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Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

by Nicolas de Monchaux
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
250 pp., illus. 140 col. Trade, $34.95
ISBN-13: 978-0-262-01520-2.

Reviewed by Valérie Lamontagne
Design & Computation Arts, Concordia University


Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, is a dissection of the influencing cultures, materials, and scientific practices that brought about the fabrication of the first spacesuit worn on the moon. Organized in 21 thematic chapters—echoing 21 unique and functionally adapted layers of the suit—the structure permits the author to take necessary detours and sideway glances at the factors responsible for the final and unorthodox outcome of a girdle-making company Playtex winning the contract to make the ubiquitous moon-walk suit. More than a historical overview, Monchaux’s extensively researched book tells the battle of conflicting wills and visions, which pits the fragility and finiteness of the body’s ability to adapt to inhospitable environments against the cybernetic dream of total control and somatic transformation through technology. This dichotomy is articulated—specifically in the case of the construction of aeronautic protective clothing—as a war waged between a tacit, or “soft,” knowledge of textile craft versus an automated, or “hard,” engineering assembly practice.

A key crossover concept presented early in the book by Monchaux is derived from the unlikely ateliers of the Parisian couture houses. The “New Look,” as launched by Dior, which stood for a re-structuralization of the feminine silhouette—with its pinched waist and atypical postwar exuberance of material—later comes to conceptualize reforms in the management of postwar defense as orchestrated by President Eisenhower. “Here the phrase “new look”” notes the author, “came to stand not so much for the shifting shapes of Dior’s 1947 dresses, but for an architecture even more ephemeral, that of postwar reality itself” (31). That a term coined in the annals of women’s wear comes to propel industrial and military innovation, is endemic of a continued “feminization”, i.e. softening, of space exploration garment design.

The same space age era sets the stage for the emergence of the intellectual and ideological neologism of “cybernetics”. Initially pharmacologically based, cybernetics propels the fantasy of a seamless technological man-machine, or “Cyborg.” Parallel evolutions in early aviation and its nefarious and often deadly affects on the body—such as high speeds and altitude conditions of extreme cold and lack of oxygen—fail to deliver on the actualization of the “cybernetic man.” Continued space travel testing rather consistently points research towards design artifacts that can sustain man in an environment tailored as close to possible to that of his usual habitat. Highly engaging is Monchaux’s revealing of the various actants that come together to constitute the developments for a “humanistic” designs to sustain man in space. These actants are collected from divergent disciplines including academic research institutions, industry (tires, girdles), engineering, politics, and popular media culture and often overlap, compliment as well as compete with one another in the process of producing the Apollo A7L spacesuit.

Throughout, Monchaux successfully argues and gives examples of how within the various iterations and prototypes of the spacesuit, it is the designs that take into consideration the way in which the body moves and “lives” in clothing, which garner appeal and usability with the astronauts. The more traditional, custom-made, couture-crafted, one-of-a-kind, form-fitted spacesuits win out over the engineered, standardized “containers.” Comfort and mobility, by way of textiles innovations in rubber and synthetics developed in consideration of the body wearing the suit, ultimately speak for the success of Playtex—of bra and girdle fame, deployed under International Latex Corporation (ILC)—to prevail in the fashioning of the spacesuit. This tale of collaborative design highlights the necessary administrative accommodations between ILC and NASA in consolidating conflicting garment manufacturing processes, based on the one hand, on sewing patterns, and on the other, in engineering technical documentation. This science-fashion hybrid-practice is exemplary to current cross-disciplinary research taking place in the field of wearables technologies in fashion and engineering alike.

Monchaux resets a number of assumptions constructed within the media image of space travel by bringing us closer to the “messy” practice of scientific developments, eschewing the manicured media visions of man on the moon. For example, questioned is the sustained media popularity of the “hard” engineered suits—inspired by Bauhaus’s Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet stage costumes—which come to represent the “atypical” spacesuit, as well as being another instance of the fashion-engineering crossover. As Monchaux argues, these “hard” shells function not so much as space armature, but more as symbolic representation of man’s desired mastery over space. However, the truth is that the human body has no mastery in space during the lunar travels, but rather must make-do by keeping the elements at bay. Above functional aesthetics, above the dream of cybernetic controls, what Monchaux does with Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is to tell an enduring modernist tale of embodiment vs. engineering of design.

Last Updated 1 September 2011

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