Dressing to Dodge Bullets: That 'Matrix' Look
by Ruth La Ferla
In "The Matrix," the 1999 science fiction blockbuster, Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays the superhero Trinity, is sheathed in a glistening black vinyl cat suit that cleaves to her curves like shiny urban armor. Her garb, of a piece with the movie's multi-mirrored surfaces, functions as a reflective camouflage, one that helps her elude an army of black-suited, shade-wearing bad guys.
On its shimmering surface, "The Matrix" pits man against machine, the flesh-and-blood heroes scarcely a match for a race of sentient robots. The movie's ingenious plot twists and leaping action sequences, inspired by Hong Kong action flicks and video games, have given it cult stature, frequent video and DVD replay, and raised expectations for "The Matrix Reloaded," which opens May 15, the first of two sequels to appear this year.
But just as potent in the enduring spell of the series is the style of "The Matrix." Its visual vocabulary is expressed in settings, costumes and mood, which, even four years after the release of the first film, continues to seed popular culture, turning up as recently as the designer fashions shown on runways for fall 2003.
"Not since 'Blade Runner' do I remember an action movie that has had that much style," said Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer known for his CD covers for the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. "The slow-motion action, the uses of new technology, the special effects and the costumes, even the villains with their skinny ties, bad suits and queer sunglasses - you definitely still see that around as an influence."
What keeps "The Matrix" relevant is its unconventional subtext, perpetuated in every frame, that style saves - that literally and metaphorically, a great leather trench coat may well be the best defense. The messianic hero, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, wears a sweeping black leather trench with an arsenal of firearms stitched into its lining. Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a vaguely mythical father figure, is more forbidding still in a lead-colored coat whose pyramidal shape suggests a majestic cape.
Now consider the Sean John collection for fall, which includes hip-belted, calf-length storm coats that quote Mr. Fishburne's look, as well as the streamlined silhouettes and street-tough fabrics of the film's other costumes. Or think of fall fashions from Balenciaga designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere, including leather leggings and tunics cut like armor. Or Dior's quilt-stitched overcoats by Hedi Slimane, all of which seem to owe a debt to the movie. Dolce & Gabbana, too, has turned out street wear that renders women as futuristic Valkyries, encased in calf-hugging pants and cropped jackets with multiple buckles, reminiscent of Ms. Moss's Trinity.
Like those fierce-looking fashions, the movie's costumes were conceived in part as urban camouflage. "The characters are always dodging bullets; someone is always after them," said Kym Barrett, the costume designer for all three "Matrix" films. Trinity's shiny cat suit was meant to look like an oil slick, Ms. Barrett said, "something like mercury, that you can't catch, it moves so quickly through your fingers."
Her costumes, she said, drew upon fairy tales, the robes of Tibetan monks and Chinese scholars, and the costumes in the samurai movies and American westerns she saw as a child. "When I read the script it reminded me of those movies," she said. "Everyone in them had long coats, and when they moved in slow motion, their costumes created a very strong silhouette."
For fashion designers, the movie's look made for an opulent feast. "The costumes' clean, straight lines, very pared down, dovetail with a renewed interest in minimalism," said Ed Burstell, general manager of Henri Bendel, the New York department store. "When 'The Matrix' arrived, it hit with such an impact because it played into everyone's concern with what the next millennium would look like." That curiosity abated, but the influence of the movie's look persists.
Rick Owens, an avant-garde designer whose own aesthetic was shaped in part by science fiction films, said he is keen on the amalgamation of "sex and violence, loud music and graceful motion" in "The Matrix." He is just as taken with the clean graphic look of its costumes. A similar style, he predicted, would in one form or another color his next collection. The film series has a look that is "very precise and very sharp, one that we are all responding to," he said.
The movie's shiny, aggressive imagery, with elements of neo-punk street style and the futuristic runway fashions of the early 80's by Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, speaks to design buffs in fields other than fashion.
"Whatever the components of style are - confidence, cool, grace, and don't forget black leather - 'The Matrix' has it in abundance," writes Karen Haber in "Exploring the Matrix" (St. Martin's), a new collection of essays that probe the cultural influences of the film. Ms. Haber, a science fiction writer, speculates that if the influential editor Diana Vreeland were alive, she would have appreciated the film, because, with its "sexy use of rearview mirrors, doorknobs, spoons, all manner of reflections, and multiple images in video screens," it "could have come out of a fashion video or commercial."
Rock groups like Fischerspooner have adapted the street-tough look of the movie in their stage costumes. And films like "Traffic" were quick to exploit the movie's use of color in the service of a mood - blue to signify the real world, green for the computer-generated virtual reality in which much of the movie's action takes place.
But not every champion of up-to-the-minute design applauds the film's influence. Karim Rashid, who creates flamboyant plastic products for the home, including a line for Target, was amused and dismayed to hear younger members of his design team wax effusive about the surreal stunts and brooding dystopian vision of the future in "The Matrix."
"I found the movie not the least bit prescient; it was even dated," he said. "We are looking at a future supposedly created by artificial intelligence - one of bad suits, ill-fitting coats and cheesy shades? Is that the best they can do?"
Equally unconvincing, he said, is the movie's dark nocturnal look. "I want to design a film where the future is so brilliant, optimistic and beautiful," he said, "that you leave the theater saying, Boy, I can't wait for it to happen."
For others, however, "The Matrix" resonates in ways not all that literal. Its central premise, elaborated in the sequel, is that the world humans think is real is, in fact, a computer construct managed by cyborgs. The last remnants of a real human world, known in the movie as Zion, are hidden deep inside the earth.
In "The Matrix Reloaded," Zion will be prominently featured, and audiences will get an eyeful of its corroded surfaces, ancient pipes and dwellings that look like tin cans - a decaying, postindustrial look. The idea, said Owen Paterson, the production designer, was to give both sequels the look of more human environments, to evoke in audiences a longing for slower-paced lives and human connections.
"That the real world is unreal is a very powerful metaphorical idea that resonates, particularly with the young," said James Sanders, an architect and the author of "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies" (Knopf, 2001). People react to the high-tech, mass-produced world in which they live by attempting to get back in touch with their pasts, Mr. Sanders said. Some viewers might appreciate the slickness of the synthetic realm of "The Matrix," represented by a sprawling glass and steel megacity. But like the movie's protagonists, they would not want to live there, he said. The Lower East Side may be more to their liking than a slick simulated environment. "That, he added, "is why so many of them are returning to the older parts of cities."