Thursday, May 26, 2011

White Walls, Foundational Garments (Part 5)

The look of control: Alen Shepard suiting up (1959); Offutt ICBM Air Base Control Room (1957)
(Return to Part 4)
In the postwar year Émigré Modernist architects abandon the exterior whitewash that they had made a requirement on their first collaborative housing estate, because it had aged poorly. In an America, the lines between corporate, government, military, and academic cultures had begun to blur. It was an America that meant business. These were the first Cold Warriors. For security reasons military officers dressed in identical uniforms of dark business suits and crisp white shirts and their company men peers. A uniform so ubiquitous in the American corporate business world, in a recent video, Management Science expert Barry Franz recalls the strangeness of meeting an IBMer dressed in a brown suit. A key element of the look these new organization men aspired to was the Playtex girdle.

Prewar Modernist architects had looked back to the look of cleanness of white undergarments that signaled a actually clean body (in contrast to the earlier look of white linens that had simply covered a dirty body). In the postwar years the material abundance made of industrial manufacturing changed the game once more. JFK, the president who committed America to landing on the moon, changed suits as many as four times a day, often went through six fresh shirts a day, and habitually wore a girdle to the point that his muscles atrophied. Mid-century Modernist fashion designers,who were the first to extend their couture brands to mass market merchandise, were now returning the early Modernist architect's gaze. But they were not admiring architecture's look of cleanliness, they were admiring the rigid structure. 
Dior, New Look (1947); Playtex, A7L (1969)

In his new book, Spacesuit; Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas Monchaux follows "the thread" of the new relationship between architecture and underpants. In the first flush of postwar abundance the game was to use foundational garments to create a look that structured and streamlined the body. Monchaux tells us that in 1947, on the same day, "the daily ration of bread in the city of Paris had been lowered from 350 grams per person to 200" Christian Dior premiered his first solo collection, that came to be known as the "New Look." Monchaux explains that in contrast to the material scarcity of Paris:
The dresses were extravagant in their use of materials. Using up to twenty yards of fabric, the cloths boldly reconfigured the feminine silhouette. Emphasizing a smaller waist and longer skirt, the new clothing eschewed the practicalities of wartime work and material deprivation. Yet simply wearing the one of the New Look dresses was work itself; the heaviest weighed sixty pounds and all required a tight girdled waist, limiting mobility. 
Dior's new look required structured bras and restrictive girdles. "Without foundations, there can be no fashion" Dior pronounce. Monchaux points out that very few women actually wore Dior's dresses, that like the Apollo spacesuit, "the massive impact of the New Look dresses was one of image."
Model skipping rope in a Playtex bra and girdle(1951); modeling the RX-2 "hard suit" (1965)

"I wanted to employ quite a different technique in fashioning my clothes, from the methods then in use" Dior would later write, "I wanted them to be constructed like buildings." And indeed, his dresses required restrictive foundational garments of highly structured bras and restrictive fitted girdles; the same technology that would be worn by the first men the moon two decades later:
The story of the Apollo spacesuit is the surprising tale of an unexpected victory: that of Playtex, makers of bras and girdles, over the large military-industrial contractors better positioned to secure the spacesuit contract... the expertise of Playtex in the craftsmanship and manufacture of intimate architecture would see its couturier-like sewing workshops produce a lunar suit that bested the best efforts of much larger better-funded military industrial proposals.

Seamstress Jane Butchin, Delma Domegy, Inspector Mary Todd, and others at ILC Plant (1967); Astronauts Charles Conrad and Alen Bean (1969)

New methods of patterning and seaming clothing developed during the war to make G-suits (which had been developed out of methods and materials used developed to make girdles in the first place), were not not immediately applied to the problems of creating a pressure suit capable of protecting the human body from the void of space. While the large engineering firms worked to produce a "hard suit," the new methods were returned to their original purpose (just another 'G' problem joked one bra maker with an government contract to make pressure suits).  

While underwire bras had been available since the thirties, and Howard Hughes had famously designed a "bullet" model especially for Jane Russell's appearance in The Outlaw, it was only in the 1950s, primed by seeing Dior's prohibitively expensive New Look in magazines, that the great masses of women began wearing increasingly sophisticated, structured and most important, affordable, foundation garments. Monchaux writes, "these developments in turn, formed the large explosion in lingerie technology and brands that flowered in the easing of wartime fabric restrictions. by 1948 a Vogue magazine spread showed '22 different bra styles for different kinds of outfits"
Jane Russell modeling the Bullet Bra for Yank Magazine (1945); T-1 pressure suit (1952)

As wartime innovations were returned to the consumer economy and rationing eased, New Look was everywhere, and consumers who had survived a decade of economic malaise followed by a decade of world war couldn't get enough of it:
In February of 1949 alone, the New York Times discussed a "New Look" in materials (plastic), criminal justice (new streamline courts), infrastructure (new highways), and politics (changes in the structure of the Republican Party). "New Look" had become shorthand not just for fashion, but for all those things in the momentous shifts of postwar life, as Dior later observed, "we believe to be promising, [but] disconcert the public at first.
The New Look of mental health was the application of "cybernetic" systems engineering by means of pharmaceutical drugs. In contrast to efforts to build environments suitable for the mentally ill, researchers were now turned their efforts on altering the brain to adapt it to the modern world - to create "cyborgs.   The grimmest echoing of Dior however was Eisenhower's New Look. The restructured the American military industrial complex, away from new foreign deployments "in favor of a massive, nuclear arsenal. Monchaux writes, "Such a policy would reshape not only the size of the nuclear deterrent, but also its form, breaking the prior focus on strategic bombing in favor of a new delivery mechanism, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)."
NASA rockets; Postwar Tallest towers

Architects used the look of whiteness sparingly as an exterior surface during these postwar years. What Americans and everyone else around the world was desperate for was the look of the NEW. Rust stains and peeling paint could not be allowed to disfigure that New Look. Monchaux describes the culture of the the New Look as "black suits and black boxes": 
When teams of of engineers from subcontractors gathered to assemble the missile system in prototype form, individual components were boxed, often in black, emphasizing and revealing only their connections to each other as a result the idea of a "black box" came to stand for the notion that one did not need to know how a subsystem worked, only its characteristics as it connected to other parts of the whole.
Where exterior whiteness did appear was on the outside of single-use Saturn rockets and the dressing the Apollo astronauts astronauts themselves; short lived objects intended to be photographed and project American wealth, power and control. But one, the friendliest face of the American missile program it was the product of NASA's systems culture built on cybernetics - a rigid bureaucratic expression of Hard Power. There the look of whiteness expressed objective scientific antifashion. The other was soft pliable  layers of fabric; the direct product of the buying power of a growing middle class, and it's changing tastes in underpants.
Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra add; Prototype A7L Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment

Playtex began it's life before the war producing water proof latex fabrics for infants; "Play-tex panties," bedsheets and bibs. In 1940 the company announced the introduction of its first adult foundation garment. The company's girdles were marketed as allowing mobility, reinvented the expensive custom fitted prewar compound structures as a continuous, elastic, and, most importantly, inexpensive. Unlike JFK's French suits, custom made shirts and his steel ribbed girdle, American's consumers were buying mass-produced, off the rack garments and "By the mid-1950s," Monchaux reports, "the [Playtex] company was marketing as many models as a car company." 

To win the bid the Apollo spacesuit and then work within the NASA systems driven engineering culture required the company totally reorganizing. The International Latex Corporation (ILC), became Playtex's parent company. But it was the Playtex personnel, technologies and expertise used to manufacture rubberized corsets and Cross Your Heart bras, that were core to the ILC's advantage, and enabled the company beat engineering based organizations for the spacesuit contract. "Pipes of liquid latex ran to the dipping room from the same tanks supplying girdle and bra assembly lines." Monchaux explains that " "The sheer fabric, embedded above and below the the restraining rings was a thin layer of nylon tricot - the same cloth that formed Playtex's brassieres."
False heat test (1958); real football test (1967)

The choice of the the white Playtex designed A7L space suit over earlier silver models developed by engineering firms was a victory of fashion over antifashion, of soft power over hard, and craftsmanship over systems engineering, but also substance over style. Monchaux explains that the silvery fabric used on the outside of those earlier pressure suits was "nylon with a vacuum-blasted aluminum coating." The decision to use it had everything to do with style:
"Pretty glamorous looking." Then a light went off in my mind. "Say Dave why don't you make the outer cover of the pressure suit out of this material, in place of that awful-looking khaki coverall? ...A coverall of this material would look real good, like a space suit should - photogenic. to justify it technically we can tell them this silver material is specifically designed for heat or something."
When the suit was unveiled at a photo-op a test pilot wore it surrounded by heat lamps to show the silver skins heat resistant properties. But when astronauts wore the suits they returned from there flights so soaked in sweat that the New York Times quipped that one of the great perils of space had turned out to be "dish wash hands." Subsequent suits were personalized with white fabric seats to make sitting in them for long periods more comfortable, but finally the silver covers were abandon and the decision was made to use the same fabric inside and out. "The high-temperature nylon provided a superior surface and did not run the risk of an astronaut dazzling himself with his clothing while facing unfiltered sunlight."
Angry Kids and Victor Ash, via The Fox is Black's Space Suit of the Week

But, that explanation has as much merit as the justification for making the first suits silver.  Why not yellow, powder blue or International Orange? Monchaux writes that the ILC's Playtex-based technologies won out over the silver and hard suits that were then favored by engineers on merit of a single 16mm film:
For several hours - the length of a late-Apollo-EVE - the subject in a pressurized suit eschewed the the more technical motion studies of NASA's internal analysis for a full-fledged game of football - running, throwing catching passes and punting, falling and bouncing to his feet.
The prototype suit in that film was already white (stills are shown above). The Platex suit was began its life white of a fresh pair of underpants, or of white wash. Mark Wigley's explanation of the white wall remains the most convincing, and does in fact explain why the suits were white: "with every excess cleared away... a surveillance device scanning the very spaces that it has defined... at once a camera and a monitor, a sensitive surface, a sensor."
Two small steps for Playtex (1951 and 1969).

Monchaux observes that "For all the systems management efforts spent acclimating ILC to NASA's military-industrial milieu, the most heavily reproduced Apollo artifact - the ILC A7L spacesuit seen on stamps, in statuettes, and on screen - is in its essence a throwback, a regression, the sole exception to the rule." At a time when American power brokers were taken up with wearing stiff black suits, conceptualizing by means of rigid black box theories, implementing universal cybernetic control systems, and building the worlds talest skyscrapers severely black, brassier and girdle makers constructed a soft, white, aspirational object. (Continue Reading Part 6.)
Robert Rauschenberg, Trust Zone (1969); Tom Sachs, Control Room (2006)

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