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With billionaires and pop stars on the scene, will we be left watching the space race from our home?

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Dec 3, 2021

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In the 1960s, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges all embraced the space race, incorporating otherworldly motifs into their iconic designs. Throughout the mid-20th century, the fashion industry became enamoured with the space race’s competitive aura, encouraging creatives to think of the future in new ways. The eye-catching silhouettes and scintillating textures of the garments that took centre stage during this time were playful and demanding of attention. However, they also reflected the revolutionary spirit that underpinned the 1960s. According to CR Fashion Book, the fashion movement “signalled independent attitudes that were free of conformity.”

With almost the same fervour as the 1960s, extraterrestrial-inspired themes have once again permeated pop culture this past year, encouraging audiences to rethink earthly limits beyond the stars. The most prominent examples can be found in conventional and alternative endeavours alike—think 2021’s readaptation of the 1984 film Dune or Lil Nas X’s Montero album cover.

Speaking of stars, Doja Cat’s 2021 output shares a similar affinity with otherworldly themes. Her playful, intergalactic music video for ‘Need to Know’ immerses viewers into a number of vibrant settings ranging from a futuristic living room to a mystical club. Grimes, the pop queen of all things beyond Earth, even made a cameo in the video. While visually different, the singer’s video for ‘Kiss Me More’ which was released earlier this year similarly uses alien tropes to explore aspects of female sexuality. Both music videos make their mark in the expansive universe Doja Cat has created with her album Planet Her, and while they seem singular, they tap into something larger. This cosmos of collected cultural references to space reflect the 1960s and its creative attitude towards the galaxy as a medium through which alternative lifestyles and ways of thinking can be expressed freely.

Humanity’s idea of space has long been a welcome medium for escapist fantasies. But while Lil Nas X and Doja Cat employ its motifs to express glitzy sexual empowerment and gender fluidity, some of the world’s most influential voices use it for different reasons. Journalist Sam Wolfson explores this duality in his October 2021 piece for The Guardian titled Metaverse, Mars, meditation retreats: billionaires want to escape the world they ruined. “[Mark] Zuckerberg’s virtual world of play pretend is a way of escaping the destruction he’s wrought on the real one,” wrote Wolfson. While Meta has allowed hate and disinformation to be amplified on its platforms—particularly in the past year—its founder is focused on a pipe dream of the future in the midst of a PR crisis.

Though Zuckerberg’s tunnel vision and VR side hustle may not gain traction, Facebook’s rebranding to Meta points to a larger prevailing attitude towards alternate realities and other worlds present in our Western zeitgeist. Similar to Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the like, Zuckerberg has joined “a cadre of 21st-century robber barons […] looking to escape to other spheres of reality,” Wolfson continued. While the space-focused endeavours of these billionaires are real, they also exist in bubbles of fantasy. As Wolfson stated, it is “impressive that SpaceX and Blue Origin have achieved low-Earth orbit,” however, “these projects have more to do with providing a psychological salve to their owners than they do with the future of tech.”

The seemingly unlimited and untapped potential of space is but an attractive daydream for most of us dwellers down here. For instance, Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran, the duo behind Fecal Matter, bring the extraterrestrial to the everyday in their lifestyles. Pronounced foreheads, zippered garments, eye-catching makeup and contrasting textures are just a few of the ways they toy around with their self-expression through the interstellar language of space. When interviewed by Paper Magazine, the pair said that they hope their otherworldly pursuits encourage and “change the way people perceive themselves by presenting alternative versions of what is beautiful.”

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Similar to designers in the 1960s, contemporary creatives use space as a setting in which to express alternative ways of living and understanding humanity. However, for those with tentacular businesses depleting Earth’s resources, it acts as simply another place to conquer. On the untouched surface of Mars, they can easily replicate the many systems harming our current global society.

For more than three decades, Tim Jackson, a professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, has researched how vital and possible sustainable technology is when it comes to transforming worldwide economies to become better adapted to future scenarios. However, throughout his research, he has also come to understand that capitalism’s never-ending reach towards productivity “continually push[es] society towards materialistic goals, and undermine[s] those parts of the economy such as care, craft, and creativity which are essential to our quality of life.” Pointing to MIT’s report The Limits to Growth—which continues to be influential today despite being initially published in 1972—Jackson wrote that “economists have been fighting about whether it’s possible for the economy to expand forever” for more than five decades. In 2021, space (and Mars in particular) is the new frontier on which this argument is being played out.

On 12 July 2021, Musk tweeted that “those who attack space maybe don’t realize that space represents hope for so many people.” While that may be true, it also largely obscures the reality that space is inaccessible for the majority of the globe’s general population. As the pandemic dismantled the livelihoods of millions, Bezos’ billions got bigger. His personal wealth almost doubled in the past year and a half. This increase allowed him to invest more time and capital into Blue Origin, his aerospace company.

In the same week that he announced his adventures into Earth’s low orbit, “hundreds of people died from a record-shattering heat dome in Canada and the Pacific Northwest and the ocean caught on fire,” journalist Sim Kern reported in Salon. As intergalactic settings become playgrounds for the super-wealthy, it seems more likely that most of us will be watching their daydreams play out from a deteriorating home planet. However, thanks to the swell of space-inspired media and design recently, we can at least continue to enjoy escapist fantasies while it does so. Always look on the bright side of life, right?