On April 12th 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Two years later, American John Glenn orbited around the earth. And in 1969, Apollo XI sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hurtling toward the moon where they’d make a step of historically large and minute proportions. It was as if the earth’s gravitational pull dragged stardust back with them, which formed into constellations in the world’s imagination. Suddenly space was everywhere, from comic books and movies to handbags. It was the space age, a time of mystery and modernity, of exploration and bold leaps into the unknown. And bold leaps are the rocket fuel of fashion.
The space age and fashion were, perhaps, a match made in the heavens. Both cast themselves out into the limitless future and seek adventure in change. In Roget’s Thesaurus, the term sis synonymous with modern. Likewise, in his landmark essay on fashion, sociologist Herbert Blumer insisted that “fashion is always modern.” Fashion trends are cultural maps made to fit the human body. They’re little markers of our present intrigues that stretch across torsos and nestle into the creases of arms and legs. When we wear fads we try on new ideas. Or as Blumer put it, “The area in which fashion operates must be one that is involved in a movement of change, with people ready to revise or discard old practices, beliefs, and attachments, and poised to adopt new social forms; there must be this thrust into the future.” The 1960s were a hotbed for new ideas, with people poised for change, but the most colossal idea of all was the sudden possibility of space travel.
Though NASA was hardly concerned with designer fashion trends, the space race did present unique sartorial challenges. The clothes an astronaut wore in space could have a direct impact on the success of a mission. The earth’s gravitational pull keeps blood circulation in check, but up in space bodily fluids can shift upwards, bloating certain areas of the body. This meant space clothes needed self-adjusting sizes. Testing was needed to determine how fabrics, coatings, plastics, and metals would react once they were shot into orbit. Astronauts needed flexible, expandable fabrics that were insulating and highly durable. Functionality was crucial, but then so was comfort.
NASA relied on new materials like Teflon, Mylar, Gore-Tex, and nylon. When coated with aluminum they took on that gleaming silver sheen that would come to define the space age, but gave the materials the comfort of a tin suit. NASA designers turned to PVC, vinyl, and acrylics to create clean, minimal shapes that could incorporate wearable technology, like suits that regulated body temperature and other vitals. As people watched the space race unfold on television sets around the world, these were the images they saw. These were the clothes that settled into the world’s space travel imaginations, the envisioned wardrobe of futuristic societies.
So it’s no surprise that designers, with cosmonauts as their muse, were enchanted by the modern space aesthetic and the opportunity to use previously unimagined materials. Suddenly, designers were freed from the ensnaring weave of textiles with possibilities as limitless as space itself! Designer Paco Rabanne, who began his career creating jewelry for haute couture houses like Dior, Balenciaga, and Givenchy, started his own fashion house in 1966. He helped pioneer the use of then-unconventional materials like plastic, paper, and metal, which he shaped into outrageous designs. Known for his flamboyant style, Rabanne also designed costumes for sexy Space-Agey films like Barbarella. André Courrèges (who also began under Balenciaga) went so far as to create his ‘space age’ collection in 1964. Courrèges also experimented with materials like plastic, metal, and PVC. His designs focused on geometric shapes, boxy minimalist looks in bold primary colors of shining metallics. He utilized short hemlines (he is, after all, the father of the miniskirt – a title fought over somewhat contentiously with Mary Quant) boots, helmets, and goggles.
Both the literal space race and fashion’s interpretation of it were crafting a vision of the future and of modern life. In it, life and design would be simpler, with clean lines and minimal detail. It would shine with the dazzling silver of sparkling galaxies. It would be simple and free, skin and soul bearing. It would require the utmost functionality (see: fashion helmets) and a monochromatic polyester and acrylic wardrobe (see: everything). Humanity would have all of space at its fingertips (the stars were nearer) and a shared aesthetic of human progress. You could wear the materials that circled the earth and in wearing it you could love (and be) the machine. As Blumer also said, “Fashion serves to detach the grip of the past in a moving world… it frees actions for new movement.” Both the space race and fashion were preparing for very new directions.
What’s more striking than the sharp, minimalist designs and flashy silver textiles is how rapidly space age fashion faded. In her analysis of space age fashion imagery in Harper’s Bazaar during the space age, Suzanne Baldaia reported that in 1970, after mankind set foot on the moon, the quantity of space age imagery dropped by a whopping 66% and continued to drop in the following few years. Like all fads, there comes a time when looks disappear into the vastness of the fashion universe. But the death of the space age aesthetic is distinctly marked by the very achievement of its muse coming into being. Once Neil Armstrong’s foot touched the surface of the moon, the future was no longer something to imagine. The future was in the past. And though space still stretches out before us in unfathomable light years and in all directions, fashion only looks forward.
“Spage Age Fashion” by Suzanne Baldaia in Twentieth-Century American Fashion
“Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection” by Herbert Blumer
Techno Fashion by Bradley Quinn
“The Space Race” at History.com
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.