Damir Doma, Rei Kawakubo, Patou, and Nina Ricci.





Conclusion

Retro Futurism is constantly morphing and shaping genres constructed by and constructing aesthetics in the future while implementing minor aesthetics and current visions in consumer culture.

As such, new genres will continue to appear and shape our idea of retro-futurism aesthetic, culture, and fashion.

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Now it’s your turn…

Which retro-futurism genre is your favorite and why?

Are there any other great examples of retrofuturism fashion, architecture, or artwork you’d like to add to this list?

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