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Retrofuturistic depiction of a flying locomotive, in a dieselpunk style reminiscent of the early 1940s

Retrofuturism (adjective retrofuturistic or retrofuture) is a trend 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] But it has also manifested in the worlds of fashion, architecture, design, music, literature, film, and video games.


The word "retrofuturism," then, combines more recent ideas of nostalgia and retro with older traditions of futurism. A recent neologism, the actual term "retrofuturism" was coined by American Lloyd Dunn[3] in 1983,[4] according to fringe art magazine Retrofuturism, which was published between 1988 and 1993.[5]


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. 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 LucasStar 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. Examples include the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in an imaginary 1939, and The Rocketeer franchise, set in 1938, both of which are also examples of the genre known as dieselpunk.[10] Adam Reed's animated comedy series Archer is also set in a retrofuture aesthetic world.
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."[11] Bruce McCall calls retrofuturism a "faux nostalgia" – the nostalgia for a future that never happened.[12]


The Chrysler PT Cruiser sparked a trend of retrofuturistic designs in automobiles that continues to this day.

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.

One such theme is dissatisfaction with modern futurism. In some respects, an extrapolation of the present to the future produces disappointing, or even ghastly results, exemplified in cyberpunk and other dystopian futures often characterized by overpopulation, environmental degradation, societal degradation and transfer of power to unaccountable private entities or governments. Compared to such imaginations of the future, retrofuturism suggests a world which may be more comfortable or at least more capable of being understood while evoking "nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance".[13]

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,[14] in which visionary nostalgia is paradoxically linked to a utopian future modelled after conservative values[15] as seen in the example of Fox New's use of BioShock's aesthetic in a 2014 broadcast.[16][17]

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.

Retrofuturistic rocket model at Wikipedia event in Berlin, 2005

Design and arts[edit]

Although loosely affiliated with early-twentieth century Futurism, retrofuturism draws from a wider range of sources. To be sure, retrofuturist art and literature often draws from the factories, buildings, cities, and transportation systems of the machine age. But it might be said that 20th century futuristic vision found its ultimate expression in the development of Googie or Populuxe design. As applied to fiction, this brand of retrofuturistic visual style began to take shape in William Gibson's short story "The Gernsback Continuum." Here and elsewhere it is referred to as Raygun Gothic, a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne, and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retrofuturistic science fiction environments.

Although Raygun Gothic is most similar to the Googie or Populuxe style and sometimes synonymous with it, the name is primarily applied to images of science fiction. The style is also still a popular choice for retro sci-fi in film and video games.[18] Raygun Gothic's primary influences include the set designs of Kenneth Strickfaden and Fritz Lang.[citation needed] The term was coined by William Gibson in his story "The Gernsback Continuum": "Cohen introduced us and explained that Dialta [a noted pop-art historian] was the prime mover behind the latest Barris-Watford project, an illustrated history of what she called 'American Streamlined Modern'. Cohen called it 'raygun Gothic'. Their working title was The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was."[19]

Aspects of this form of retrofuturism can also be associated with the late 1970s and early 1980s the neo-Constructivist revival that emerged in art and design circles. Designers like David King in the UK and Paula Scher in the US imitated the cool, futuristic look of the Russian avant-garde in the years following the Russian Revolution. When the German band Kraftwerk issued The Man-Machine (1978), a record whose electronic sound was echoed in the simple geometric shapes and striking red, black and white album cover the design credited to El Lissiztky, they were also tapping into a larger retrofuturist vision. If their machine imagery was lifted from Russian design motifs that were once considered futuristic, they also presented a "compelling, if somewhat chilling, vision of the world in which musical ecstasy is rendered cool, mechanical and precise."[20]


See also: PVC clothing

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." [14]


An example in Shanghai of a retrofuturistic design in architecture.

Retrofuturism has appeared in some examples of postmodern architecture. To critics like Niklas Maak, the term suggests that the "future style" is "a mere quotation of its own iconographic tradition" and retrofuturism is little more than "an aesthetic feedback loop"[21] In the example seen at right, the upper portion of the building is not intended to be integrated with the building but rather to appear as a separate object—a huge flying saucer-like space ship only incidentally attached to a conventional building. This appears intended not to evoke an even remotely possible future, but rather a past imagination of that future, or a reembracing of the futuristic vision of Googie architecture.

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport resembles a landed spacecraft.

Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building in Los Angeles was built in 1961 as a way to commemorate the optimism of the new jet and space age and also displayed the Googie and Populuxe designs. The Theme Building (now a restaurant) was listed as a City Cultural and Historical Monument by the Los Angeles city council in 1992 and was refurbished by Walt Disney Imagineering in 1997. Plans unveiled in 2008 for LAX's expansion utilized the same recurring flying-saucer/spaceship themes in the new terminals and concourses.[22]

Video games[edit]

Retrofuturism has been also applied to video games, such as the following:

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Paul McFedries (2000-12-13). "retrofuturism". Word Spy. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  4. ^ "Retrofuturism". 1997-03-25. Retrieved 2012-11-14. 
  5. ^ "PSRF Retrograde Archive : p28". Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  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. ^ Piecraft; Ottens, Nick (July 2008), "Discovering Dieselpunk" (PDF), The Gatehouse Gazette (Issue 1): 4, 8, 9, retrieved 2012-10-17 
  11. ^ Niklas Maak, "Goodbye Retro-Futurism · A farewell to our perpetual nostalgia for the future". 032c9 (Summer 2005): p.117
  12. ^ Bruce McCall, "What is Retro-Futurism?", TED Talk
  13. ^ Latham, Rob (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. ISBN 9780199838844. 
  14. ^ a b "Retro Futurism Is Latest Fashion Sensation". EDGE United States. 
  15. ^ "Steampunk 101: On the import of retro-futurism. - A conversation on". 
  16. ^ "Fox News Quite Likes The BioShock Infinite Logo Apparently". IGN. 
  17. ^ Erik Kain (3 July 2014). "Fox News Uses 'BioShock Infinite' Logo, Ken Levine Calls It 'Irony'". Forbes. 
  18. ^ Sharon Ross (June 8, 2009). "Retro Futurism At Its Best: Designs and Tutorials". Smashing Magazine. 
  19. ^ "The Gernsback Continuum" in Gibson, William (1986). Burning Chrome. New York: Arbor House. ISBN 978-0-87795-780-5. 
  20. ^ Guffey, 141.
  21. ^ Maak, op cit.
  22. ^ Lubell, Sam (2008-11-26). "Re-LAX - LA International Airport unveils ambitious expansion plans". The Architect's Newspaper. Archived from the original on 2014-04-17. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brosterman, Norman. Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth Century Future. ISBN 0-8109-2939-2. 
  • Corn, Joseph J.; Brian Horrigan; Katherine Chambers (1996). Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-5399-0. 
  • Canto, Christophe; Odile Faliu (1993). The History of the Future: Images of the 21st Century. Flammarion. ISBN 2-08-013544-9. 
  • Kilgore, De Witt Douglas (2003). Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1847-7. 
  • Heimann, Jim (2002). Future Perfect. Köln, London: Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-1566-7. 
  • Hodge, Brooke (2002). Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays. Museum of Contemporary Art. ISBN 0-7893-0822-3. 
  • Onosko, Tim (1979). Wasn't the Future Wonderful?: A View of Trends and Technology From the 1930s. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-47551-6. 
  • Sheckley, Robert (1978). Futuropolis: Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: A&W Visual Library. ISBN 0-89104-123-0. 
  • Wilson, Daniel H.; Richard Horne (2007). Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 1-59691-136-0. 

External links[edit]