Esko Suoranta, MA, is a PhD researcher at the Department of Languages, University of Helsinki, and affiliated with the research consortium “Instrumental Narratives” (Academy of Finland, 2018–2022). Esko’s dissertation analyzes the ways in which contemporary speculative fiction might build cognitive affordances for thinking toward systemic phenomena. His publications discuss the contemporary novels of William Gibson (2014, 2016), surveillance capitalism in Malka Older’s Infomocracy (2018), and utopian/dystopian dynamics in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (forthcoming 2020). Esko is also co-editor for Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research and the recipient of the Alan Nadel Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper for his contribution to the 2019 conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative. He tweets as @Escogar.
Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear
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’m not able to make your official discussion tomorrow (it’s very early for my time zone!), but I enjoyed your presentation on cyberpunk menswear. It’s interesting that styles that were initially so closely tied to punk bricolage fashion can so easily become sleek, expensive commodities. But, going all the way back to Blade Runner, there’s a clear move to make cyberpunk only somewhat punk-inspired–it’s so often future fashion filtered through the 1940s. I know from a talk I went to on costuming in sf movies that many costume designers are reluctant to break the mold too much in terms of near future dystopia design (which is a shame!). I’m curious if you have seen the kinds of futuristic textile descriptions applied outside of these high tech menswear fashion?
Esko: That is super interesting as those design choices do really factor into what we imagine as futuristic. The plainer technical wear I address is futuristic as technology, but its aesthetics don’t often reveal that. My gut feeling is that this is a very male-fashion-thing – that enjoying the technical poetics is a factor in wearing these garments, they don’t show, but you can always talk about them. Raw denim enthusiasts are similar, but the affect is maybe a sort of artisanal nostalgia? I feel all these are heteronormatively appropriate ways of enjoying fashion as well.
Ana: What a great talk! I too won’t be able to make the official discussion, but thought I’d put my question here before I headed off for the night. I was just hoping you could elaborate a little bit more on the demise of flamboyant men’s fashion at the end of the 18th Century and the connection you see to cyberpunk – it was just a mention, but intrigued me so much!
Esko: Thanks for picking that up! I’m really no expert on the 18th c., but the connection I see between dandyism and the unobtrusive techwear is that both are clearly male in-group things. You have to know their semiotics to appreciate them, you give the impression you’re wearing unmarked clothing, when in fact you have gone through great trouble in assembling your outfit, you know the specifics of materials and designs, and others who do the same will know the same.
Julia: I really loved this talk which inspired a lot of different trains of thought for me! So I have apologize for hitting you with multiple questions (though interreltated) at once here… Who, would you say, is the actual target group of this clothing (aside from Gibson) – keeping in mind the exclusivity (priciness) of brands such as acronym or arc’teryx veilance? (The brand identity seems to suggest whistle blowers and cyber activists, but I have to wonder if there’s actually that much money to be made in this line of work…?) And what, then, is the specific functionality required in the urban space (the physical demands seem to be rather moderate to low…)? Do you know if, aside from the ‘optimal performative functionality’ side of this, there also goes research into the design of this clothing in terms of facial/gait recognition in order to stay anonymous in the constantly surveilled public space? Although you’ve briefly touched on the potential heteronormativity/masculinity aspect of this, maybe you could elaborate a bit on that (I find this truly fascinating!): The default fashion models seem to be male – do these brands cater exclusively to men? As the design is so ‘non-descript’: could brand identity not instead be a gender fluid one (arc’teryx veilance seems to offer unisex clothing)? Or is the seemingly ‘brand-neutral’, non-descript look a specifically ‘non-female’ one (in terms of identity performance)? Are women even considered a market (in terms of brand identity as well as functionality) or are there maybe equilvalents in ‘women’s fashion’?
Alexander: Hi Esko, I really enjoyed this paper. I’m a big fan of men’s technical outerwear (like Gibson himself, of course), and have followed acrnm & others for years also! I don’t mean to speak for/over Esko, but I think you’ve touched on number of aspects of the men’s technical clothing scene that is fascinating to unpack @Julia, arcnm has a women’s line, though it’s considerably smaller. The online sphere around it caters almost entirely to (presumed cis/straight) men, and over the last several years has moved from a brand of relative unknown to a much larger public presence and associated streetwear clout there’s even a rap song entirely about owning huge quantities of it! (eng subs through the youtube interface)
Esko: I’ll try to take those one by one without block-quoting! For brands like Outlier, it seems to be men in their thirties who are professionals, can afford to live in cities, bike to the office, and spend time after work socializing in places with a dresscode – and their outfits cater to such daily lives. For Acronym and the like, I’m not entirely sure, the price-point is very high and I guess you run across them on celebrities mostly. So… Celebrities wanting to identify with the cyberninja ideal? Right, functionalities include, at least, suitability for all types of weather with things like breathability, drying quick, or having bespoke parts for different weather conditions. One design feature is the “performance crotch” referred to in Disco Elysium, strips on your inner thighs for better movement (Gibson references them in Zero History for “rappelling”). These appear to me as mainly marketed to men, but there is the potential for gender-fluidity I think! Either they’re “unmarked” because they are considered to be men’s (t-shirts, dress pants) or they are designed to be somewhat “weird” that they don’t immediately code either way (thinking of Acronym here again). But it seems to me that the target market is very masculine, even if designs geared for women do appear in the collections at least occasionally.
Lars: can I pick this up? I think the unmarked masculinity is interesting, and the potential for gender fluidity, if you also mention that most of the models are of Asian-ethnicity – though marked as urban and cosmopolitan … is there a form of techno-orientalism going on here? And how do the politics work there?
Julia: Interesting aspect, but wouldn’t techno-orientalism at least require a certain tension between hyper- and hypo-technological? I can’t see the hypo-technological in here…
Esko: I don’t think I’ve quite done the work to give a very good answer to this and haven’t confirmed a majority ethnicity, but a version of cosmopolitanism I do recognize. How that actually succeeds, I’m not entirely sure. And Hugh as a designer, model, and his own brand ambassador definitely goes for a slightly mystical, orientalized, martial-arty performance.
Alexander: Errolson H often promotes POC inclusivity, especially asian-identifying people. As much as he might play into martial arts tropes, I think it’s probably difficult to term it techno-orientalism
Julia: I’d say that the low-key design is too deliberately catering to specific tastes while performing on a high-tech level to qualify as ‘primitive’…
Lars: alright, no techno-orientalism, but def. something going on that ask questions of identity in a technological world
Julia: Completely agree, a very interesting (and exclusive) way to explore identity politics in a performative way…
Lars: But really, the Wall Street guy needing to look like a cyberninja in their spare time? This is some American Psycho marketing bullshit. And what is the political economy behind this, is this not the same hypercapitalist agenda of exclusivity and slightly facistoid worldview that defines Musk’s Cybertruck?
Alexander: I think this is the ostensible market, but most of the gear is instantly snapped up by avid collectors of the brand (and, for the most part, always has been). It’s a clothing enthusiasts’ domain, I think
Lars: so like Gibson’s Gabriel Hounds?
Alexander: precisely. At the end of Pattern Recognition he credits ‘secret brands’ (there’s a specific sneaker brand referenced that I can’t remember which no longer exists) as being the inspiration, and it’s pretty clear that acrnm was among them
Esko: I’m sure this can be (and is) appropriated by the “Wall Street” or “Silicon Valley” bros, sure, even though WS has stricter standards for wear and Silicon Valley embraces that hacker-inspired wear (Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs – they don’t look like the characters I’m looking at, I think). The enthusiast is definitely a group of its own, thank you for pointing it out Alexander.
Alexander: I truly believe you’d be more likely to find a rapper wearing it then any wallstreet exc these days. I think they’re still generally concerned with patagonia fleeces. Acrnm isn’t eco-facing enough in its visual design, I suspect
Seb: Really enjoyed your talk. Something surprises me though: how striking these outfits are, when you know that hacking is quite a discreet occupation. Very ineteresting in conflicting images, no?
Esko: This is true, I think, and I think the “cyberninja” type I refer to more is some kind of a parkour-messenger who doesn’t, in fact, sit at the computer hacking away – that is mostly what I mean saying that this character haunts the streets rather than cyberspace.
Eero: What kind of attitude towards the body do you think enjoyment of this kind technical clothing conveys/is associated with? I’m looking at Taylor’s “Hackers: Cyberpunks or Microserfs” and he talks about the hacker’s contempt for the body through things like MIT’s “ugliest geek on campus competition” and the unkempt characters of Coupland’s Microserfs. Do you think there’s also a type of (male-coded) ignoring of body in the focus on utility/performance in technical wear, or do you see these as unrelated?
Esko: Excellent question! I haven’t considered this fully, but my gut reaction is that the techwearing male archetype moves away from that (impossible) division between mind=good, body=bad. The clothes are, first and foremost, for bodily activities, even starting from running, biking, climbing, and the like – this also shows in their marketing, Outlier models are always jumping around in the city or the desert, Errolsong Hugh does kung-fu in his clothing. Peace out! Really enjoyed your talk. I wonder – is there something comparable in women’s wear? A similar cyberpunk aesthetic?
Eero: Thanks! I was wondering whether the focus on “performance” was indicative of a kind of a reduction of the body to a well-working tool, but Hugh’s example at least seems to point towards an active enjoyment of one’s bodily capacities (kicking off bottle caps and so on).
Emily: Peace out! Really enjoyed your talk. I wonder – is there something comparable in women’s wear? A similar cyberpunk aesthetic?
Esko: This I’m not qualified to answer, I don’t think I’ve run into it personally. Maybe someone else has ideas?
Adam: Following on also from the questions here about the target market for these clothes, I wondered about your thoughts about the framing of the characters clad in this cyberninja gear. You reference Adam Jensen in particular, and he comes from a high-up position in corporate security, unlike the self-stylised rebels of earlier works. Do you see the narratives of agency and resistance through style changing due to the strata of the ‘heroes’ wearing them? (also adding on, a thank you for the talk. It was fantastic)
Esko: Thanks Adam! I think Jensen embodies some of the problematic Lars pointed at – he is a vigilante, uses extralegal means to get to his ends, is committed to systems of violence – and this design-wear helps him do that. I didn’t get into it much in the paper, but then characters like Cayce Pollard – THE nondescript normcore protagonist – is not even invested in fighting or overthrowing systems, she is trying to find agency within them. Lee Konstantinou analyzes this in Cool Characters very thoroughly, seeing the brand as both exploitative and potentially a means for (at least some) resistance.
Emily: You also mention Deus Ex in your paper – I wonder, can we see clothing as a kind of augmentation? I’m thinking about your point about form vs function – the functionality of clothing brings it closer to the sphere of what we think of as ‘technology’? You mentioned how clothing for Jensen is designed to work with his bodily augments – what about clothing as a kind of augment itself?
Julia: Didn’t Stina mention that putting on clothes is the easiest way to become cyborg?
Esko: Yes, Stina made this point in her paper, I hadn’t quite gotten that far, but I think I do agree. Even a normal linen shirt is an augmentation then, especially suited for bodyheat-management. I’m of the cognitive bent who sees everyday technologies as extensions of cognition so can’t see why that couldn’t apply here as well.
Larisa: Clothing is definitely augmentation of a self-image, of personality
Esko: Definitely this too!
Stina: Yes! I think cyberpunk clothing is interesting because it exposes the fact that all clothing is a kind of technologically-created prosthesis that augments the body–Jensen’s coat is less of an augment as his arms or eyes, but it’s still shaping his cyborg body
Anna: Thanks so much for this paper, Esko, so fascinating! You really clarify the topic. Just to add, i might be cynical but I think this clothing is the equivalent of people driving 4x4s around their cities – they’ve bought into a marketing image of themselves as adventurous go-getters, whereas actually they’re using those 4x4s to pick up the kids from school. Also, on a related note, I think Gibson has some funny mall cop type characters – maybe in Virtual Light? – who get mocked for dressing all in camouflage etc. This ‘unmarked’ branding seems like a way to find a sense of ‘cool’ that doesn’t risk encroaching on the mall cop aesthetic!
Esko: Thank you! I definitely agree that in that sense these function as any other consumer culture object. And the mall-cop analogy is very good, I think that is the point exactly, as an active man-type, I can wear functional techgear that gives me the self-image of a rebellious cyberninja (or whatever I think), but not look like I wanna protect Confederate statues.
Anna: Haha, nicely put!
Sasha: One thing that stuck me about the acronym website is that each product seems to be accompanied by an almost endless series of photographs, do you think there is an almost fetishistic aspect to these items? Something about them for me also speaks to Claudia Springer’s analysis of the fascist obsession with the armoured body as a defence against emotional vulnerability, there is no expression only function haha
Esko: This is a super-interesting take, thank you! And yes, definitely some of these are to be seen as potentially fetishistic objects. Not the more normcore ones though, I think Outlier does kinda weird close-ups of the fabrics (to showcase weft-insertion or whatevs) more than endless galleries of models in the clothes.
Alexander: To take this in a completely different way, Esko are you familiar with acrnm’s Death Stranding collaboration? Would you describe this as the blurring of fetishistic homage and cosplay, or something else altogether?
Esko: I was aware of it, yes, but haven’t looked into it at all, tho, as I don’t Playstation. Do offer your take Alexander? I could of course just say that it comes into this very tangled web of SF-design, “actual” design, and various art media.
Alexander: Be interested to hear your thoughts if you ever look at it in depth! To me it’s the end point of something – the turn from clothing that, at the least, operated under the pretence of real-use cases, to clothing that exists purely as ornamental homage to an idealised rugged ‘everyman’ (i.e. norman reedus in death stranding)
Esko: Without having a mental referent for it that still brings to mind the worker-wear culture (also related to the fashion cultures we’ve talked about) where people hunt or recreate ~1940s-styled jeans, heavy shirts, leather boots, etc., again to hark back to a different male archetype.
Alexander: right! There’s something about the quest to get closer to nature through layers of clothing acting as locus with which to access it
Esko: Yeah, so maybe that’s a third level of “augmentation” in addition to increased capabilities or identity-building, clothing as a sort of speculative archaeological technology – accessing layers of the past (or the future!) through layered meanings laden in one’s outfits. Might’ve really reinvented the wheel there, this might be blatantly obvious to scholars with relevant expertise.
Joseph: Nothing better than the cyberpunk dandy look. Love this presentation.
Esko: Thank you!
Joseph: This idea that the most inconspicuous looking people are the most dangerous is funny though. I’d say that people will catch on to that pretty quickly. And I’m going to employ it in my own fiction now that you bring it up.
Sumeyra: I liked your talk so much. about cyber ninja and menswear, that’s so fascinating. I just wonder if you have some comments about cyber queer wearing for male body or gay wear as well?
Esko: Thank you! The limits of my analysis are very much there at the male-heteronormative border, I cannot say to have done the work to be able to comment on queer cyberpunk fashion much. One thing I could sort of reiterate is that how cis-hetero-coded much of the normcore side of what I’m talking about is – being “into” fashion in this way appears as a heteronormatively acceptable way of doing it largely because it is “unmarked.” The cyberninja-side, like people have noted, might have clearer affordances for nonbinary representation, for example.