Retro-futurism and its retro-futurist aesthetic impacts every corner of our world, from culture to media and art to design, technology, and fashion.
This article is a comprehensive Retro-futurism guide.
I’ll start by defining the Retro-futurism concept and the origin of its unique aesthetic, and how it draws inspiration from the factories, buildings, cities, and transportation systems of the early “machine age.”
We’ll then explore the main Retro-futurism themes, visuals, genres, and examples of its influence in contemporary art, literature, music, and fashion.
What is Retro Futurism?
Part utopian and part dystopian, Retro Futurism (also known as Retrofuturism, retrofuturistic, or retrofuture) is an artistic movement depicting how the future was viewed in the past.
Retro Futurism aesthetic depicts stylistic combinations of old-fashioned “retro styles” with futuristic technology; flying cars, zeppelins, laser guns, floating cities, tube transportation, time travel, the conquest of the galaxy, personal robots, and submarines.
“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.
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.
Driven by a general dissatisfaction with the present and the world today, retro-futurism has a good amount of nostalgia.
The Origin of Retro-Futurism
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.”
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 the creation of the first animal clone, this period was characterized by profound technological changes.
it was the time of question about the coexistence of past, present, and future in the light of preserving culture, history, and arts – without being crushed by accelerated technological progress.
But people also wondered in the 70s, 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.
The origin of Retro-futurism music is attributed to Kraftwerk’s 1970s albums combined futuristic pioneering electronic music with nostalgic visuals.
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 factories, buildings, cities, and transportation systems of the early “machine age” also inspired the early Retrofuturist concepts, art, literature, music, and fashion.
Nowadays, Retro-futurism is found in literature, architecture, design, movies, retro-futurism wallpaper, home decor, computer games, music, and fashion.
Retro-Futurism has two main trends: Proper Retrofuturism, the future as seen from the past, and Futuristic Retro, the past as seen from the future.
What do the ‘Back to Future 2’ sneakers and Elon Musk’s Cybertruck have in common? Retro-futurism inspires both, however, with a key difference.
‘Back to Future 2’ sneakers are a piece of ‘Proper Retrofuturism,’ an aesthetic trend depicting how previous generations thought their future might look like one day.
On the other hand, Elon Musk’s Cybertruck is ‘Futuristic Retro,’ an aesthetic trend that showcases how the past should have looked like, as seen from a not-so-far future.
A critical aspect of both retro-futuristic trends is that neither is time-bound.
The historical truth is preserved, but the future is always, as expected, of an imaginary nature.
1. Proper Retrofuturism
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.
2. Futuristic Retro
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, and movies, with futuristic technologies grafted onto it.
The aim is to create a mélange of past, present, and future elements.
Retro-futuristic aesthetic covers two key themes: Pre-Post Apocalyptic (dystopian) and Space Age Retro Futurism.
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.
1. Pre-Post Apocalyptic (Dystopian)
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 genres – heavily inspired by retro-futurism architecture.
2. Space Age Retro Futurism
The second central theme of retro-futurism aesthetics 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.
Retrofuturism can be separated into five main genres according to the depicted technological and cultural era: Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Atompunk, Dieselpunk, and Raygun Gothic.
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.
The movie has almost all the 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.
Two other genres worth mentioning here, part of the retrofuturist Cyberpunk aesthetic, are Synthwave and Vaporwave.
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.
Often debated on the retro-futurism Reddit page, Steampunk is an excellent example of both retrofuturistic 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.
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, found in the 1990s trends.
On the other hand, Steampunk describes a retrofuturistic universe incorporating technology and aesthetics inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machines.
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 films such as The Time Machine (1960) or Castle in the Sky (1986).
In essence, Steampunk puts the contemporary digital world into the Victorian age.
The most recent retrofuturistic genre is Dieselpunk.
Dieselpunk is also associated with ‘Decadence’ – a contemporary movement of Art Deco – but in a more sophisticated form.
Dieselpunk is infused with the alternate history of a different World War II, where the Axis claims victory.
As a retro-futurist design genre, Dieselpunk is often referenced in retrofuturism 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 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 hovercars 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 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.
5. Raygun Gothic
Raygun Gothic is a catchall term for a visual style incorporating 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.
The term first appeared in “The Gernsback Continuum,” 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 is most similar to the Googie or Populuxe styles:
- Originating in Southern California, Googie or Googie architecture describes retro-futurism architecture influenced by the emergence of cars, jets, Space, and Atomic ages.
- Populuxe 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.
Retro-Futurism in 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 and leotards paired with army-like plastic boots or futuristic sneakers.
Futuristic fashion plays on these now-hackneyed stereotypes and recycles them as elements to 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.
Most popular Retro-futurist Fashion Deginers
Below are four of the most famous fashion designers who used the concept of Retro-futurism in their fashion collections.
1. Pierre Cardin
Cardin called his 1964 collection “cosmocorps” – that’s because of the astronaut-like looks.
Think jumpsuits with asymmetrical zippers and stylistic elements replacing the stiffly-collared shirts, so fashionable in those times.
In 1969, NASA even commissioned Cardin to design a spacesuit of their own for actual space travel.
That being said, it was Courrèges’ founder, André — not Cardin — who’s widely considered the “father of Space Age fashion.”
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.
“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.”
2. Paco Rabanne
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.
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.
Most recently, Dior’s Pre-Fall 2022 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.
“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, a Senior Strategist at WGSN.
4. Marine Serre
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.
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.
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 aesthetics, culture, and fashion.
Keep up with the latest in fashion, beauty and style!
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?
Please leave your comments below; we appreciate and use them to learn, improve, and update our articles to a higher standard.
After years of managing hundreds of fashion brands from London's office of a global retailer, Mandy has ventured into freelancing. Connected with several fashion retailers and media platforms in the US, Australia, and the UK, Mandy uses her expertise to consult for emerging fashion brands create top-notch content as an editorial strategist for several online publications.