Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Posts in the Smithsonian category

Elizabeth Way bio image-v2Elizabeth (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!

Seamstresses on the shop floor at the Dover, DE ILC plant, June 28, 1967. Courtesy of ILC Dover, Inc.

Seamstresses on the shop floor at the Dover, DE ILC plant, June 28, 1967. Courtesy of ILC Dover, Inc.