In 1985, Donna Haraway famously wrote that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” On my many Trek binge-watches, I’ve frequently been struck by how the social norms of the time make their way into the show’s vision of the future. As a lover of fashion studies, for me this is most clear in the costumes. In almost every episode of Star Trek, we see women as scientists, engineers, and explorers, occupying the same professional roles and spaces as men. The characters on the show frequently reference this gender equity, making comments about how women can “achieve anything men can” in their society. However, much of the costume design of the 24th century is born from 20th century fashions, a time which was decidedly unequitable in its treatment of men and women. I often find myself thinking about how the costumes in The Next Generation and Voyager in particular affect Star Trek’s feminist ambitions.
As with any other show, the TNG and Voyager production teams were bound by ideas of the kind of women that were ‘allowed’ on television. That’s not to say that there is a literal rulebook about who can be on TV (although there are standards and practices), but that beauty standards are so ingrained they become unspoken rules. In Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdman’s brilliant book Star Trek Costumes: Five Decades of Fashion from the Final Frontier, the authors include a quote from costume designer William Theiss discussing the skant introduced in TNG; “Having the actresses and actors both in skirts was to diffuse any sexist accusations that might have been associated with designs from the old show.”
Notably, the skant is rarely seen outside of the first season of TNG, and Troi was the only character on the bridge crew to appear in the outfit. This pull between a vision for the future and the constraints of the production time is one that marks most of the costumes in this era of Trek. Costuming decisions are driven by everything from world-building to budget, but they are also influenced by the norms of their own era. Given those norms, there was little chance of an entirely androgynous future, or even a future where women are not recognizably feminine, that wouldn’t spark pushback or confusion.
Even within the limits of acceptable 20th century femininity, Star Trek often struggles to settle upon a vision of utopian womanhood. Both TNG and Voyager don’t seem to know quite how they want to imagine futuristic femininity (the journey of Captain Janeway’s hair is one legendary example of the producers’ Woman Befuddlement). Star Trek doesn’t know how feminine women should look or behave in a post-feminist society, and this lack of clarity leads to some rather incongruous costume design. In many ways, TNG and Voyager were just two more shows echoing the gender norms of their time. What makes them more significant, however, is the assertion that these shows represented an ideal, utopian future – particularly for women. Because of this, the shows end up implying a judgement about who would or could exist in the ideal future. And despite the characters’ assertions, if we only look at the costuming of the series, we see a surprisingly constrained future for women.
So, what kind of women would exist in a Trek-like utopia? Feminine women certainly exist, and exist in abundance. Colorful, flamboyant women exist (a la Lwaxana Troi), as do modest and elegant women. Sexually desirable women (by 20th century standards) exist. What kind of women do not exist? Women who do not wear makeup are nowhere to be found. Even Seven of Nine, whose entire character is modeled around her struggle with human social rules, is done up in the kind of feminine hair and makeup one might wear on their wedding day.
Butch and masculine women are either totally absent in TNG and Voyager, or softened enough to not appear out of place. In short, women in this utopia are strikingly feminine. Even the female villains of the shows are unmistakably gendered in their designs. The infamous ‘boob windows’ of the Klingon Duras sisters, and the bizarrely pretty Borg Queen (in First Contact she appears to be wearing peach lipstick, along with her hour-glass cut costume) are two standout examples. Neither TNG nor Voyager seem comfortable with depicting truly unfeminine women, even if these characters are portrayed as frightening or disturbing.
This is not to say that there is anything inherently dystopian about women who wear elaborate makeup, skin tight outfits, or high heels. The implications of these choices are just as contextually derived as is the very idea of femininity. Indeed, much has been said (on this very site!) about the power of seeing a feminine woman exhibiting supposedly masculine virtues such as intelligence, strength, and determination. What is problematic is making femininity the only choice available to these (supposedly) utopian women. Occasionally, Star Trek will dip its toes into more experimental waters. Captain Janeway’s incredible white suit in “The Killing Game” is one of my favorite examples, which has sparked comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn from fans.
However, costuming moments like this stand out precisely because of their rarity (although TNG-era Romulans are a notable example of a more androgynous look). Neither Voyager or TNG tried to consistently include women who weren’t at least somewhat feminine. In fact, the softening of female characters’ appearances (and the embracing of a more feminine look) tended to coincide with moments of personal growth or fulfillment, even when those characters had seemed resistant to a ‘pretty’ aesthetic. The most obvious example of this is Tasha’s first season arc on TNG (especially in “The Naked Now”), however this trend pops up numerous times in Trek stories from this period. There isn’t room to discuss these moments in detail here, and the costuming of any one of these characters alone merits further thought.
Despite everything I’ve said, I love Trek’s costumes. I love the campiness, the resourcefulness, and the recognizable visuals. For all their problems, the costumes on Voyager and TNG are genuinely fun to see on screen, and have undoubtedly influenced a broader science fiction aesthetic. Beyond that, Trek’s costuming has even had some undeniably feminist moments. That men and women (almost) wear the same uniform still feels significant. In the end, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the costumes on Star Trek. Clothing is inherently neutral, and the meanings items collect will change over time. However, to paraphrase Haraway, sci-fi costumes reflect their contemporary audiences. It seems too early to dissect the costumes in Star Trek: Discovery, the newest addition to the franchise, although there does seem to be some significant progress. Costumes are ingrained with the symbols of their time, and it’s for this reason that they are so hard to judge. It will probably take a few years before we’re able to see them clearly.