Colour me SHADO

Designing costumes for a futuristic science fiction programme brings its own difficulties. How will fashions have changed in a century, or a millennium even? The designers of costumes in UFO had an even harder task in some respects – to look a mere decade ahead and imagine how the current fashions of the late 60’s would have developed.

It’s easy to look back with the hindsight of fifty years and wonder what happened to those somewhat hopeful fashions of the 1980’s, but the costumes in UFO had something rare to television at that time.

They had panache and flair and that certain ‘something’ that made many of us want a jacket like Straker’s or a figure-hugging uniform with sleeves and legs that you could remove to make a ‘casual’ off-duty outfit. And it was not just the costumes.

The whole essence of the UFO ‘look’ was one of sleek efficiency. A modern style without being too futuristic or different, clothes designed to be practical and modern and at yet also at the forefront of space exploration.

(In 2009, an astronaut on the ISS wore underwear containing particles of silver, which gave the garments anti-bacterial and odor-eliminating properties. Those Moonbase uniforms were way ahead of the times!)

It’s a well-known fact that Keith Wilson was the main designer of the costumes, but it was Sylvia Anderson who chose the colours and fabrics to create what was to become ‘Century 21 Fashions’ though the costumes were met with varying degrees of approval. Ed Bishop recalled that Sylvia had “a wonderful eye for colour and fabric” whereas George Sewell hated the turtle neck sweaters which he found itchy.

Looking back at the fashions it’s worth comparing them with Star Trek TOS, first broadcast in September 1966, just four years before UFO.  Star Trek uniforms rely heavily on the primary colours – gold and blue and red – with plenty of strong lines and contrasts, whereas UFO’s costumes tend towards pastels and tones: the pale beige catsuits in HQ, the muted grey of the Moonbase uniforms etc.

There are few primary colours in UFO and even the strong colours – Paul Foster’s cerise suit for example – are softer tones and when a strong colour is used, it’s a deliberate move – Straker’s black suit at the start of “Conflict” which is used to emphasise the divide between the two men.

Most of the strong primary colours in UFO are seen outside SHADO in the ‘real world’ of the studio etc.  It’s a deliberate move to conceal SHADO, to make it distinct from formal military organisations with their reliance on pomp and ceremony and medals. And it’s not just in the costumes that we see this secrecy.

The underground base is for the most part, colourless and subdued with its rough concrete walls painted in white. The overall effect is one of ‘trying not to be noticed’, of staying under the radar.

This is even more obvious when Sylvia introduced costumes in primary colours into some episodes: the vivid party scene in “Ordeal” that showed us life outside SHADO, the red outfit seen in “The Sound of Silence” and again in “Psychobombs”, Jane Grant’s vivid green dress in “Court Martial”. And of course the aliens’ bright red spacesuit; the colour of danger.

UFO’s costumes might not have accurately reflected the fashions of the 80’s, but the combination of Keith Wilson’s superb designs and Sylvia Anderson’s eye for colour and fabric created a series of innovative styles that have withstood the test of time.

One day the Nehru suit will return!

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