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THE FASHION OF THE APOCALYPSE: END OF A WORLD COSTUME DESIGN

January 20, 2024

Clara Baisinger-Rosen

If the world was ending, what would you make sure to have with you? 

We’ve all been asked that question in some context or other. Usually the answer goes something along the lines of food, a weapon, a solar powered truck. But what about a good pair of boots? A sweatshirt you cherish? Maybe even a ballgown? Even at the end of the world, there is a place for fashion. Whether a garment is strictly functional or simply beautiful, clothes can teach us about durability, longevity, and long-term creativity when all else seems to fall away. From The Last of Us to Station 11, a post-pandemic look at clothing in the end of days in modern media reveals something interesting about the true meaning of what we wear. 

 

The Last of Us: Functionality and Care

Based on a video game by Naughty Dog, the HBO series The Last of Us has been one of the most watched television shows of 2023. Taking place in 2023 during a world destroyed by an intensely contagious fungus which turns people into zombie-like beings, The Last of Us follows Joel, a smuggler, and Ellie, a teenager who is immune to the fungus, as they travel across the country in search of revolutionaries who can create a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity. The Last of Us follows the motto of “endure and survive,” discussing what it means to live through constant tragedy and danger, and what you can bring-or leave behind. The costume design of the television show follows a similar thesis, emphasizing used clothing where functionality is paramount. In an interview conducted by Fashion at Brown with TLOU costume designer Cynthia Summers, Summers explains that “fashion ended twenty years prior” to the beginning of the show. People inherit pieces from “someone else, even a dead body.” Summers discusses how modern events, namely the war in Ukraine, influenced this emphasis on functionality. “When a war hits it just hits,” she says. “You have what you have. So then after that, like an apocalypse, let’s face it, war is an apocalyptic moment… in every sense of the word… you have what you have on your body, and if you can still scrounge something up after the moment has happened… to take with you… it’s sort of foraging and trade, which becomes an underground thing… it’s what you can afford. You need simple layers that will take you through all the seasons.” 

On the above image that inspired her, of young Ukrainian youth joining the war effort, Cynthia Summers says “ It was the beginning so they were full of hope. [I looked at] what they were wearing, what was practical, what they used as armament, what they probably gained later as armament, how that broke down, how they would keep it together.”

 

In this vein, The Last of Us costume design places an emphasis on making clothes not look ruined, but rather “lived in,” worn through thick and thin and still living to tell the tale. This emphasis can be witnessed throughout the show’s first season. Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, wears a pair of Levi 505s and a blue Crossley shirt which, while dulled and dirty, are clearly, in the context of the show, well loved. “In 2003 and 2023, Joel is pretty steady in his look,” Summers explains. “It’s very layered [when there’s] a moment where we see something different.” Though, of course, he picks his clothing for survival, there is intense intention behind Joel’s clothes which reflects the attachment he has built to what he wears and who he fundamentally is.

 

“I always work with a breakdown team,” Summers said when asked about the process of giving characters clothes that seem to have been worn for a lifetime. “Even when we’re doing something contemporary, you want people’s clothing to look… like they’ve had it for a while.” Joel, notably, has had all these clothes for a very long time. That’s in line with his character, and it’s important that it looks that way.


Ellie, who undergoes more intense character development over the course of the show, nevertheless demonstrates a continuity of clothing similar to Joel. Ellie wears a signature pink hoodie which, again, fits her perfectly. Even when she trades it for a pink collared shirt, the similarity in color and fit creates a parallel which exists similarly in meaning, and creates continuity in the “lived-in” nature of clothing that Summers creates from the jump. These clothes remain the same as the characters grow and change, reflecting how fashion can exist as a signifier of what we love, even as we’ve left so much behind. We live in our clothes, and our clothes live through us. 

Ellie also serves as a reminder that the value of clothing does not necessarily lie in how suited they are to our preferences. There’s no room for taste in the apocalypse. Cynthia Summers describes how “[Ellie’s] look changes as she goes through the story, but it’s not always her choice… she gains an iconic neapolitan jacket. She would never wear that but it was given to her by Maria (an important figure Ellie meets on her travels) and she felt like she had to wear it.” In TLOU, every item of clothing has passed through the hands of a thousand people. The breakdown process is extensive, more extensive than the initial finding of clothing in the first place, but that’s the point- it’s not about how pristine the clothes are. It’s about where the clothes have gone, and where they have yet to travel. 

In the finale (no spoilers), Ellie must trade her well-worn pink garb for a paper hospital gown. The boxiness of the gown, the bright white color of it, is stark in comparison to Joel’s well-loved steady style. Though it is clean, the white harkens less to salvation and more so to coldness. Fashion, in the end of the world and today, doesn’t always find its value in perfection. 

With all of these factors (thrifting, breakdown, shapes) in mind, The Last of Us can teach us that our clothes take on their meaning in the love we provide them through constant care. Modern trends and a shift towards vintage shopping are a real-life manifestation of this being realized. Teenagers in particular have taken to upcycling and repurposing thrifted items, asking not what new items they need, but seeing how they can make what already exists work for them. It may not be a cordyceps apocalypse (yet), but we’re starting to learn.

 

The Last of Us also takes inspiration from trends of upcycling by looking towards the non-fashion world for embellishments in terms of the costuming of their main characters. In an article with GQ, Summers describes how instead of belts, designers would “use a piece of twine or even a piece of rope, [or] twist ties to put things back together instead of buttons, because buttons are gone.” The creativity of the costume designers can be seen clearly in the details of any costume a character wears. Emphasis on ingenuity and elements of personality in Joel and Ellie’s costuming not only provides a functional aspect for world-building, but also illustrates further that creativity in fashion can be found in the most unlikely places. We can take a lesson from Joel and Ellie in our own, 2023 lives. Don’t have a belt? Use the drawstring of a cheap backpack. Need a hair tie- how about a shoelace? Without money to spend or businesses to support, the populations of the apocalypse are left to their own devices, and creativity can be found in the most unlikely places. Nowadays, we are living through a crisis of clothing overconsumption and massive waste. Maybe using some apocalypse tips can encourage creativity in repurposed clothing, and prevent impulse buying of items which we can absolutely DIY. 

However, all of this isn’t to say that an aesthetic care for clothing has entirely disappeared. “A lot of us are inherently collectors,” Summers says. “[Items] remind us of a time and place in our life. In this accelerated moment of an apocalyptic event, much like a fire, you grab what is near and dear to you and you leave all the rest behind… you keep a necklace, a chain, a piece of string.” Just because elements of beauty are small doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Take Joel’s watch, for example. It doesn’t work, but he wears it through the season, because of the love that he bears for it. In an apocalypse, nothing is worth anything monetarily anymore. Beauty and aesthetics come in the oddest of places, but they are still there. After all, we’re people. We have to, as Summers says, have “the willingness to shed things as [we] go along,” but there are certain things we hold on to. To “endure and survive,” we need the motivation to do so. Again, the value of fashion comes in the love and care we can provide. Prepping for the apocalypse -and for late stage capitalism- means making use of clothing in ways we might have never expected. 

 

 

Station 11: Artistic Expression when All is Lost

Even at the end of the world, whether it’s a zombie apocalypse or a global pandemic, there is room for expression beyond durability. Station 11 can teach us exactly that. Based on the novel by the same name, Station 11 follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they navigate a treacherous world in the wake of a population-devastating flu. Unlike The Last of Us, Station 11 takes a more peaceful look at end-of-world media. The flu has occurred- now all that remains is to rebuild. The costume design in Station 11 follows this theme. Instead of creativity lying in a piece of twine used as a belt, the characters of Station 11 create elaborate costumes for their Shakespeare productions. Kirsten, the young protagonist of the show, wears a collar of white work gloves as she plays the part of Hamlet, and early on in the show, a cloak of bound puffers. To the people living in the world of The Last of Us, this may seem like a gross misuse of valuable material, something purely functional made useless in terms of survival. But the actors of Station 11 would disagree- sometimes, we need a lack of function in order to have the strength to keep going. Beauty, in itself, gives life. In an article from The Motion Picture Association, costume designer Helen Huang describes how the show serves as a “‘memory of our civilization and… a tribute to people being creative individuals and people needing art.’” Station 11 acts as a testament to the ways in which the value of our lives is built from the meaning we imbue into it. At a certain point, “endure and survive” isn’t enough. The fashion of Station 11 proves this. Clothes are colorful and beautiful. They aren’t quick fixes but projects which take time.

In this way, Station 11 also expresses how art, whether it be clothing or performance of Shakespeare, can be a method of healing. Kirsten has dealt with immense grief in her life. She imbues this grief into the performance of her characters- this grief is heightened by the painstakingly designed garments she wears, reflecting not only her own sadness, but the sadness of all those who have lived through the apocalypse and now are trying to rebuild. With each delicate work of art that every character wears comes an overt reflection of people doing whatever they can to take what little of their identity remains into a dangerous, unknown world. Unlike The Last of Us, these people do not have to worry about zombies around the corner. But threats and traumas exist in their minds, and those can’t be fought off with a gun. Instead, the Travelling Symphony fights off their fears with art. 

 

In the same article from The Motion Picture Association, Huang discusses how during the pandemic, “‘People didn’t shrivel up and die… [they] were baking sourdough… people reverted back to making things.’” She finishes the sentiment with the phrase, “‘How amazing is that?’” Station 11 is a mirror to our own COVID-19 experience. With tragedy comes self reflection, and with self reflection comes drastic, worldwide change. Fashion follows life. Some of the most avant garde movements in fashion history have come from moments of tragedy.  To repeat Huang's words, that’s amazing. Station 11 leans into the beauty that comes in the wake of tragedy. Costumes are bright and beautiful, even as they deteriorate. A sense of amazement permeates the show. 

So what can we take from this interpretation of the apocalypse? Does tragedy need to befall us for inspiration to strike? Does beauty only arrive in the wake of pain? Of course not. Inspiration can be found in a thousand different places. Instead, Station 11 can show us the hidden depths of our own creativity. If The Last of Us can give us the twine for a belt, Station 11 takes the twine and twists it into an entirely useless tiara. There is a bit of room for experimentation in all of our lives. We can take what we have, what is lying by the side of the road, and create something beautiful, even when it feels like everything is crumbling. Are the zombies banging on the door? Maybe. But it’s just more fun to face them wrapped in a Shakespearean golden cloak

Sources

https://www.gq.com/story/the-last-of-us-costume-design

https://www.motionpictures.org/2022/01/station-eleven-costume-designer-helen-huang-on-a-post-pandemic-world-filled-with-art-humanity/

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