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Future Vintage: How The Unitard Became an Icon of Science Fiction

Guest post by Bryn Young-Roberts

With her choice in shockingly tight attire, Miley Cyrus may be making headlines at the moment, however when it comes to wowing audiences in a unitard science fiction film and TV were way ahead. Now gaining popularity with hipsters who want to stand out from the crowd, unique, tight-fitting one pieces are a growing presence in independent boutiques. In light of the emerging trend for snug future vintage clothing, we explore the history of tight, one-piece garments in science fiction and what secrets they may yet have to reveal.

But what is a unitard, exactly?

The leotard. The catsuit. A suspiciously snug boiler suit. These all can be identified under the umbrella term of Unitard.

The dictionary will have you believe the unitard is ‘a tight-fitting garment of stretchy material that covers the body from the shoulders to the thighs (and may have long sleeves or legs reaching down to the ankles); worn by ballet dancers and acrobats for practice or performance.’

Hollywood TV producers however, might define them in another way:

‘An item of clothing which emphasizes body parts of female leads in order to boost ratings with the 16-24 male viewing demographic’.

raquel welch fantastic voyageWhile tight-fitting clothes have been found clinging to women since the dawn of science fiction, developments in technology meant they became tighter and even more common from the 1960s onwards, with outfits emerging on screen that had previously been but impossible adolescent dreams in comic books beforehand. Raquel Welch’s appearance in a white futuristic one-piece in Fantastic Voyage (1966) is considered a landmark in unitard appreciation (or rather, what the unitard allows us to appreciate underneath).

Soon followed by Jane Fonda’s Barbarella (1968), by the late sixties the tight-fitting form had become a staple of science fiction film. Leaving little to the imagination, the sexy appeal of the clothing fit in well with the counter-culture Zeitgeist emerging onto cinema and TV screens. Even the supposedly reserved British were happy to parade their female heroes in body-hugging gear as viewers gawked upon numerous Dr Who (1963) companions / guest stars, and even purple haired beauties in UFO (1970).

ufo 1970By the late seventies viewing the female form in this manner was so commonplace that it had more or less become an integrated and expect facet of the genre. So used to seeing women dressed in this manner were we that even stronger female leads could be seen donning them instead of more ‘masculine’ clothing, as was standard practice in 20th century fiction. Although hardly second wave feminism, this allowed us to see ‘stronger’ characters such as Colonel Deering (Erin Gray), often act in a reverse gender role of ‘rescuing the maiden’ of Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers character each week in clothes that hid none of her femininity in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).

erin gray buck rogersThese ‘stronger’, yet figure-hugging clad female characters continued into the 1980s, although they soon developed into more film noir femme fatal types, with the dominant patriarchal viewership labelling women who simultaneously express their sexuality and assertiveness as villains, Blade Runner’s (1982) Pris (Darryl Hannah) and V’s (1984) wicked Diana (Jane Badler) serving as two examples.

As the exercise-obsessed culture of the time took hold and wearing skin-tight clothing became more common-place in real life, the 80s loosened its attitude to these sci-fi characters and seeing both male and female leads’ curves became the norm, whether they were heroes or villains. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character and Amber Mendez (Maria Conchito Alonso) wear tight one-pieces (with a sporting theme appropriate for the era, of course) in The Running Man (1987) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) not only has ship’s counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) revealing every centimetre of her body in a unitard, but all crew members, of both sexes (some of the male crew even wear skirt-like garments).

By the 1990s however, figure-hugging uniforms on Star Trek: The Next Generation were replaced with a one-piece which were less revealing, although suspiciously the Deanna Troi character’s remained for most of the entire series run. In a decade that saw Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) almost wear clothes in The Fifth Element (1997) and Star Trek shows were never off the air, tight-fitting apparel became…well…tighter!

As we entered the 21st century science fiction on prime-time TV flourished, while the genre on film also grew into a staple of the summer blockbuster schedule. With more space-themed audio-visual content being produced than ever before, the unitard had once again become an invisible item, part of the standard sci-fi kit. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix (1999) films, Rommie (Lexa Doig) in Andromeda (2000), Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), Charlize Theron in AEon Flux (2005), Gem (Beau Garrett) in Tron: Legacy (2010) and Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers (2012) would all don one-piece outfits that would have made us blush in the first part of the 20th century.

Interestingly, we are in the midst of another possible tight-fitting paradigm shift, as new designers are taking the old unitard concept and reinventing it for the next decade. In an era of the onesie, unitard fashion is once more entering the mainstream, not just on film, but in life. What is even more interesting is how they are finding inspiration from the older one-pieces of science fiction of years gone by. Rather than ignore their association with kitsch sci-fi, designers seem to be embracing it in a retro future vintage way that simultaneously acknowledges the past while catering to a whole new clientèle perhaps unfamiliar with what has gone before. One designer is even launching a collection based on Blade Runner and, if you can believe it, is already selling cat suits made of ‘ high quality holographic stretch fabric’  to a fashionable, hip, young customer base.

Reminiscent of when the unitard crossed over into popular culture in the 1980s, it will be fascinating to see how this development will impact upon screened science fiction and what direction it will take. Further to this is the emergence of 3D printing, which has already made some radical alterations to the world of fashion. With these two factors in mind, in addition to the fact that science fiction is more big-business than ever at the box office, it looks like the unitard is not only here to stay, but become more common-place and imaginative than ever before.

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