The spacesuit has come to symbolize both human progress and the terrors associated with it. On the one hand, it literally embodies the boundless possibility of technological achievement. On the other, it’s a reminder of the fragile human endeavor in the face of the void. If your last experience of science fiction involved space suits, it probably also involved an oxygen leak, space madness, or someone floating away into the infinite black.
Nicholas de Monchaux has put together a definitive study of the spacesuit in a beautifully designed volume entitled Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. The author shows, in his multi-layered account, that the spacesuit was much more than a machine to help humans breathe and work in zero gravity/zero oxygen/killer cold. This study reveals the spacesuit to be at the intersection of fashion, politics, assumptions about gender and concepts of the human self.
The great value of this study is its willingness to connect its already inherently interesting topic with a much larger cultural matrix. Early science fiction and the first efforts to protect the human body at high altitude play some role. So does the “New Look” of Christian Dior in the first years after World War II and the changes it brought to fashion’s ability to frame the human body in public. The clockwork toys and experiments of the 18th century even figure into de Monchaux’s effort to describe the various cultural bypaths that led to the iconic suits of the Apollo missions.
In these seemingly disconnected bits of cultural flotsam and jetsam, de Monchaux situates the history of technological development that preceded the ‘50s and ‘60s. The foundation of the spacesuit, we learn, is in foundation garments. World War II era pilots wore flight suits designed by underwear manufacturers, specifically by firms whose peacetime activities focused on the making of mid-century corsets aimed at women who sought to “correct” their posture.
This seemingly odd, but wholly practical, relationship and system of interchange continued after the war. David Clark, responsible for making the suit used by Chuck Yeager in his 1948 experimental flights, became a success in the brassier market. These designs became part of the lingerie revolution of the post-war period in which new bra designs took advantage of the fabrics produced by the war effort (and the easing of restrictions on fabric).
The relationship between the bra and the spacesuit, de Monchaux shows, certainly doesn’t end there. Although ignored when the first flights suits were manufactured, the International Latex Corporation (better known as Playtex) created the first “soft” or fabric-based suits for the Apollo program.
Shifting rhetorics of the Cold War played some role in the “hard” versus “soft” design, each obviously carrying with them notions about masculinity and warfare. In the ‘80s, Reaganite notions of space as yet another front in the struggle against the Soviets led to the design of the AX-5, a “hard” suit that would transform astronauts into soldiers in space. These designs abandoned the soft suit, fabric-based model for spacewear while also finding ways to give the body more maneuverability.
The author’s method of peeling away different layers of his study sometimes obscures more than it explains. In the midst of a fascinating discussion about the how artists, photographers and designers hailed the hard-shelled suits of the ‘80s as objects of beauty (so much so that Robert Mapplethorpe photographed some of the AX series) the book moves to a discussion of the idea of mission control and its history. This is generally useful as it allows the author to tell a story that is much larger than space fashion. It also sometimes gives the reader the sense of a narrative left incomplete.
Still, this approach does allow de Monchaux to offer the reader an enormous number of brief, but revelatory, insights. Readers are introduced to the cultural significance of the airline stewardess uniform. We learn about the decisions made that helped make the lunar landing a massive, global television event. There is even a thorough discussion of the idea of the cyborg and its relationship to the design of the post-human costuming that allowed humanity to take its giant leap.
Even if the story of the space program is not your thing, de Monchaux has managed to link the spacesuit to a complex variety of cultural ideas and moments. The author is really telling a larger story here, the phenomenon of government, business and mass culture coming together to create larger systems of value and exchange, all bureaucratically interlinked and interacting with the public through various media outlets. In fact, one of the pleasures of this book includes how de Monchaux reveals the space suit as part of a series of new kinds of cultural and bureaucratic intersections, the kind of intersections that remade advertising, government and public policy in the late-20th century.