The young, gay man archetype has long been a paradigm of cutting edge style, according to Alison Lurie and her legendary 1981 book on fashion and semiotics called The Language of Clothes. At the precise symbolic positioning between disenfranchised and desired, trend forecasters have relied on "urban dandies" to help them predict what’s coming next. No one encapsulates this dynamic more than Lil Nas X, the artist whose novelty country song spawned a million remixes, and a million think pieces. But the young rapper has already moved on from the yee-haw trend that he single-handedly thrust into the mainstream imaginary—and he’s set his target on cyberpunk.
Hot Take: Yee-Haw Is Out, Cyberpunk Is In
Nas’s subversion of country music was particularly ingenious, taking over a genre that typically is unwelcoming to both queers and nonwhites. The world of cyberpunk had in its past been somewhat less exclusive. The clever reversals of race and gender in 2019’s version of the dystopian sub-genre are unique. Although ethnic and sexual minorities were often relegated as sidekicks or villains in traditional cyberpunk literature, they’re now the story's main characters.
The term “cyberpunk” picked up popularity in 1983 when author Bruce Bethke titled a short narrative in the Amazing Stories collection with the clever neologism. The word came to define a specific, usually pessimistic vision of the future dominated by hackers, cybercrime, paranoia, neo-noir intrigue, emotional deadness, artificial reality, cocaine-fueled hyper-capitalism and a post-modern blurring of humanity and technology. As the predictions of writers like J.G. Ballard, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson came true in the late '90s and early '00s, Hollywood painted their interpretations of cyberpunk in movies like The Matrix and Hackers. They also found inspiration in adult Japanese animation like Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Serial Experiments Lain. Y2K had once been the paradigmatic fear of cyberpunk, and because retro fashion works in 20-year cycles, it’s not surprising that those trends are coming back in style.
Lil Nas X’s latest afro-futurist single, “Panini,” takes a Blade Runner route, but his aesthetic is in line with cyberpunk themes. The protagonists of cyberpunk were traditionally either techno-cops or teenage criminals—and the lighthearted juxtaposition of Nas’s plucky personality with the hardboiled background is both endearing and on-point. Indeed, his vision of the future is sillier than what Japanese manga artists had foreseen.
But Lil Nas X isn’t the only pioneer of cyberpunk’s re-emergence. Dior was perhaps a bit ahead of the curve when they introduced its Hajime Sorayama-inspired menswear lines in Tokyo in late 2018. Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton has begun showcasing handbags with flexible screens in its 2020 cruisewear line, a runway show set to the operatic score of Final Fantasy VIII (a classic cyberpunk videogame) and transgender pop singer SOPHIE’s clever brand of hyper-pop plays up the power of future shock, a term coined in a 1970 book of the same name. In streetwear, Nike Lab has turned black military-influenced gear into abstract extrapolations of health goth.
Cyberpunk classic films are also now getting reboots: a fourth Matrix movie is already in the works, Neon Genesis Evangelion is garnering new fans on Netflix, John Cho is set to star in a live-action Cowboy Bebop adaptation, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits is getting remade as a TV show and a fully redone Videodrome is on the way. (A Western adaptation of the masterpiece Akira is still stuck in development hell.) EDM still reigns supreme as an inescapable musical genre and has since mutated into modern forms like the post-ballroom, deconstructed club music of artists like LSDXOXO and the entire Materia/Loveless music label. E-sports have become almost as profitable as “real” sports amid endless remakes of PlayStation-era, anti-capitalist classics like Final Fantasy VII and Vampire: The Masquerade.
The common thread is an increasingly uneasy relationship between human beings and the computers that now run our lives. Technology is inevitably slipping its way into our clothes for functional purposes, and fashion allows artists to subvert and question the future of cybernetic mutations.
Because fashion always reflects current politics, it shouldn't be surprising that cyberpunk is making a comeback. As our digital existence increasingly defines our lives with the omnipresence of surveillance, the ubiquity of advertising, the propagation of virtual realities and the rising threat of climate disaster, it’s not shocking that fashion has come to reflect the fiction that predicted these conditions long ago.
We are living in the cybernetic nightmare that the generation before us warned us all about. Now we all just have to dress the part.