Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

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When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969,
they wore spacesuits made by Playtex: twenty-one layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles. This book is the story of that spacesuit. It is a story of the triumph over the military-industrial complex by the International Latex Corporation, best known by its consumer brand of "Playtex" -- a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics.

Playtex's spacesuit went up against hard armor-like spacesuits designed by military contractors and favored by NASA's engineers. It was only when those attempts failed--when traditional engineering firms could not integrate the body into mission requirements--that Playtex, with its intimate expertise, got the job.

Spacesuit, Nicholas de Monchaux tells the story of the twenty-one-layer spacesuit in twenty-one chapters addressing twenty-one topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the twentieth century. He touches, among other things, on eighteenth-century androids, Christian Dior's
New Look, Atlas missiles, cybernetics and cyborgs, latex, JFK's carefully cultivated image, the CBS
lunar broadcast soundstage, NASA's Mission Control, and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning. The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario.

The MIT Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Berkeley architecture professor de Monchaux's thorough and artful history of the American spacesuit takes readers at a leisurely pace through the past, from the first air travel (via balloon) through fashions of the mid-20th century and manned missions into outer space. De Monchaux dissects the many materials and manufacturing processes involved in construction of the precision-stitched latex spacesuit, the "simultaneous flexibility and precision" of which has kept it popular, and the AX-2, a hard suit "container, not clothing." De Monchaux situates readers in the culture of the time, with discussions of the stewardess as icon (the astronaut's "airborne counterpart"), JFK's medical treatments, and IBM vs. DEC (defunct by 1998) computers that paint a full backstory of every element, from "a brief history of rubber" and its pre-spacesuit application to girdles to fascinating details of obtaining transmissions from space, creating a wholly absorbing capsule of our history. "n ‘suiting' man to an environment defined by its hostility to him, the spacesuit itself would come to play a central role in discussions of man both made and remade, earthly and, it almost seemed, divine." Photos. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

" Spacesuit pays worthy homage to that often overlooked but essential technology for human space exploration." Jeff Foust The
Space Review

The MIT Press

"The density of ideas and connections is intoxicating. De Monchaux swings masterfully between subjects, teasing out unexpected connections and spotting the seeds of contemporary life that were planted by the space race."

- Tim Maly,

The MIT Press

"De Monchaux has an ear for a good story and affection for the historical characters… Spacesuit offers a broad and creative appraisal of that suit's many contexts, encouraging readers to consider technology as design, shaped by the circumstances of its time, unfailingly and elegantly layered and crafted to serve a purpose."-Margaret
A. Weitekamp
, Nature

The MIT Press

"A layered tour through the interwoven histories of spaceflight and its clothing,
rethinking the body's technologies in the cybernetic era. The first sartorial history of spaceflight!" David Mindell , Director, Program in Science, Technology, and
Society, MIT, and author, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in

The MIT Press

"A veritable fantastic voyage! Not only along the intricate and incredible journey that it turns out links brassiere to stratosphere, but deep inside the ether wherein architecture and fashion form the nebulae of contemporary life. Combining humor and lightness with exacting attention to detail, de Monchaux's book offers a new model of scholarship that revises our view of technology as a hard instrument of science and gently reveals it to be part of the vast flux of cultural production." Sylvia Lavin , Director of Critical Studies, Architecture and Urban Design, UCLA

The MIT Press

"Nicholas de Monchaux offers in this remarkable book a far-reaching and broad-based analysis of the spacesuit, interpreting it as far more than a functional garment protecting astronauts: as an artifact at the nexus of society, science, and spacefaring. Far from the internalist histories so common for NASA, de Monchaux ranges from popular culture to technology to advertising to art, in the process illuminating the subtleties of construction and use of this individualized spacesuit." Roger D. Launius , Senior Curator, Smithsonian
National Air and Space Museum

The MIT Press

"This surely is one of the most deeply researched books on design ever written. De
Monchaux follows the history of -- among other things -- fashion, space travel, politics, and architecture to demonstrate an astonishing relationship between what the Apollo astronauts wore and the design of the built environment." Ralph Caplan , author of By
Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object
, and and 2010 recipient of the Smithsonian's "Design Mind" National Design

The MIT Press

"Woven, as befits its topic, with multiple and colored threads borrowed from an astounding variety of fields and domains -- technology, politics, media, and fashion design, to name only a few -- this path-breaking book provides an innovative reading of the space race. Above all,
it illuminates the relevance of this race for designers from yesterday and today." Antoine
, G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology,
Harvard Graduate School of Design

The MIT Press

Library Journal
De Monchaux (architecture & urban design, Univ. of California, Berkeley) examines the history and semiotics of the A7L Apollo spacesuit in 21 chapters, corresponding to the suit's 21 layers. He contrasts the feminine, soft, flexible, tailored A7L, designed by an organizationally fluid company (one derived from the bra and girdle manufacturer Playtex), with its unsuccessful competitors—masculine, hard-shelled, rigid spacesuits produced by less nimbly structured contractors. The book's layer/chapter arrangement feels contrived at times; some chapters could easily be combined, others stray so far off-topic that the author labors to include some reference to spacesuits. Overall, however, de Monchaux draws intriguing parallels between the fashion industry and the U.S. space exploration program. Both, he argues, are highly image conscious and owe their successes to collaborative narratives constructed by designers and inventors, the media, and the public. VERDICT While not a light read, this book should interest fashion and science historians. For readers with a scientific bent, it supplements more traditional, linear, technically detailed histories such as Lillian D. Kozloski's U.S. Space Gear: Outfitting the Astronaut.—Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262015202
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/18/2011
  • Pages: 380
  • Sales rank: 170,716
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas de Monchaux is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the College of Environmental
Design, University of California, Berkeley. His work has appeared in the architectural journal
Log, the New York Times, the New York Times
, Architectural Digest, and other publications.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013

    I bought this because I'm writing a science fiction novel involv

    I bought this because I'm writing a science fiction novel involving spacesuits, and it's been very helpful for that. But this is a completely wonderful book for all kinds of readers -- it has lots of interesting history of the space program that I never knew, it has good reflections on how products should be designed, it has stuff on fashion and how Christian Dior influenced the space program (really) and lots of other unusual stuff. It's well written and I found it completely fascinating. I'd recommend it to anybody with interests in space, history, fashion or architecture.

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