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Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are known for many things; being fashion plates isn’t one of them. When the Apollo 11 astronauts made their giant leap for mankind in 1969, however, they were wearing a type of “space couture” that shared a history — and, indeed, many of the same seamstresses — with what was essentially the Spanx of the time.
More than two decades earlier, the International Latex Corporation, later known as ILC Dover, debuted the Playtex Living Girdle, a “sheath of smooth liquid latex” that was a “new discovery in figure control.” Hailed as a revolution and a revelation, it was free from seams, stitches, bones, or rods that pinched or restricted, along with an “all-way stretch” that molded to the wearer without the need for custom fitting.
“The ideal all-occasion girdle that makes you inches slimmer in everything from an evening dress to a bathing suit!” one ad in Life magazine declared. “As comfortable for golf or driving as for hours of sitting at an office desk. Work or play, winter or summer, the Playtex Living Girdle never tires for you.”
By the time the government put out an open call for proposals for an Apollo suit in 1962, ILC had parlayed its profits into research and development, filling orders such as steel-and-aluminum helmets and partial pressure suits for the Navy and Air Force. A spacesuit didn’t seem like a huge deal.
ILC’s experience working with rubber in combination with other materials didn’t hurt either, says Nicholas De Monchaux, author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, a book that recounts, in staggering detail, Playtex’s unpublicized role in the history of the space program.
Rubber wasn’t an obvious spacesuit material, at least not at first. Prototypes favored by both military contractors and NASA engineers had so far been armor-like, cumbersome, and nigh impenetrable. But the Speciality Products Division (SPD) of ILC proposed a new kind of textile, one that employed flexible, accordion-like folds instead of tin-can-like components. Coupled with restraints that would keep the folds from flattening out, this “convolute” would allow a certain degree of movement in the areas of a suit that needed it, such as elbows, shoulders, and other joints.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the combination of materials that comprised the convolute was something with which ILC was deeply familiar: “the nylon tricot of the bra surface, the polyester webbing of a bra strap, and the dipped rubber out of which a girdle was made,” De Monchaux said.
Another plus? Playtex’s expertise in puncture-resistant latex assembly — not just girdles but also waterproof bed sheets, bibs, and diaper covers — made it possible for ILC to mass-produce the convolute in a range of shapes and sizes.
But ILC’s relative inexperience with government contracting, small size, and dearth of professional qualifications — Len Sheperd, who supervised the company’s pressure-suit development, was an MIT dropout who repaired TVs for Abram Spanel, ILC’s founder, before he was pressed into service — made the SPD the underdog of the space-outfitting race.
So even when ILC’s proposal emerged as the clear victor in NASA’s evaluation of eight submissions, the space agency opted not to hire the company directly. Instead, ILC was hired as a subcontractor to Hamilton Standard, a division of United Aircraft and, in NASA’s eyes, a known quantity.
“That really did not work out well for both companies,” says Cathleen Lewis, curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Hamilton had also proposed its own spacesuit to NASA, and it had its own ideas, and so there was a great deal of conflict. And it fell apart.”
To Hamilton’s highly trained staff — ”students of the latest methods in testing, planning, and management,” per De Monchaux — ILC’s team practiced a “ragged art” and graduated “only from the school of hard knocks.” (The later comment became a badge of honor for ILC employees, who referred to themselves as “hard-knocksers.”)
Hamilton finally fired ILC in 1965, precipitating a series of events that was like something out of a movie.
While NASA agreed that ILC didn’t appear capable of producing a successful suit, its confidence in Hamilton was flagging, too. To test its mettle, the agency decided to engage Hamilton in a performance-based competition with the David Clark Company, which was producing a backup suit with B.F. Goodrich. It was assumed by all that ILC was completely out of the running.
But Len Sheperd got wind of the competition. He headed for Houston with ILC’s new president, Nisson Finkelstein. The duo offered NASA a new suit prototype, produced at ILC’s expense, if only it would allow ILC to compete against Hamilton, David Clark, and B.F. Goodrich. NASA agreed, but they only had six weeks to prepare.
A flurry of activity followed. A skeleton crew of little more than a dozen engineers and technicians began working 24-hour shifts. They picked the locks of their own labs and storerooms, some of them freshly vacated by visitors from Hamilton, to obtain supplies and records in the dead of the night. They batch-tested bodies of suits alongside alternative arms, legs, and joints.
Events at the competition arena were equally dramatic. The zipper on the internal pressure bladder failed on ILC’s entry, forcing the company to fly the suit back to its headquarters in Delaware for repairs. David Clark’s helmet blew off when its test subject attempted an escape maneuver from the Lunar Module. Because the shoulders of Hamilton’s suit were too wide, its test subject couldn’t enter the Lunar Module at all, thus “stranding the imaginary astronaut on the surface of the moon forever,” De Monchaux says.
The hard-knocksers won, naturally.
To hear De Monchaux tell it, however, the true story about the Apollo spacesuits isn’t about which company beat out which, but rather the women who ended up making them. Many of the seamstresses hailed from Playtex, which means they went from one shop floor making bras and girdles to another one producing clothing for the moon.
It wasn’t an easy job. ILC’s seamstresses, he says, were asked to achieve “unprecedented precision,” even more so than you’d find at a couture house because NASA could only abide tolerances less than 1/64th of an inch from the edge of a seam.
The seamstresses had to piece together 21 gossamer-thin layers of highly technical fabrics — including a Teflon-coated silica-fiber cloth and a woven form of stainless steel — by “nesting them together like a Russian doll,” De Monchaux says. And they just used regular Singer sewing machines.
Despite this Herculean endeavor, pins and other temporary fasteners were highly regulated and generally frowned upon. The firm even installed an X-ray machine on the shop floor to regularly scan the suits for rogue pins. Anyone caught sneaking in extra pins from home could find “one of them pricked into their backside by an irate supervisor,” he adds.
When ILC conducted its seamstress auditions, it preferred women — and it was always women — who had “extreme skill over extreme experience,” Lewis says. “[ILC and NASA] can teach someone who has very high skill level in sewing but they can’t unteach bad habits.”
A single mistake, especially one that damaged the fibers, could result in a discarded suit. Work would have to start all over again. “There’s no seconds outlet for spacesuits like there is for bra manufacturers,” Lewis quips.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with the seamstresses were what Lewis calls the “glue-pot ladies,” who applied the seals on the rubber bladders and likewise had to work “very, very quickly, very, very efficiently and without flaw.”
There were also the “dippers” who dipped layers of rubber to create the convolutes, often with the same skill they honed at the Playtex division. More proof of the relationship between Playtex and the Apollo program: Until 1966, the pipes of liquid latex that ran to the dipping room emerged from the same tanks that supplied the girdle and bra assembly lines.
The women of ILC were yoked with a great responsibility, one that they never lost sight of. Neither did they forget that their suits would be worn by actual people. Each suit, De Monchaux says, bore a laminated photograph of the astronaut it belonged to, “just so they felt that connection to this person whom they were literally keeping alive with their craftsmanship.”
“It’s really important to understand that they were made like a piece of clothing, not like an engineered object,” De Monchaux says.
In the end, the suits did more than maintain the barrier between life and death on an impossibly alien terrain. Thanks to the combined efforts of the spacesuit program — and the same materials that Playtex used in its foundation wear — Armstrong and Aldrin were able to flex their elbows, knees, and ankles with minimal effort, run experiments, collect samples of rocks and dust, and, in the former’s case, make an unscheduled sprint to photograph a crater 200 yards from the lunar lander.
“It turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history,” Armstrong later said of the suit. “It was tough, reliable, and almost cuddly.”
In the span of two decades, ILC, by now a completely separate entity from Playtex, had gone from exploring the intimate space of women’s bodies to constructing the “intimate architecture” of suits in space. That mid-century women were forced to conform to these impossible shapes was ridiculous, De Monchaux says. Then again, so is a pressure suit, if you think about it. Both the rubber girdle and the Apollo suit were “painful and difficult garments.”
And indeed, such was the relationship between astronauts and their bespoke suits that they often visited them in deep storage at the Smithsonian, just to make sure they were being taken care of.
“All of the Apollo astronauts regard these pieces of clothing as having been part of their bodies,” De Monchaux says. “They were part of themselves.”