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One has to wonder if Andre Courreges recoiled at the sight of Neil Armstrong’s cumbersome space suit — it was so not what Courrèges had in mind. Indeed, he was just one of the designers who had imagined what man — or at least what women and models — would wear on the moon several years before Armstrong’s stroll 40 years ago today. For as much as the Space Race was a furious ideological competition, it fueled a creative moment, inspiring architects, directors and fashion designers to fill in the aesthetic blanks of life on another planet. “Some of it aligned with the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the fear of attack, but a lot of it represented humans against the great unknown,” said Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, of fashion and film’s fixation on the extraterrestrial. “[Characters] were always kind of dressed for a period that was anticipated. No one really had space clothing, just an idea of what space clothing might be.”
Yet those ideas soon took root in reality. And in terms of timing, fashion went into orbit well before Apollo 11. Courrèges, along with Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and Rudi Gernreich began chopping hemlines, flattening shoes, and streamlining silhouettes soon after the Russian satellite Sputnik launched in 1957. Lines were lean; fabrics, shiny, and the silhouette was all about geometry. It was as if designers took John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge to “choose to go to the moon” as a design mandate. Enter the hallmarks of Sixties futuristic fashion, also known as Mod: miniskirts, go-go boots, tunics and helmetlike hats, which found major crossover on television and in films. Consider Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons,” which debuted in 1962, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which featured space uniforms that looked remarkably like those designed by Emilio Pucci for Braniff Airlines’ flight attendants. “So much of the movie fantasies of costume and dress had to do with streamlined versions of utilitarian clothing,” said Koda. “It percolated up to the couturiers.”
Such sleek, tailored looks marked a vast departure from the voluminous shapes of the New Look, and proved controversial at times. Courrèges, for one, often found himself on the defensive. “Your idea of sportive clothes. That’s fine. But it doesn’t go far enough,” Courrèges told WWD in 1963. “Our couture, we have not taken sufficiently into consideration life as it is today, television, air travel, the space adventure.” Courrèges’ angle was modernism and function, a notion not shared by all of his peers. For example, Rabanne’s 1966 collection “Twelve Unwearable Dresses” featured looks made from metal and plastic. He wanted to turn women into modern warriors, an idea he reprised for the costumes he designed for Jane Fonda in 1968’s “Barbarella.” If not practical, Rabanne’s use of outré materials (he also worked with paper and vinyl) proved influential in the innovation of high-tech fabrics and garment construction.
Aftershocks of cosmic chic have reverberated through modern runways: Mugler in the Eighties, Prada and Miu Miu in the Nineties and, most recently, Nicolas Ghesquière’s futuristic creations for Balenciaga. His sharp shouldered and C-3P0-legged robo girls for spring 2007 sparked a seismic futuristic streak that lasted until spring 2009.
As for the direct impact Apollo 11 had on fashion, Cardin embraced it. “The moon era has arrived — it brings new dimension in art, creation and thoughts,” he said before his 1969 couture collection, which featured circular moon-cut coats and dresses. But for the most part, by the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin kicked up the moon dust, popular trends had come back to Earth, as the world was adjusting to the bohemian, free-flowing styles of the hippie generation. Lest anyone forget, Woodstock took place just a month after Apollo 11 touched down. Meanwhile, high fashion was already on to its next mission: the midi skirt, which, as we all know, crashed and burned.
Koda cites pantsuits, tunics and double-face wool, a fabric championed by Courrèges, among lasting contributions from Sixties Space Age fashion. Still, in retrospect, the era seems largely a niche — some might say kitsch — moment. “If you look at Courrèges and all those people, it was like a great utopia, how the future will be,” said Francisco Costa, who used futuristic flourishes for his spring 2009 collection for Calvin Klein. “Obviously, [reality] is very different than what [they imagined]. The concept applies — fabrics that are very high-tech, and construction of the clothes — but if you take it literally, it’s not a good thing.”
Even Louis Vuitton, a house that latched onto the anniversary of the lunar landing for its current Core Values ad campaign, starring astronauts Aldrin, Jim Lovell and Sally Ride, distanced itself from any space-fashion angle, focusing instead on the connection to Vuitton’s roots. Daniel Lalonde, president and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton North America, said at party to celebrate Apollo 11’s 40th, “It’s really more about the journey than the fashion.”