Tomorrow Today: A Local History Of The Future

Artwork by Ivan Medrano

What did the future look like to our parents when they were young?

Trends will not be a trendy word. Neither will “fashionable” be fashionable—both the word and the idea of clothing clairvoyance will be antiquated. Vanities like these will be as though old laundry, needing a wash and heavy repair. 

Clothes, as we know, are tending towards becoming a threadbare bit of history. Because soon, clothing sense can only be survival sense—at the edge of time, so to speak—as fashion is inevitably displaced by sagacity. Actually, by rock hard smarts. Social value is inescapably vested in waste-eliminating, fair trade apparel with green bona fides. Choice will be limited to the possibility of imagining ways of dressing to live. Not to, as today, dressing to kill. So to speak.

Well beyond Stella McCartney’s late 20th-century wisdom is the godlike starkness of 21st-century reality checks. That the planet cannot accommodate one more ton of quickly outdated fashion statements in a landfill may be expected to be as important a piece of wisdom as the lateness of the hour for quitting fossil fuels. 

With 2023 eyes, this forced-to-green wear is what seems inevitable: the global clothing industry in perhaps 2053 will be endlessly recyclable. Humans can imagine 30, maybe 50 years that haven’t happened yet. In that half-century ahead, we can make out what haute couture might be, however variously: radically re-engineered textiles, digitally shaped garments customized for all kinds of bodies, AI-temperature controls, shapeshifting like octopi or amoeba, and chameleon-like color-metamorphosis. We expect radically less distance between clothing surface and skin. 

Change tech—from the point of view of now—has a character made by that now. We can make our clothes able to decide on its own what’s best for the day, the hour; and relationships with clothes built on climate and social extremes. We can divine that what will change is not so much the imaginings of the future, but today’s eyes, which are being focused by our imperfect grasp of technology. And so, we only indulge futurist fantasies. 

The future in the past

The current futurist fantasies are, of course, no longer futurist. The technologies already exist to realize most of the fantastic and more. And so, in truth, the idea of “futurist” is as passé as bell bottoms. Gone with The Jetsons and the word automatic, the gumption of projecting utopian or dystopian imaginings forward has been made absurd by breathtaking human folly in the face of gahdawfullest prospects. Futurist is very past tense indeed. 

To grab hold of the future in the past, a bit of mental somersaulting might help. What did the future look like to our parents when they were young? To their parents?  

At the fin de siècle from the 19th to the 20th centuries, hope in science made the future a utopian dream. A better world was plausible. Towards that vision, women raised their hemlines and lost their corsets. To be able to walk faster and unencumbered to jobs that opened up to them, they softened underlayers. Women in the Philippines looked forward to teaching in public schools that were to fashion the youth into a modern democracy’s future. They all looked forward to equality. 

It didn’t happen, of course, and by the end of the Second World War, the future looked divided. Women either dressed in asexual Mao suits or in highly sexualized investment-clothes, thinking of different versions of social promise. In hindsight, their tomorrows were strangely similar: equality via collective or via individualism in a supposed level playing field. We dressed to the optimistic promise of re-engineered society. That future—circa 1950s—was exciting but more than slightly scary. Spectres of war inhabited the imagination but did not stop couples everywhere on the planet from industrial scale production of babies.

By the 1960s and ’70s, the baby boom well underway, a cult to youth expressed itself in the Twiggy-esque emaciated model, psychedelia, political statement clothing, and broad-spectrum coolness. Clothes were made for the eternally youthful. The hot wars of the Cold War powered a sense of futurelessness. Indeed, the future as endless war was the future in vogue. It hence bears remarking that, in contrast, Yves Saint Laurent created the look of the woman who worked, chic in a suit. The Philippines’ Salvacion Lim-Higgins produced couture for the Filipina possessed of managerial skills, hence purpose in the future-building infrastructure.  

In contrast to the aestheticized desperation affected by the youth of the world’s capitalist societies was the we-mean-business female power that was pitched towards a forward horizon of, yes, another dream of equality. The future had to be constructed, in this version of the future. Humans can oblige nature to yield to greater intelligence and sheer greediness. Such arrogance turbo-propped the monstrous capacities of the Anthropocene. Grunge and punk pictured resistance as clothing and accessories, only to be swallowed up by 1990s haute couture in Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, followed immediately by Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Anna Sui, and Gianni Versace. At which point, the resistance politics became comprehensible only to true cosmopolitans. 

The 1990s was the last time—perhaps the last time ever—the future seemed like it could be redirected by human will. Capitalism seemed to have prevailed over its rival ideology and it would take another decade to recognize this triumphalism to be unhinged from reality. Within that illusory and short-lived sense of success, however, the future was conceived as technologically supported global democracy. 

The future in the future

If—and it’s a big if—there are viable concepts of the future in the immediate future, it will be AI-designed or design-assisted. This is not necessarily scary. Recall that CAD (computer aided design) released architects from time-consuming rendering and facilitated liberating ideas. If it might reasonably be expected to produce wisdom (finally!), that future will be nothing like the 20th century. 

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