How The Matrix became fashion’s favourite film
While Breakfast at Tiffany’s and American Gigolo are held up as blue chip style classics, The Matrix might be this generation’s biggest fashion reference.
Its look – black leather coat and chunky boots worn by Keanu Reeves’ Neo, a PVC catsuit worn by Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity, Bantu knots worn by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe – has been adopted by everyone from Kanye West to Chloe Bailey, Dua Lipa, Rihanna and the Hadids.
The influence of the sunglasses has spawned an entire shift in shade style (a pre-divorce Kanye emailed Kim Kardashian in 2018: “You cannot wear big glasses anymore. It’s all about tiny little glasses”). And Depop says there’s been a 222 per cent spike in searches including “Matrix” in the last three months with Strategic Inventory Lead, Lizzy de Bruin, predicting: “the Noughties nostalgia of the iconic original Matrix films will surely continue to proliferate as the franchise is resurrected.”
Some of this influence is about the movie’s timestamp. The first film came out in 1999 with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions following in 2003. Telling the story of humans rising up against machines who have suppressed mankind inside a simulated reality, the films take place in a dystopian future, but still have that Y2K look so beloved of Gen Z (see: sunglasses, corsets, a monochrome colour palette, cyberpunk hair, prominent midriffs and sweaty rave wear).
The Matrix was part of a spate of films with plots that pushed against the system, and wardrobes to match. While Fight Club was about a slacker drop out look, and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley blindsided the elite establishment with Delvey-worthy grift (both films were released in 1999, a year Vanity Fair described as “one of the greatest single years of cinema ever”), The Matrix was about dressing to assimilate inside the machine.
Designers are as susceptible to all things Matrix. Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia must have the franchise on repeat – the haute-corporate tailoring as worn by multiple Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded and those tiny sunglasses are now familiar designs – while Daniel Lee’s Bottega Veneta made the green of the Matrix code a signature shade, and Balmain’s AW19 collection was very Neo. In 2019, The Cut proclaimed: “High Fashion Is Just The Matrix Cosplay Now.”
Robert Wun, the London-based designer who has dressed Lady Gaga and Solange, based a collection on The Matrix. “The first one came out when I was seven years old,” he says. “It changed my whole perspective.” He’s particularly taken with how the female characters are portrayed. “That was the beginning of how the whole narrative of woman as a flower – being beautiful, being pretty, being fragile – [changed] to a bad bitch,” he says. “That’s the transition.”
Depop’s de Bruin says the appeal of Matrix style is part of a wider trend towards a sci-fi futuristic look, pointing to Akira, the 1988 manga film, as another popular influence. Arguably, a Y2K vision of the future ticks two boxes at once. While the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections gives little away, some style elements are present and correct: see blue hair, long black coats and, of course, those sunglasses.
Kym Barrett, the costume designer of the original three Matrix movies, says she went for “very graphic silhouettes” with the flowing robes that Morpheus and Neo wear a big part of the visual spectacle. Everything was considered character-first. Trinity wears reflective fabrics as an illusion because “these people are moving through our world, almost invisible. They blend in but they also disappear between the two [worlds].”
Barrett argues the popularity, now, comes from the fact that the conflict presented in the film – man vs machine – is something we can relate to. “The world order is in a definite state of crisis,” she says. “I also feel there’s an element of armouring up, right?”
Dressing to be inside the machine also has relevance for a whole new category – digital fashion. In the first movie, Morpheus shows Neo how for the Matrix – or any other – you can change your outfit accordingly, to create “the mental projection of your digital self”. Online life has become more and more vital in the years since those words were uttered on film. Now, there’s a whole industry of designers making outfits for their digital selves to wear in the metaverse.
It’s been estimated that the market for “skins” – outfits to wear in games – is worth $40b a year, and there’s also a growing sector of digital high fashion. Burberry and Balenciaga have both worked on NFTs, while The Fabricant, DressX and Tribute Brand are just some digital-only fashion brands. The Fashion Awards even had a Metaverse Design award this year, won by cSapphire.
The Fabricant’s Head of Creative Strategy, Michaela Larosse, says reference points in her industry “inevitably come from sci fi”, citing The Matrix as well as Ready Player One and Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, where the term “metaverse” originally comes from. While these imaginings are crucial to this growing industry, the actuality is more fantastical.
“There are not too many bells and whistles [in The Matrix],” she says. “Whereas in the world of digital fashion, [it’s] about curating your identity in virtual spaces. And what that actually does in reality, certainly from our perspective, is open up this massive palette of possibility.”
This means, for example, dresses made of flames, or outfits that evolve as “you” wear them. “Fashion has always been the frontline of our identity,” Larosse says. “And we’re translating that perspective and that experience of fashion into the digital space.”
Some are even prioritising digital. As Gala Marija Vrbanic, the founder and creative director of Tribute Brand, says over Zoom: “You see me now here but it’s this is not like real me. I’m better at expressing myself online and in the virtual worlds. This is where I can be truly myself.”
Vrbanic agrees that it’s the concept of simulated outfits rather than the costumes themselves that make The Matrix – her favourite film – so groundbreaking. Without any environmental impact but with limitless possibilities, it’s fashion that is future-proof.
“With physical fashion, let’s keep it simple, nice and beautiful,” she says. “[With] the virtual – those things [can] turn into something crazy.”