How Blade Runner’s Costume Design Draws Attention to Its Women

From transparent raincoats to faux-fur pom-pom hats: there’s more complexity to the women of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, and it can be found in costume design.

This past week it was reported that Blade Runner 2049, the Denis Villeneuve follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, opened $20M under its expected domestic box office debut. The reasons for the film’s lack of success may seem obvious: 1) it’s a slowly paced sequel, 2) it has a near three-hour runtime, and 3) cinema is dead, blah, blah, blah.

But there’s another, more concerning reason for Blade Runner 2049’s slightly underwhelming returns: Warner Bros., the film’s distributor (along with Sony Pictures) did not market the film towards women or younger audiences.

Warner said that 71% of opening-weekend ticket buyers were male, while IndieWire reports that 77% of the audience was over 25. The latter statistic is unsurprising when paired with the fact most people excited about the film were avid fans of the original, but it’s the former that’s most interesting.

Since Scott’s original Blade Runner, it’s often the women of that universe who stand out as some of cinema’s most interesting figures. There’s the human-robot complexity of the Replicant Rachel (Sean Young) and the performative innocence of Daryl Hannah’s Pris. 2049’s women are just as important: Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette holds an unexpected narrative importance, Sylvia Hoeks plays one of the most frustratingly ruthless villains, and Ana de Armas impresses as Joi, a character that carries the film’s emotional weight.

However, because of the fact both Blade Runners’ protagonists are male, the overwhelmingly visual worlds Jordan Cronenweth and Roger Deakins create, and the luscious, futuristic score by Vangelis, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch respectively, it’s not impossible to imagine the women of Blade Runner being overshadowed by the masculine, hyper stylised worlds.

Yet it’s through Costume Design that the women characters make themselves heard.

Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode set the precedent for what film portrayed people wearing in the future. Rather than opting for clichéd, alien-like latex full-body suits, Kaplan and Knode brought the influence of Japanese Harajuku fashion and meshed it with an exaggerated version of classic punk-pop.

When Sean Young’s Rachel first appears, it’s impossible to forget her black, shoulder-padded suit. With a diamond-like shape underneath her neck acting as some kind of futuristic diamond tie, the suit’s angular shapes serve as a visual reference to the origami unicorn that becomes one of the essential iconographies in the film. Moreover, if we’re to continue with the link between the angular suit and origami, the suit hints at Rachel’s role as a Replicant: she’s constructed, perfectly symmetrical and fits into the lines that have been shaped for her rather than by her.

Rachel Blade Runner

As the film goes on, both Deckard and viewers become more familiar with Rachel, and this is mirrored in her clothing. We see her in looser-fit clothes and new colors are introduced. Her lighter grey skirt suit still adheres to the angular style through which viewers are introduced to the character. Nevertheless, the lighter colors hint at a more emotionally aware character, while the rigid angles connote the character’s personal loyalty and composure amongst the chaos that surrounds 2019 Los Angeles. Even her shapeless, shaggy fur coat is decorated with downward triangles.

In one of the most futuristic film noir scenes, Deckard and Rachel are by a window, the light coming through the half-drawn blinds creating lines across the two main characters’ faces. Compare this classic film noir visual with the angles that adorn Rachel’s clothes and it often seems that the Replicant has a permanent shadow covering her body. Whether this is Kaplan and Knodes using angles purely to add a new tone to the film, it’s still notable that they choose to add these shapes onto Rachel’s clothes. Clearly, this Replicant exists outside the chaotic mind of Roy Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah).

Rachel Blade Runner

The closest Blade Runner 2049’s costume designer Renée April comes to the clean lines of Rachel is with the film’s most active woman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Wearing mostly light white clothes with rarely any patterns or prints, Luv’s wardrobe is designed to never get in the way of her fighting. In an interview for the New York Times, April says of Luv’s outfits: “she goes after the things he [Ryan Gosling’s K] wants, so she has some very slick costumes at the beginning, all off-white suits with clean lines.” Interestingly, she adds that the off-white outfits “give the impression of purity. When the world is so gray and dirty, she is like an angel.” After seeing the film, audiences will know Luv is no angel, but this suggestion in her clothes has something to say for the perfection her character strives to achieve, and whether her intentions are as evil as most will initially think. As the imperfections and ruthlessness of Luv’s character is revealed, April incorporates shades of grey and darker tones into her wardrobe, a subtle hint at the character’s inability to maintain composure.

Pris, however, is a character whose punk style April translates directly into Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette. In the original film, Pris’ ripped tights, Debbie Harry-esque platinum blonde hair, and charcoal black raccoon eyes directly contrast with the controlled angles that abound Rachel’s wardrobe. Blade Runner is a world with limited choices, and one choice—however small a choice it is—is in what one wears. With the juxtaposition between Pris’ and Rachel’s clothes, the viewer can see the different choices each Replicant makes in their style, and therefore different tastes, personalities, and minds.

Mackenzie Davis’ Pris has a style that’s an updated version of Pris. Her furry black hat, floor-length part see-through, part-faux-fur pink coat would be a fantastical, bold statement if not for the fact the character is constantly drenched from the rain. Her clothes nearly always look like they need to be cleaned or ironed, with her frantic black hat mirroring her wild personality while the washed-out color of her clothes suggests lost potential. “The oversized hat and coat are just another reflection of that world,” says April, “of everyone hiding themselves. […] They wear big masks, big collars to hide their faces. The sleeves are long and hide the hands. I don’t know, maybe it’s a reflection on our world today.” No character seems certain with themselves, nor their place in society.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049’s most interesting character comes in the form of Joi, an advertised AI hologram that can be purchased for the home. Viewers see Joi as an archetypal housewife stuck under the restricting controls of K’s device; as a gigantic, nude, pink advertisement devoid of any depth; and as a free (holographic) spirit, made to feel like a “real girl.” She’s bought out of loneliness and learns how to be lonely, her (spoiler) wish for K’s memory to be true masquerading as a desire for what she feels to be authentic and not simply a carefully thought-out algorithm.

Joi’s advertisement outfits borrow heavily from manga, this influence of Asian culture present in both Blade Runner films something that has been (rightfully) criticised. Paired with the only other outfit the advertisement version of Joi wears (although the distance between both K’s Joi and the giant, super-imposed hologram should be questioned) and it’s clear advertisements of 2049 have not improved upon our current state of representing women. The short, playful outfits depict Joi as a worryingly young looking video game character with one setting: to have fun (her name is a play on “joy,” after all). Without clothes and quite literally larger than life, Joi is painted in a much more adult role. Painted pink, there’s a sense of innocence about her, with the softly colored neon paint symbolic of those diverting their gaze away from their inner emotions and onto whoever, or whatever, they want Joi to be.

The Joi audiences come to know is much different from her gigantic advertisement model. When viewers first see her, she changes from archetypal housewife to stylish seductress to, finally, an all-black wardrobe that reveals little about her holographic self. The point of this, according to April, is to prove Ana de Armas’ character can be “many things; whatever is your fancy.” Joi’s changing outfits point to how accustomed viewers are to stereotypes that we recognize one in a fleeting second just from a change of shirt. As the film goes on, it becomes clear the character is simply an intimate advertisement, and to an extent, an emotional device used to emphasize K.’s loneliness. Later, Joi’s go-to outfit becomes a see-through raincoat (again reminiscent of 1982’s film) and black top and jeans. The raincoat suggests transparency, while her all-black outfit points

Joi Blade Runner 2049

While the films’ outfits add a new dimension to Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049’s women, the approach both films take in portraying women should still be criticised: Blade Runner 2049 has an obsession with macrophilia, while both films borrow—or steal—from Asian culture without giving any Asian actors or actresses substantial speaking roles. As Emily Yoshida writes for Vulture:

“The idea of explicit imagery getting past the standards boards of the future is another part of the dystopian fantasy: The line of history is leading inexorably to a godless future where everything is sexy all the time. Cinematic inventions like Rouge City and its ilk exist on an exceedingly well-worn trajectory where religion and sexual repression sit at one end, and scientific innovation and female objectification exist at the other.”

Likewise, Sarah Emerson for Motherboard observes the Kanji billboards and Ryan Gosling’s bento box and asks one of the most important, concerning questions when it comes to Blade Runner 2049’s depiction of the future: “If Asians shaped this cyberpunk future, where are they?”

The clothes of both Blade Runner films have a debt to Asian culture, and it’s disappointing Blade Runner 2049, coming 35 years after the 1985 original and set 30 years following the original’s conclusion, still has little to offer to the culture that so obviously influenced its distinctive style.

Nevertheless, while Deckard’s jacket remains iconic with K’s coat undoubtedly joining the same ranks, it’s the women’s clothes that are most interesting and memorable. Not only there just to be looked at, Rachel’s angular, rigid lines, Pris’ see-through coat, and Mariette’s faux-fur body-shielding hat and coat can also be read, revealing something deeper about both Blade Runner’s world and, most importantly, the women character’s themselves.

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