- By The Museum at FIT
- In Expedition Research Fashion History Publication
- Tagged with Apollo ILC Dover ILC Industries International Latex Corporation International Space Station Playtex shapewear Skylab Smithsonian Space Age fashion Space Shuttle spacesuits The Art Institute of Houston
- On 15 Nov | '2017
Elizabeth (Liz) Way is an assistant curator at The Museum at FIT. She assisted deputy director Patricia Mears, curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, and wrote an essay titled “Looking Back at the Future: Spacesuits and Space Age Fashion” for the companion book to the exhibition.
Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme is a unique exhibition because it brings together areas of technology that have not previously been studied with fashion. I found one of the most fascinating parts of research for my essay to be in going back to the inspiration for Space Age fashion and exploring spacesuit development. The earliest versions were pressure suits, created during the 1930s for high-flying pilots. As a human travels towards space, air pressure decreases, detrimentally affecting the body. It becomes harder to take in oxygen and eventually liquids, like blood, will start to boil. Pressure suits counteract these possibly fatal effects.
Early pressure suits were modified for the USA’s Mercury missions (1961-1963) and served as an extra layer of protection within the spacecraft. It was only when the Apollo missions (1963-1972) aimed for the moon that “real” spacesuits were invented — suits that serve as the only barrier between an astronaut and the vacuum of space. Although these spacesuits might seem more like equipment than clothing, the Apollo spacesuits were created for NASA by a company called ILC Industries (formerly International Latex Corporation) based in Dover, Delaware. During the 1950s and 1960s, a spinoff branch of ILC was the largest producer of shapewear, or foundation garments, such as bras and girdles, in the United States, selling under a name you may recognize: Playtex!
Although the shapewear and spacesuits were produced by separate divisions at ILC, some sewers from the Playtex department also worked on spacesuits, and some technicians who specialized in dipping fabric into latex for Playtex’s shapewear were pulled off the line to execute a similar process for spacesuit parts. ILC not only produced the Apollo suits, but also later designed and built suits for the Skylab, Space Shuttle, ISS (International Space Station), and Constellation missions. ILC is currently creating innovative new suits for commercial space programs and future Mars missions. My fascination with the Apollo spacesuit story led me to Bill Ayrey, ILC’s Manager of Quality Test & Inspection and Company Historian. In April 2017, I interviewed Bill, as well as two technicians who currently sew spacesuits for ILC.Bill first introduced me to Ruth, a senior sewer and a treasure within ILC. Ruth worked at ILC for fifty years, sewing the original Apollo spacesuits and continuing to develop spacesuits until her retirement in 1997. Today, she is back from retirement and working on the next generation of spacesuits. In April, Ruth was working on a pair of comfort gloves for an awaiting astronaut. She learned to sew clothing from her mother, but noted that “sewing for ILC is altogether different.” The standards for accuracy are very exact and inspectors examine everything. She told me that despite the expensive materials, “if something isn’t right, then it isn’t used.”
Ruth also shared some remarkable stories from the Apollo era, recalling that “back in the old days when they were testing suits, we were on standby…if they needed something done or changed, we were called in no matter what time of night, and we always came in and did it.” She was, and continues to be, an essential part of the ILC development team, telling me, “I enjoy doing all of the spacesuit work and working with the astronauts. Whatever they want me to do, I do it, and if I can come up with better ideas, we work together.” Bill also stressed this point, noting that spacesuit development is a unique industry in which the engineers conceiving the suits on paper rely on the technicians, working with them as a team, to figure out if their designs are possible.
Bill also introduced Guada, an engineering specialist. She is a 29-year ILC veteran, who learned her spacesuit-sewing skills from Apollo ladies, like Ruth. Guada has worked at NASA launch sites across the US and in Europe with the International Space Station. She now trains the next generation at ILC. Her most recent mentees are fashion design graduates from The Art Institute of Houston, but she notes that new recruits are hard to find.
Guada and Bill explained how current spacesuits differ from their Apollo predecessors. Unlike the Apollo suits that were custom-made in one piece, new spacesuits are modular (only gloves are still custom-made). Guada and Ruth make pieces—an upper arm, a torso, a lower leg—that are taken to Houston for astronauts to mix and match into a perfectly-fitting suit. These pieces are made up of many layers of specialized materials, and Guada said that in order to completely outfit an astronaut up to 22 people may work on assembling a spacesuit over about 6 months.Bill emphasized that a lot of pressure is put on technicians like Ruth and Guada. Although missions are not now as tightly scheduled as they were during the Apollo days (when a launch once waited for a technician who was rushed to Cape Canaveral with an essential spacesuit part in a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist), they work under strict deadlines and handle extremely expensive materials. Everything is meticulously made and inspected because, as Guada said, “lives are at stake when astronauts wear what we make. It’s an honor and we take it very seriously. Every little stitch is thought out. It’s a very intricate and delicate process…we know that the suit is the only thing that’s protecting an individual when they are doing a spacewalk. Suits we’ve made are in the Smithsonian and our company is also involved in the next generation of suits. We’re trying to invent new materials that can be used to explore Mars.”
A huge THANK YOU to Billl, Ruth, and Guada at ILC for sharing their knowledge and experience on their important work! Their spacesuits will continue to inspire fashion designers into the future.
Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.