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Welcome to the (Asian) Retro Future
PH5 Fall 2022
Retrofuturism, an artistic movement based on how the past imagined the future, has been trending in fashion since the past year or so. Fueled in part by the collective nostalgia we had for futures that never materialized due to the pandemic, retrofuture-inspired looks continue to be a dominant theme on the runway this year.1
The retrofuturist aesthetic draws heavily on the Space Age designers - Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Andres Courreges - and their collections spanning the 1950s-1970s.2
I love the space age look. But I often wonder what it means for me, an Asian-American woman, to engage in aesthetics with Eurocentric origins. Cardin, Rabanne and Courreges were inspired by the global space race and thus their designs reflect a European/Western perspective of the era. Fashion is political; it matters who designs the clothes and who wears them.
Enter the PH5 FW22 lookbook Stay on Earth, which showcases a retrofuturist collection through a distinctly Asian paradigm (the designers and creative team are predominately, if not all, Asian). The collection is a reworking of Techno-Orientalist tropes, playing on Western anxieties about Asian futurity.
Is it possible to be othered across time? For almost a century already, the myth of an Asian-inflected future has infiltrated imaginations worldwide.3 - Dawn Chan
Let’s dive into the lookbook.
The models stand side by side in pastel dresses with a diaphanous organza layer. Styled with elbow length gloves and space bubble helmets outfitted with a pair of antenna, it’s an uncanny image. They appear to be aliens from space, visitors to our post-apocalyptic Earth.
The black and cerulean blue squiggle pattern stands out in these looks. It reminds me of Marine Serre’s futuristic crescent moon print in the black/blue colorway.
Unlike Serre’s “second skin” tees and leggings, these garments insulate the body like puffy cocoons. The padded coat and skirt combo is an easy comparison to astronaut gear, down to the sleek light gray moon boots. As an Asian woman with a bob and bangs, I see myself in these images. There is a clever subversion here in casting Asian models in the role of “aliens”, re-appropriating the perpetual foreigner/immigrant narrative.
This space age inspired styling is clear in the accessories. The purse looks like some sort of heat lamp or lantern. A mundane human technological object is alchemized into a stylish artifact-as-accessory. Think: telephone purses.
The poses are also worth analyzing in how they reference nonverbal animal communication. Presented in pairs, the models are shown dragging themselves from shore like slugs and touching finger-antenna as if to communicate (with one another or some sort of supernatural hive mind). Part humanoid, part gastropod.
This dive suit look with the water shoes is one of my favorites. It conjures images of the legendary Haenyeo divers of Jeju Island, who have been cited as fashion inspiration from emerging designers like Angel Chen on Next in Fashion to the runway - see Preen AW18.
These next photographs utilize props as symbols to distort time. Plastic dinosaurs represent the prehistoric, minimized into playthings for futuristic femme duo.
Action figures of Marvel characters lay at their feet. It’s an inversion of power dynamics: the male superheroes are infantilized and objectified as literal toys, ornaments in a tableau centering Asian women. It’s a reversal of the china doll stereotype. Speaking of Marvel, Mantis is an example of how Asian women are abused and dehumanized in sci-fi - interesting how the antenna are a core feature of her “alien-ness.”
Asian Women = The Original Cyborg
Techno-Orientalism imagines Asia as a futuristic dystopia. It dehumanizes Asian people by presenting them as robot-like technological objects in order to ease Western anxieties about being surpassed by the rise of Asia. This paranoid imagination places a Western protagonist, often as the figure of the space cowboy, at the center of the narrative and relegates Asian subjects to the background.4
Here’s a look set in an urban landscape. The whimsical pink jellyfish umbrella is a creative futurist interpretation of Asian parasol culture.
Art writer Mimi Wong discusses how Western futurist fantasies have long been projected onto the Asiatic female body - a body seen not as human, but the synthetic amalgamation of objectified parts.5 For cultural theorist Anne Anlin Cheng, that is what makes the “yellow woman”6 the original cyborg. The yellow woman’s specter, constructed and reproduced in culture, is the fulcrum that swings between “the human and the inhuman so fundamental to the dream of modernity.”7
The models pose in knit v-neck dresses, the hem and shoes creating a soft ombre effect. The sinuous bow tie across the chest evokes ribbony elements of East Asian traditional clothing - ex: hanfu, kimino, and hanbok. Plastic spoons held in a slanted position are a reference to Asian eyes as a racialized facial feature. The headpieces here are a visual hybrid between ornate traditional headpieces and mechanical EEG caps, a nice retrofuturist touch.
By reworking Techno-Orientalist tropes, this PH5 collection offers a subversive vision of Asian futurity.
After writing this, I had the urge to blast Rina Sayawama. Her songs are what I imagine the Asian retrofuture to sound like.
How do you define the Yellow Woman?
I find the term very painful. I’m using it deliberately because I wanted to denote the racialization of Asiatic women, one that is quite obvious and yet very underdiscussed. I’m also talking about a history of representation that is completely indifferent to what “Asian” or “Asian American” really means. What I’m talking about is an American view of Asiatic femininity. - Anne Anlin Cheng