Over the past few months of lockdown, I’ve been watching the adult animated series set in a dystopian world Aeon Flux. At times, it reminds me of what seems to be our own mangled society—with its plotlines about mounting health care bills and border patrols—only more perverse, dangerous, and robotic. It ran on MTV’s experimental Liquid Television from 1991 till 1995. At the time, the show—which was cutting edge, bizarrely sexy, and certainly not for daytime television—played at 10 p.m. with a rerun at midnight.
The story followed Aeon, an assassin of the fictional world of Monica, who kills targets and retrieves valuable items and whose main focus is to thwart the plan of Trevor Goodchild, an authoritarian ruler in the neighboring city of Bregna. (He’s also her occasional lover.) Aeon is visually arresting and severely angular, equipped with viscously sharp cheekbones and an impossibly whittled waist. She moves quickly, with each sinewy muscle showing, and is flexible with catlike movements and otherworldly parkour abilities.
It’s always had a cult following—internet forums were buzzing about it in the ’90s—and now you’ve probably seen splices of the animation pop up on Instagram. The most famous clip is of long tongues interlocking and a fly getting struggling in Aeon’s eyelashes. Most recently Bella Hadid wore a vintage shirt with the image of Aeon on it.
It makes sense that Aeon’s outfit is still popping up on social media and beyond, albeit randomly: While the series is set in a ransacked, dystopian universe, the clothing seems very modern. It’s also not completely far from what Hadid herself is wearing these days. Aeon’s signature is typically a long-sleeve crop top in a dark shade of purple. (In it, her chest defies gravity and is always, well, pointing straight ahead with a purpose, just like Aeon herself.) Some details about her look are vaguely dominatrix-y, like an O-ring affixed to the middle section of her signature crop top, and she wears hiked-up thong underwear and shin-length boots that look so tight they could be peeled off. We’ve seen nods to this style on recent runways too, including Versace, Junya Watanabe, and Saint Laurent.
Aeon’s brazen sauciness has to do with creator Peter Chung’s prior experiences working in children’s television. (He worked on the show Rugrats). For him, Aeon Flux was a way to push himself in ways that he had been limited before, which ultimately trickled into the look of the character. “I’m sure some of this was venting and putting in gratuitous kinkiness,” he says. While that kinkiness can be subversive, at times it can be overt: In one episode, Aeon wears a chastity belt, which leaves little (or a lot!) to the imagination. But it’s all a way to draw people into the show. Aeon Flux plotlines have long been known to be what Chung describes as “morally ambiguous” and could sometimes be confusing. “Even if they [viewers] were confused about what was happening or unsure about what they were watching in terms of the story line, they would still be engaged visually, viscerally,” says Chung. “Everything was designed in a way to make her riveting visually, something that would draw your attention.”
The sexiness has a purpose, though. Aeon’s clothing was a way to show off the range of her body, the same way a dancer’s tight clothing reveals their form. If Chung were to choose layers of clothing, it would mean that he would have to illustrate and animate differently. “As an artist, what you find is it’s actually very difficult to draw realistic clothing, and even if you do it, your drawing then becomes more about what the character is wearing rather than the character itself,” says Chung. “It’s also another reason why you see, for example, in superhero comic books they wear skin-tight outfits. It is to show off the form of the body.”
Chung was also inspired by the very naked images of the late Helmut Newton, known for his nude imagery and nods to Amazonian women. “That has one thing in common with the fashion world—the whole point of doing something like a Helmut Newton photo shoot is that you’re depicting scenes that are kind of idealized and it’s not realistic,” says Chung. “It’s not trying to be realistic, but it’s trying to portray your state of mind.”
Chung also draws a comparison between the clothing of Aeon and Trevor Goodchild. Trevor’s varied wardrobe—which ranges from long jackets to suits and even a harness—is an intentional choice on Chung’s part to show that the character’s agenda and intentions are unknown. “Ideally what people wear is going to be a reflection of who they are inside, but I think that a lot of times people do the opposite,” says Chung. “They use clothing to conceal. With Trevor, I want to keep you guessing, and he’s trying to keep you guessing because he has a more varied wardrobe.” But, “with Aeon, she’s not trying to hide anything. When you see her, you see exactly what she’s about, and she’s the opposite of Trevor in that way that she’s not a politician. She doesn’t care what you think.”
It’s a look that we can all get behind even 30 years later—and, in a way, it’s completely refreshing. She’s out of sweatpants, extremely hot, and definitely sculpted. Also, being a rogue anarchist raging against the machine isn’t such a bad idea either.