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Alien Anthology: A Revolution in Sci-Fi Costume Design – PT2

Further to film critic Simon Kinnear‘s analysis of how Alien’s revolutionary costume design brought a grimy reality to sci-fi, in this second part he concentrates on the Anthology sequels.

It is to James Cameron’s credit that, while re-engineering Alien’s haunted house tropes as full-scale war movie, he recognised the important part costume design played in Ridley Scott’s shocker seven years earlier. In the first film, clothing is one of the means by which humans stamp their personality against the dual threat to their identity posed by both the alien and the faceless corporation they work for: Weyland-Yutani.

This is a difficult trick to pull off with soldiers; Cameron’s Space Marines are, by the nature of the job, decked out in regulation gear. But, taking his cues from footage of the Vietnam War, where soldiers daubed their helmets in slogans, Cameron maintains an element of bespoke costume design.

In fact, Cameron went one better, encouraging the cast to personalise their own costumes, with Mark Rolston’s Drake winning the kudos for tying chicken bones to his helmet – a strange ritual that is never explained but is superbly evocative as a soldier’s superstition. Allied to the sharp characterisation, the costume work goes a long way to ensuring that he (and we) can tell the grunts apart in the heat of battle. It also underlines the isolation of novice mission leader Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), whose unadorned, stiffly creased uniform gives him away as an outsider long before he mistakes Hudson for Hicks.

This is the Alien film where we get a stronger sense of the wider society of future Earth, and it is a lot like ours, as Cameron and costume designer Emma Porteus ground the film by emphasising the characters’ commonality with the world we live in today. He actively avoids sci-fi cliché by having the male and female Weyland-Yutani board members wear traditional lounge suits. Tailoring has not changed much over the centuries, apparently, and the everyday design paints the corporation as a very 1980s concern. Paul Reiser’s Burke, the company man who goes with the Marines, even wears yuppie-casual lapels fixed in an upturned position; the kind that you can imagine stockbrokers wearing on weekends.

The suits are also a vivid clash with Ripley, who has taken on work as a loader in the docks, a blue-collar role depicted literally in her navy jumpsuit. It is simple, everyday stuff, but context is all: Ripley has abandoned the amoral greed of her employers and retrospectively aligned with Brett and Parker as a worker. But this ‘unionised’ stance won’t do her any favours in this film, as the battle between human and alien has stepped up a notch.

It’s no longer enough to be ‘human’ when there’s an alien army to be fought. Ripley – initially frail and fearful – is regarded with distrust by the Marines. The irony is that the Marines themselves, disparate bunch that they are, cannot cope with the disciplined hive mind of the aliens, and are unceremoniously slaughtered. The moral is clear: to defeat the aliens, one has to become an alien. So it is that Ripley tools up, augmenting her body with assorted hardcore weaponry and, ultimately, by slipping into her own exoskeleton in the form of the cargo-loader.

Alien 3 (1992) plays fascinating games with these established rules. On Fiorina 161, aka Fury, individuality is ruthlessly stamped out. Inmates and warders alike are forced into shaving their heads to ward off lice, such a negation of personality that the only way the intellectually challenged warder Aaron (Ralph Brown) can impose his authority is by wearing a hat. It is a policy that highlights both Weyland-Yutani’s desire for uniformity, as well as laying bare the social divide in the futureworld: no well-tailored suits for this lot. Instead, the prisoners wear threadbare, functional rags, an ascetic look that conjures a medieval vibe; centuries of progress stripped back to abstraction.

Ripley’s arrival in this mix causes an inevitable stir, and she is ordered to join the herd by chopping off those lustrous, curly locks. In narrative terms, this is disastrous; a victory for conformity. How can the humans fight the alien when they barely feel human themselves? But in character terms, it continues, and concludes, Ripley’s spiritual journey from yes-woman to warrior to saint, as she cleanses herself in Fury’s futuro-medieval purgatory. Ironically, it is only by stripping away everything, not just her clothing, that Ripley can truly define herself.

Alien: Resurrection (1997) is unique in the fact that it is the only film of the four to hire a costume designer who had already worked on the series: specifically, Bob Ringwood, returning from Alien 3 (where he had shared duties with David Perry). If the first of those assignments was austere and minimalist, here Ringwood brings things full circle with designs that are more perceptibly sci-fi than anything else in the so-called Quadrilogy.

No longer is costume grounded in reality. Encouraged by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who, don’t forget, had previously worked with Jean Paul Gaultier), Ringwood opts for genre archetypes. Here, scientists wear long coats; soldiers wear unadorned uniforms, pirates a mix of scavenged rags… In social terms, it is a step forward from Alien 3’s undifferentiated masses, yet humanity remains blinkered by conformity and fragmented into tribalism.

Enter Ripley, looking sleek and svelte in two variants of buttoned waistcoat, the first with abundant rear buckles, the second angular and heavily padded. Or, at least, an echo of Ripley, the ‘original’ having died in the furnaces of Fury. The new model is a clone, half-human, half-alien, and Sigourney Weaver conveys her dual inheritance by wearing her clothing like a second skin. Finally, she is alone, distinctive, unique. Unburdened by the pressures facing mere mortals, she has become something close to a god.

In the film’s closing scenes, Ripley is headed back to Earth (a planet, incidentally, that none of the four films sets foot on). Presumably, once there she will help to free humanity from the threat of conformity – or, at the very least, to pass on some distinctive fashion tips.

Alien Anthology was released on Blu-ray on 25th October. N.B: Image caps taken from DVD.

Simon Kinnear is a freelance contributor to Total Film and blogs about cinema at Kinnemaniac.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.