Stina Attebery is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her academic interests include science and technology studies, Indigenous studies, ecocriticism, media, and biopolitics. She has published articles in Medical Humanities, Extrapolation, and Humanimalia and contributed to collections on Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (2018), Cyberpunk and Visual Culture (2018), and The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020).
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.
Stina: I would usually start off a panel with a land acknowledgment, so I’ve been thinking through how to situate this discord conversation re: Indigenous sovereignty. I’m occupying Cahuilla and Tongva land (here in Riverside, CA), and I know many of us in other spaces are either on unceeded native land or live in places with a particular historical relationship to resource extraction and land displacement. I’d also like to acknowledge that the material infrastructures which allow us to meet virtually (from the networks of cables to minerals like bitumen) are materially caught up in the ongoing politics of colonialism. To expand on Hugh’s great point about ownership of infrastructure during the roundtable, we should also be thinking about the placement and groundedness of these infrastructures.
Graham: Excellent points, because the “cloud” metaphor is just so ridiculous. Thank you for reminding us all (well, me at the very least) of this important acknowledgement.
Ana: Stina, what a fascinating paper. So much to think about! Before we get to questions, I just wanted to drop this link here. If we’re talking makeup and fashion as prosthesis in a cyberpunk world, it seems our current pandemic mask-wearing and facial recognition can also be part of that conversation!
Adam: Hi Stina, I wanted to just pop my head in early to thank you for your talk, I really enjoyed it. I won’t be online for your Q&A, so I’ll look forward to catching up on all the discussion here afterwards. As one question, in case it doesn’t come up, I’d be really interested to hear your opinions on Cyberpunk, self-branding and Youtube culture. How their representation of self-branding and weaponised fashion maybe plays with meta-commentary? Thanks again
Stina: Thank you! I think the connections between fashion, cyberpunk, and the self-branding of youtube and influencer culture is one of the aspects of the Polygon playthrough that really interested me. The plot of the game where an exploited youtube-equivalent queer make-up artist tries to negotiate how her image and labor are being branded seems clearly personal to the youtubers who are playing the game–they seem both invested in giving this NPC a “happy ending” where she breaks off on her own and marries her girlfriend and in pointing out the ways she’s still caught up in these exploitative systems (she can move to the equivalent of patreon, but she still needs to stay on top of her branding in a really neoliberal way). Fashion is really useful as a place that brings all of these topics together because it situates the commodity/personal expression contradictions in or on the body
Emily: Hi Stina – I absolutely adored your talk – the idea of female clothing as a sort of prosthesis is an idea very much close to my own research into female cyborgs. I was wondering would you agree that there is something about female clothing – corsetry etc – that shows women to be the orginal cyborg or cyberpunk figure?
Stina: Thank you! I absolutely agree that traditionally female clothing technologies are very cyborg. For me, Walter Benjamin is a really useful theorist for fashion studies and technology. Even though (or maybe because) he was writing in the 19th c. Many of his examples–like the crinoline–are female fashions that mold the body in ways that are 1) upsetting to patriarchal norms (hoop skirts creating distance between bodies, bustles transforming the implied shape of the body underneath clothes–there are a lot of 19th c. political cartoons and opinion pieces from men frustrated about ladies fashion precisely because it changes the “natural” body) and 2) indicative of changing trends in modernity with clothing materials and styles imitating architecture, incorporating the newest materials, and mirroring the expansion and accelerated movement that characterized that century. So, yes, lady clothes cyborgs! But, importantly, women as key figures for cyborg fashion/cyberpunk fashion isn’t exclusively liberatory. Clothing is still a commodity, and the commodity fetish is an important part of htis discussion
Ana: this is the kind of caricature you were thinking of, I think?
Stina: Yes, 100%, I love that picture
Ana: would love to hear you expand a bit on 2)
Stina: So, Benjamin uses the crinoline, hoop skirt, and bustle as images of forward momentum and accelerated movement–they are clothing objects which prevent or discourage sitting. They also become an embodied metonym for socioeconomic change and capitalism and expansive imperialism (literally taking up space). In one convolute he says “dress became the image of the rapid movement that carries away the world” (B5a, 3)
Ana: with all due respect to Benjamin, that seems like such a masculine way to look at female clothing. It’s uncomfortable and impedes movement, but because it takes up space and you can’t sit down in it that implies forward momentum?
Stina: Haha, maybe, but with Benjamin there’s a fascination and enthusiasm as well. His sections on the bicycle alone… Some of these 19th c women’s fashions weren’t necessarily uncomfortable though–we like to think that we’ve progressed in terms of comfort in women’s clothing, but a hoop skirt provides a lot of pocket space (the all important loss of the female pocket) while pants put bodies on display in ways that aren’t true of earlier periods The contradictions in Benjamin are part of what make him useful to me re: cyberpunk as well–a deeply conflicted and contradictory genre
Josh: probably just my own bias at this point, but I think the Arcades Project is infused with a lot of cyberpunk energy
Stina: Also this…
Josh: I love the beetle one
Emily: So much love for this idea. It really allows one to explore the possibilities for empowerment within these fashion styles that were designed to, well oppress! It’s all so very Haraway – we’ve always been cyborgs. I am particularly interested in this idea of makeup as prosthesis though – how do you think this idea works with social media and the façade of the instagram avatar? And what about makeup in relation to photo filter apps?
Stina: Ok, make-up as prosthesis is tricky. One thing I was interested in re: the Polygon playthrough was the character who uses make-up to create naturalistic looks (including blemishes) for plastic surgery people. There’s a play with authenticity and simulation that’s happening on the body which mirrors a lot of what we’re used to seeing in cyberpunk’s more digital and virtual spaces. Adding the surveillance and influencer media angle also complicates this–why use make-up at all if you could achieve the same effects through computer trickery? Make-up becomes a deeply embodied version of cyberpunk play with simulation, and it becomes a space for these artists to demonstrate their technological mastery. That said, I kind of hate make-up, especially when people try to make it out to be pure self-expression as if there isn’t a clear industry and patriarchal value angle. It’s always both commodity and expression, in the way all fashion is. Cyberpunk make-up has the potential to be more deeply weird, though
Emily: well said – I think makeup is like any technology – you must be very self-critical about its dangers when using it! It can be as addictive as social media – its liquid self-promotion as much as it is self expression – and the self-expression comes at price – you must engage in something steeped in heteronormativity and oppression.
Ana: In regards to makeup, I’m curious if there are any companies or brands specifically marketing makeup in cyberpunk ways, the way that Esko discussed the marketing of cyberpunk clothing earlier today? Or is makeup not marketed this way because it’s so heavily female gendered?
Stina: Beyond the CVdazzle collective trying to do anti-surveillance make-up, I’m not really sure? Not something I’ve looked into as much, I’m afraid
Stina: That seems likely—make-up ads are more often floral ladies floating through a landscape than high-tech neoliberal maneuvering, in the way cyberpunk menswear can be (as per Esko’s presentation this morning)
Katherine: but makeup branding is increasingly tech sounding isn’t it? like “photo finish… extreme blur” etc
Esko: This is an interesting note on the similarity of the textual features between make-up and what I tried to argue re: technical menswear! What is it that that language does to our thinking about make-up?
Stina: If make-up was marketed as a high tech prosthesis, I’d certainly be more likely to be trapped by the marketing I hadn’t thought about the photo angle–here, is photography imagery marketable because it seems more like the tech that women are allowed to be proficient in? ie, technologies for self-presentation
Katherine: Revlon – Air Brush Effect – I think it’s like photoshop references suggesting you can get a face that is pre digitally edited
Katherine: Revlon Insta-Filter
Esko: But “photo finish”/”extreme blur” (like Katherine put it) doesn’t quite get there, then? Maybe that technical language is not actually a description of the technologies going into make-up design, but rather a gloss (pun intended I guess) that’s applied without a basis in it and consumers see through that?
Stina: It’s also implying that the make-up is a replacement for the technology of the filter–you can avoid tech proficiency (“bad” body modifications) by using make-up (“good” body modification)
Emily: It seems to me that makeup is selling something similar to twitter – instant uncritical self-affirmation (whether it be affirmation of self through appearance or through agreeing with an opinion). Makeup is marketed in such a way that the consumer is actively encouraged to not reflect! The idea is to hide your blemishes, your features, become someone new. But what if makeup were really marketed as a means of self-expression? If it were makeup wouldn’t be so incredibly normative – and everyone would have a cyberpunk dragon on their face, right?
Stina: I can’t remember who gave this presentation, but at last year’s SLSA there was a good talk about an artist using “goopy eye” make-up that was genuinely pushing the boundary of body horror–make-up can certainly be a tech for creating more unsetting and risky cyborg subjects (it just usually isn’t) @Katherine: were you at that panel? I feel bad that I can’t remember the name
Katherine: Yes! Dalia
Sam: That was Dalia Barghouty in the UCD English department.
Stina: Thank you both! Proper credit for a good talk
Josh: Not sure why, but this reminds me of Chiang’s “Liking What You See” and the way it explores the politics of appearance “enhancement”
Stina: I usually have the most push-back to Chiang’s story when I’ve taught it from the most heavily made-up students in the class–the ones with the most investment in make-up and clothing as an almost mask-like performance of their femininity
Ana: I’m loving the idea (whoever suggested it above) of makeup marketed as a sort of pre-digital augmentation. No need to use a filter because the makeup itself is the filter!
Stina: Make-up is also (often) historically a toxic substance—it’s a prosthesis with a long history of waste and chemicals and other weirdness
Graham: I’m loving the idea (whoever suggested it above) of makeup marketed as a sort of pre-digital augmentation. No need to use a filter because the makeup itself is the filter! @Ana: And I’m now imagining (unless it’s already happening) make-up being used to distort one’s image captured on CCTV and other surveillance devices to maintain privacy from the prying eyes of digital networks.
Ana: This is already happening, I believe. Especially in Hong Kong, I think? Well, people don’t like giving up the idea that they have agency. If the thing they thought was giving them agency turns out to be the exact opposite…
Emily: I think this might be where we actually are already! There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between makeup and photo filters anymore – especially with the heavily/overly groomed makeup look being so popular today
Stina: When I looked into make-up genuinely subverting surveillance, it sounded like it would sort of work in 2010, but tech changes mean that the kinds of things CVdazzle were doing might not actually throw off a camera? or might have limited effectiveness similar re: masks–if there’s a push to recognize (and also misidentify!) faces from just your eyes or the top of your face, then they won’t have as much fo an effect it’s fun, but not as much of a gotcha as I’d like but very cyberpunk
Ana: yeah, apparently all those selfies we’re posting with masks on? machine learning algorithms are using those as data sets to learn to identify people wearing masks
Stina: this is all from a very cursory look through the topic, though I am interested in the ways covid is changing make-up trends–more people not wearing make-up as an everyday thing, and masks disrupting make-up wearing (because why bother) but then masks are becoming the go-to commodity item–gotta have a mask that reflects your self-expression! that you bought on etsy… medical technologies becoming fashion
Ana: or, all the clothing brands releasing masks that match the designs on the rest of their clothing…
Stina: ha, yes
Katherine: I am interested in the ways covid is changing make-up trends–more people not wearing make-up as an everyday thing, and masks disrupting make-up wearing (because why bother) I totally feel like I have to wear makeup more than ever, because I have to stare at myself in zoom all day
Stina: there is that too
Josh: anecdotally I have seen a ramp-up in eye-area makeup that you can see around the mask at the grocery store
Emily: It certainly is a fine line between using makeup as a crutch and using makeup as a fun tool of creativity – the question really is “am I wearing this because I want to or because I feel I have to?” I mean if you feel anxious at the thought of not wearing it then that may constitute an unhealthy relationship.
Stina: I guess my experience is an outlier and should not be counted well, it’s always going to be both–our preferences are socially determined (even the countercultural ones)
Ana: well, the question might be….are you wearing makeup that covers up blemishes, or are you wearing makeup that may not necessarily be acceptable in a typical work environment?
Stina: and materially regular make-up use will encourage blemishes–physically, with the ways make-ups interact with skin
Emily: what about women who don’t wear makeup at all? I’m not sure that is necessarily always the case – I mean socialisation can be rebelled against and need not reactionary.
Stina: Maurizia Bascalgi writes in Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism that fashion can be a “cultural assault” that can “destabilize apparently fixed notions of reality and materiality”–so, yes, maybe, sometimes. I don’t see a lot of potential in cyberpunk fashion as a space for rebellion, partly because the idea of the rebel itself in cyberpunk is pretty vexed, but there’s ways of reading fashion as more overtly feminist play with embodiment and culture
Ana: well, I wear zero makeup so if you’d like any anecdotal evidence I’m here to answer questions
Emily: I stopped wearing makeup on a regular basis about a year ago because I felt it had too much of a hold on me. Do you mind if I ask about your experiences with makeup?
Ana: I’ve just….never worn it. My mother never really taught me to apply it or bought me any, so it just…didn’t happen. And I’ve always been one of those precocious students who read literary criticism for fun even in high school rather than looking at youtube makeup tutorials. I just felt that if I was to invest my time in teaching myself something, it should be something like a new language. I suppose, with the exception of a couple years in high school, all that cultural messaging about how women “should” look simply flew over my head as not that important by comparison to my professional interests Perhaps I’m a not-very-useful outlier in that way
Emily: I think it says a lot that not everyone is necessarily susceptible to cultural programming – its hopeful!
Stina: I think ultimately I come down on the side that make-up (and fashion) isn’t good or bad, it’s a fraught technology. But if we understand it as a technology, which requires a level of technological proficiency to apply, that changes the kind of conversation we can have about it.
Ana: Yes, I love the idea of understanding it as a technology like any other: one that can have powerful radical potential but that can also be a means of oppression and control. That is, as we’ve seen, the crux of technologies as presented in cyberpunk
Sumeyra: Hi! Wow I liked your starter picture of apocalypse outfit. It looks great with beautiful haircut which is also one of my favorite style. I like your focus on cyberpunk fashion and posthuman embodiment. Thanks a lot for your great presentation.
Stina: In some ways covid is bringing us back to the punk aesthetics behind classic cyberpunk–the diy haircut at home, as one example
Graham: This may be way out there as all I really know about fashion and cyberpunk are the projects we keep getting you to write out, but I’m wondering if there is any trends or instances of drag culture and cyberpunk fashion. I’m thinking if fashion (and I’ll include make-up in this broad designation) is a prosthesis and such prostheses can subvert gender expectations, is there a drag component to cyberpunk? And, if so, how would that factor into the larger enterprise? Or is my lack of knowledge of this whole area showing?
Stina: That’s interesting! I know that in the play test Josh and I did for our CP2020 chapter, one of our players created a trans character, who had high heels incorporated into her legs and played with a kind of bowie and lady gaga inspired drag look. I think cyberpunk can lend itself to drag performance, but often lacks the camp angle
Graham: I did a quick Google search of drag + cyberpunk + fashion. Top of the list is this Flickr
Hugh: great presentation – absolutely fascinating! I think at least one of the things that I find so interesting here is the material-practicality of all this. My students often balk at the bodymods in cyberpunk fiction and film, but I try to remind them that these are metaphors for the ways that the rhythms of neoliberalism make new demands on the body that need to be accommodated and expressed in physical ways.
Lars: Interesting question here would be what happens in Gibson’s Klept-London where body modifications become a screen for displaying the political economy of racist history, of struggles … an art performance that one can use for stylized political messages
Stina: There’s an interesting book called Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander, which isn’t about sf, but points out that the way nudity is illustrated over time depends on clothing trends–there’s an implied clothed shape over the body that dictates waste-size, shoulder size, the shape of the legs, etc. So, I see clothing as always a technology that modifies bodies, and cyberpunk as a key example for exposing these material shapings in real life
Hugh: thanks! will definitely check this out
Steven: Hi Stina, I know too little about fashion or about gaming to ask any meaningful questions, but I just want to say that I really enjoyed reading your paper
John: Thank you Stina for such an interesting and stimulating talk and thanks to all for this great discussion
Stina: Thank you all for coming and commenting! It was fun talking make-up, commodity culture, and weird cyberpunk stuff with everyone
Ana: Thank you again for an excellent presentation and conversation!