Chrome and Matte Black: Cyberpunk’s Speculative Posthuman Fashions
I think it’s fair to say the current cyberpunk dystopia is producing different fashion choices from chrome and leather punk styles, even while it fulfills the promise of commodity-driven hyper-modernity central to the genre. Fashion is an important part of cyberpunk.
As a genre concerned with clothing, commodity, and personal style, cyberpunk texts do a lot of important character work and worldbuilding through details like Deckard’s trench-coat or Zhora’s see-through raincoat and thigh-high boots. I’ve written about cyberpunk fashion twice now:
First, in a co-authored chapter in Cyberpunk and Visual Culture (2018), with Josh Pearson, where we talked about fashion and the humanity cost mechanic in the tabletop role playing game Cyberpunk 2020, and again in The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, where I outlined the influences between cyberpunk texts and textiles in street fashion and club fashion as well as the ways fashion designers take up cyberpunk themes and iconography in the highly commoditized world of runways and fashion lines. In both cases, I argued that fashion itself is a speculative practice: a future-oriented, constantly shifting set of speculative assumptions about the future of social expression and posthuman embodiment.
Fashion is usually seen as too frivolous to be a good example of posthuman subjectivity. As N. Katherine Hayles wrote, “if my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality.” (5). I actually think that the “nightmare” part of Hayles’ nightmare scenario is one of the things that makes fashion such a productive topic for posthumanism. Fashion theorist Anne Hollander points out that “fashion in dress is committed to risk, subversion, and irregular forward movement” (Sex 14-15). Extending these risks and subversions and nightmarish transformations of the body into an accessory to the precariously embodied, socially alienated cyberpunk highlights the ways that all fashion and clothing can be read as posthuman constructions—hybrid bodies that use textiles as a technology to merge the human and the nonhuman. Fashion relies on this fetishistic combination of human bodies with inorganic matter for its sense of futurity, acceleration, and risk. And, as anyone who has worn a corset can attest, clothing is a technology that changes the shape of the body—wearing clothes one of the simplest ways to become a cyborg.
I’ve previously focused on cyberpunk clothing, but for my example for today I’m going to use make-up as a similarly posthuman fashionable prosthesis, looking specifically at a recent series put on by a group of video producers for the gaming website polygon.com. Polygon, a subsidiary of Vox media, publishes web content on gaming and pop culture, including video content. Their videos are a mix of entertainment and reviews, and, as is typical for youtube, make a spectacle out of the creators’ personalities and personableness—their friendships are an important selling-point for the content they produce. In conjunction with the release of trailers for the forthcoming videogame Cyberpunk 2077 (which will come out…. eventually), four of these video producers made a two hour video of themselves playing a one-shot game of Cyberpunk Red (because we’re too cool for dates now, apparently), the pen and paper version of the game.
Jenna Stoeber is the Game Master, running the story and world, and she’s joined by Simone de Rochefort as Dapper Dasha, Patrick Gill as Burger Chainz, and Brian David Gilbert as Vang0 Bang0. As you can see, the characters they’ve designed are already preoccupied with fashion, presentation, and personal style—Dasha has extensive plastic surgery to look exactly like a young Winona Ryder, and all of the characters have very distinctive (and very goofy) looks. Additionally Vang0 Bang0 is an unsuccessful forum moderator and video producer himself, who’s lack of style and charisma prevent him from gaining fame and influence in the cyberspace of this world and serve as an ongoing meta joke for these players.
Polygon has recently continued this video series with a new mystery, investigating a break-in at a warehouse where the surveillance cameras were tricked into shutting down just long enough for the perpetrators to steal a selection of make-up. Clues at the scene lead to M House, a video collective for cyberpunk make-up designs. Many of the members of the collective are using make-up as a posthuman technology—Tiberius+Luke create horror movie make-up, using prosthetics and fake blood to monstrously transform the human body into something inorganic, hybrid, and corpse-like; Plastic Freckles uses make-up to make models with extensive plastic surgery look “natural,” creating fake blemishes and skin tones not necessarily as a disguise for botched plastic surgeries, but as a way of playing with simulacrum and simulation. The players infiltrate M House by drawing on Vang0’s parasocial knowledge—a high dice roll determines that he’s a fan of M House shows, which gives him a lot information about the layout of their house and the relationships among the make-up artists. Initially, it appears that whatever anti-surveillance technique the thief used could be similar to real attempts to fool facial recognition algorithms.
(Something like CVdazzle’s anti-surveillance make-up and hair design, which is an interesting project, but might not work on especially the newer forms of facial recognition software). But instead, the culprit is drawing on her expertise with lighting and camera tricks to trick the cameras into resetting, techniques that she explains she developed in the process of designing make-up fashions—a very different kind of origin for a cyberpunk hacker.
The reason she gives for developing anti-surveillance hacks is that the M House cooperative has been exploiting her work and her relationship with another artist in the House in order to generate views—she’s trying to set up alternate sources of income so that she and her girlfriend can make the content they want and control the way they sell their relationship to their viewers. This storyline seems very personal for a group of video producers, especially since all of these players have recently spoken out about pay disparities and the work environment at Vox Media. They present a version of the Cyberpunk Red world where surveillance extends to the personal branding and performativity of youtube and blogger culture. The series isn’t finished yet, but they’ve decided to help the make-up hacker escape and let her exploitative boss take the fall. The collaborative narrative they create uses make-up as a way to talk about capitalism, exploitation, parasocial internet relationships, and surveillance in ways that I think are productive for thinking through contemporary examples of Cyberpunk Fashion. Fashion creates shifting boundaries between interiority and exteriority, organic and inorganic matter, the spectacle of simulation and the exploitation of labor. And when fashion becomes science fiction, it can craft wearable futures out of the cultural bricolage of commodity, culture, and embodiment.
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.