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Retrofuturism (adjective retrofuturistic or retrofuture) is a movement in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced in an earlier era. If futurism is sometimes called a "science" bent on anticipating what will come, retrofuturism is the remembering of that anticipation.[1] Characterized by a blend of old-fashioned "retro styles" with futuristic technology, retrofuturism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology. Primarily reflected in artistic creations and modified technologies that realize the imagined artifacts of its parallel reality, retrofuturism can be seen as "an animating perspective on the world".[2]


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an early use of the term appears in a Bloomingdales advertisement in a 1983 issue of The New York Times. The ad talks of jewellery that is "silverized steel and sleek grey linked for a retro-futuristic look". In an example more related to retrofuturism as an exploration of past visions of the future, the term appears in the form of “retro-futurist” in a 1984 review of the film Brazil in The New Yorker.[3] Critic Pauline Kael writes, "[Terry Gilliam] presents a retro-futurist fantasy."[4]

Several websites have referenced a supposed 1967 book published by Pelican Books called Retro-Futurism by T. R. Hinchliffe as the origin of the term, but this account is unverified. There exist no records of this book or author.[5][A]


Retrofuturism builds on ideas of futurism, but the latter term functions differently in several different contexts. In avant-garde artistic, literary and design circles, futurism is a long-standing and well established term.[citation needed] But in its more popular form, futurism (sometimes referred to as futurology) is "an early optimism that focused on the past and was rooted in the nineteenth century, an early-twentieth-century 'golden age' that continued long into the 1960s' Space Age".[6]

Retrofuturism is first and foremost based on modern but changing notions of "the future". As Guffey notes, retrofuturism is "a recent neologism", but it "builds on futurists' fevered visions of space colonies with flying cars, robotic servants, and interstellar travel on display there; where futurists took their promise for granted, retro-futurism emerged as a more skeptical reaction to these dreams".[7] It took its current shape in the 1970s, a time when technology was rapidly changing. From the advent of the personal computer to the birth of the first test tube baby, this period was characterized by intense and rapid technological change. But many in the general public began to question whether applied science would achieve its earlier promise—that life would inevitably improve through technological progress. In the wake of the Vietnam War, environmental depredations, and the energy crisis, many commentators began to question the benefits of applied science. But they also wondered, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, at the scientific positivism evinced by earlier generations. Retrofuturism "seeped into academic and popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s", inflecting George Lucas's Star Wars and the paintings of pop artist Kenny Scharf alike".[8] Surveying the optimistic futurism of the early twentieth century, the historians Joe Corn and Brian Horrigan remind us that retrofuturism is "a history of an idea, or a system of ideas—an ideology. The future, or course, does not exist except as an act of belief or imagination."[9]


Retrofuturism incorporates two overlapping trends which may be summarized as the future as seen from the past and the past as seen from the future.

The first trend, retrofuturism proper, is directly inspired by the imagined future which existed in the minds of writers, artists, and filmmakers in the pre-1960 period who attempted to predict the future, either in serious projections of existing technology (e.g. in magazines like Science and Invention) or in science fiction novels and stories. Such futuristic visions are refurbished and updated for the present, and offer a nostalgic, counterfactual image of what the future might have been, but is not.

The second trend is the inverse of the first: futuristic retro. It starts with the retro appeal of old styles of art, clothing, mores, and then grafts modern or futuristic technologies onto it, creating a mélange of past, present, and future elements. Steampunk, a term applying both to the retrojection of futuristic technology into an alternative Victorian age, and the application of neo-Victorian styles to modern technology, is a highly successful version of this second trend. In the movie Space Station 76 (2014), mankind has reached the stars, but clothes, technology, furnitures and above all social taboos are purposely highly reminiscent of the mid-1970s.

In practice, the two trends cannot be sharply distinguished, as they mutually contribute to similar visions. Retrofuturism of the first type is inevitably influenced by the scientific, technological, and social awareness of the present, and modern retrofuturistic creations are never simply copies of their pre-1960 inspirations; rather, they are given a new (often wry or ironic) twist by being seen from a modern perspective.

In the same way, futuristic retro owes much of its flavor to early science fiction (e.g. the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells), and in a quest for stylistic authenticity may continue to draw on writers and artists of the desired period.

Both retrofuturistic trends in themselves refer to no specific time. When a time period is supplied for a story, it might be a counterfactual present with unique technology; a fantastic version of the future; or an alternate past in which the imagined (fictitious or projected) inventions of the past were indeed real.

The import of retrofuturism has, in recent years, come under considerable discussion. Some, like the German architecture critic Niklas Maak, see retrofuturism as "nothing more than an aesthetic feedback loop recalling a lost belief in progress, the old images of the once radically new".[10] Bruce McCall calls retrofuturism a "faux nostalgia"—the nostalgia for a future that never happened.[11]


Although retrofuturism, due to the varying time-periods and futuristic visions to which it alludes, does not provide a unified thematic purpose or experience, a common thread is dissatisfaction or discomfort with the present, to which retrofuturism provides a nostalgic contrast.

A similar theme is dissatisfaction with the modern world itself. A world of high-speed air transport, computers, and space stations is (by any past standard) "futuristic"; yet the search for alternative and perhaps more promising futures suggests a feeling that the desired or expected future has failed to materialize. Retrofuturism suggests an alternative path, and in addition to pure nostalgia, may act as a reminder of older but now forgotten ideals. This dissatisfaction also manifests as political commentary in Retrofuturistic literature,[12] in which visionary nostalgia is paradoxically linked to a utopian future modelled after conservative values[13] as seen in the example of Fox News' use of BioShock's aesthetic in a 2014 broadcast.[14][15]

Retrofuturism also implies a reevaluation of technology. Unlike the total rejection of post-medieval technology found in most fantasy genres, or the embrace of any and all possible technologies found in some science-fiction, retrofuturism calls for a human-scale, largely comprehensible technology, amenable to tinkering and less opaque than modern black-box technology.

Retrofuturism is not universally optimistic, and when its points of reference touch on gloomy periods like World War II, or the paranoia of the Cold War, it may itself become bleak and dystopian. In such cases, the alternative reality inspires fear, not hope, though it may still be coupled with nostalgia for a world of greater moral as well as mechanical transparency.


[Retro]futuristic clothing is a particular imagined vision of the clothing that might be worn in the distant future, typically found in science fiction and science fiction films of the 1940s onwards, but also in journalism and other popular culture. The garments envisioned have most commonly been either one-piece garments, skin-tight garments, or both, typically ending up looking like either overalls or leotards, often worn together with plastic boots. In many cases, there is an assumption that the clothing of the future will be highly uniform.

The cliché of futuristic clothing has now become part of the idea of retrofuturism. Futuristic fashion plays on these now-hackneyed stereotypes, and recycles them as elements into the creation of real-world clothing fashions.

"We've actually seen this look creeping up on the runway as early as 1995, though it hasn't been widely popular or acceptable street wear even through 2008," said Brooke Kelley, fashion editor and Glamour magazine writer. "For the last 20 years, fashion has reviewed the times of past, decade by decade, and what we are seeing now is a combination of different eras into one complete look. Future fashion is a style beyond anything we've yet dared to wear, and it's going to be a trend setter's paradise."[12]

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  1. ^ There is, however, a commercial artwork, available as a framed print, a design on a cushion, and in other forms, that appears to be the cover of such a book: Retro-futurism by T. R. Hinchcliffe, "A Pelican Original". This is probably the source of the idea that such a book exists. The artist has noted that this is a piece of fan art, not an official cover. The "Artist's Description" on the webpage says
    Quite an obscure title this: “The intention of this book is to examine major recurrent themes in mans’ many analogue predictions & prophecies of the future – from inspired fantasy to factually based notions, their cultural & scientific impact, the brilliance [or otherwise] of those ideas, and how they are now faring at the apparent dawning of our electronic future – T.R. Hinchcliffe, 1967.”


  1. ^ Elizabeth Guffey and Kate C. Lemay, "Retrofuturism and Steampunk", The Oxford Handbook to Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 434.
  2. ^ Robert Lanham, "Introduction", The Oxford Handbook to Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 14
  3. ^ "Brazil". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2018-07-01.
  4. ^ "retro, adj. and n.2." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2005. Web. 30 June 2018.
  5. ^ Dorsey, Ryan; Goldberg, Zachary. "Looking Back at Tomorrow: 'Retrofuturism'". Looking Back at Tomorrow. Whale Bus. Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  6. ^ Elizabeth Guffey and Kate C. Lemay, "Retrofuturism and Steampunk", The Oxford Handbook to Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 435.
  7. ^ Elizabeth Guffey, "Crafting Yesterday's Tomorrows: Retro-Futurism, Steampunk, and Making in the Twenty-First Century", Journal of Modern Craft 7.3 (November, 2014) p. 254.
  8. ^ Elizabeth Guffey, Retro: The Culture of Revival (Reaktion: 2006):155–157
  9. ^ Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan, Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future (Johns Hopkins Press: 1984): xii.
  10. ^ Niklas Maak, "Goodbye Retro-Futurism · A farewell to our perpetual nostalgia for the future". 032c9 (Summer 2005): p. 117
  11. ^ Bruce McCall, "What is Retro-Futurism?" Archived 2015-02-02 at the Wayback Machine, TED Talk
  12. ^ a b "Retro Futurism Is Latest Fashion Sensation". EDGE United States. Archived from the original on 2013-10-23.
  13. ^ "Steampunk 101: On the import of retro-futurism. - A conversation on".
  14. ^ "Fox News Quite Likes The BioShock Infinite Logo Apparently". IGN.
  15. ^ Erik Kain (3 July 2014). "Fox News Uses 'BioShock Infinite' Logo, Ken Levine Calls It 'Irony'". Forbes. Archived from the original on 11 September 2014.

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