Named after the Greek goddess of the moon, NASA's Artemis rocket is the prelude to the next ambitious programme of moon landings planned for 2024. Notably, the mission will deliver the first female footsteps onto the moon. But from the beginning women have played a key role in the great space enterprises, albeit from the back rooms and largely unacknowledged.
The 2016 biographical film drama Hidden Figures
dealt with the overlooked – and crucial – contributions of three black women to that pivotal moment in American history – the USA's first launch of men into space. An equally vital contribution to that vastly complex enterprise of putting men onto the moon has yet to be made into a film. This is the true story of how a motley team of seamstresses skilled in designing ladies underwear were central to a team of engineers, supervised by a sewing machine salesman and a former television repairman, in the race to design the suits which preserved the lives of Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts as they ventured into space and onto the alien landscape.
How to shape up
In 1951, the Hollywood film The Merry Widow
sent a frisson of excitement and anticipation throughout the world of women's luxury lingerie. By 1953, a corset bearing the name of the film and blatantly bent on shaping and exhibiting the ideal female form, was being made and marketed by Warner's lingerie company and copied in essence by several other leading corset companies. Worn in the film by Lana Turner, the 'Glamorous Nouveau Merry Widow' corset promised to 'cinch your waistline, support your bust... accentuating your hourglass shape'.
During the 1940s and 50s, my mother had one great ambition for which she saved the few pennies and occasional shilling left at the end of the week. It was to be able to afford a Spirella corset. These were supremely desirable not primarily because of any hoped for glamour, but because they were not 'off the shelf' like the Merry Widow. Rather they were designed especially for the customer after several individual fittings which took account of the varied contours life had sculpted on the body. So for many, their desirability lay not in producing an hourglass figure, but in the support and feelings of improved well-being they gave, particularly to middle-aged women whose bodies had been ravaged by years of hard physical work, multiple child bearing, the fattening diets of poverty or over-indulgence, and lack of medical services.
The 1938 training manual of the aspiring Spirella corsetiere itemised spinal curvature, maternity support, excessive abdominal flesh and prolapsed organs as elements which could be addressed.
In the 1940s, in the USA, the International Latex Corporation (ILC) formed a subsidiary called Playtex and introduced their 'living girdle'. Highlighting mobility and comfort, this neater form of body shaping and control was more attractive to the women of the war years and afterwards, who had held down more active jobs than previously, and were beginning to participate more in sports. The stretchy latex panty girdles with woven support inserts provided the compression traditionally provided by complicated lacing, and their daring bra advertisements ('lifts and separates'; 'cross your heart') caught the attention of women and men alike.
Nevertheless, the training and rigorous standards to which the customer-facing employees of Spirella were subjected and the catchy advertising slogans of Playtex were designed basically to maximise sales. The real skills in these companies were possessed by the seamstresses on the factory floor. They took their accumulated wisdom about the contours and requirements of a wide range of body shapes, aligned this with the measurements gathered by a workforce in the field, and translated them, via a marriage of materials and patterns, into quality long-lasting garments which fulfilled most of the promises in the publicity leaflets.
Journey into space
And then it came to pass that in the 1960s, a group of fit athletic men were destined to be shot into the most alien environment mankind had ever encountered. The space race was on, and the vast multi-billion dollar enterprise of NASA was swiftly established, with thousands of firms competing for contracts, offering engineering, computing or communications systems, rocketry and fuel ignition experts, mathematicians, logistics and planning gurus, geologists, metallurgists, dietary experts, waste disposal... the list is endless. If you watch any of the many films which are on the documentary channels on a regular basis, you become aware of the miracle of scientific and engineering ingenuity and coordination of imagination, creativity, expert knowledge and teamwork across disciplines that launched men into space and safely home again.
The one documentary yet to be made is the story of the design and production of the spacesuits. Why should this be? They were an engineering miracle. Internally, they had to provide the exact pressure necessary in the near vacuum conditions to prevent the body from ballooning uncontrollably. So the suits had to be inflated and pressurised from the inside: i.e. they had reliably to contain a personal version of the atmospheric pressure human beings require to stay alive. They were, in essence, sophisticated inflated balloons.
They also had to be tough, able to withstand a temperature range of perhaps 500ºC, from –280º in shadow to +240º in sun, as well as survive being hit by a micrometeorite going 36,000 mph. They had to shield the wearer from life threatening radiation, and sudden horrendous flash fires like the one which had killed three astronauts as they prepared for the first piloted Apollo mission in 1967. But most importantly too, the astronauts had to be able to manipulate small controls and move comfortably with almost the same freedom, flexibility and nimbleness as they would on Earth.
The big guns of the corporations who were confident their engineers and scientists could solve each of the problems posed, threw their vast scientific expertise into their prototypes, yet failed to produce a garment which could be worn with any degree of flexibility, comfort, safety, reliability or confidence. The individual solutions to each of the separate requirements may have been elegant from an engineering perspective, but their interaction with the pesky biological nature of the fragile, curvy body they were meant to protect and enable rendered them unwearable. Frustration grew. The Latex Corporation had offered to bid for the contract and had been immediately excluded, but after yet another frustrating round of failures on the part of the big bidders, they were admitted as a last desperate recourse.
Not much hope was held out for their success, and no doubt much ribald laughter greeted the suggestion that a ladies underwear company was being asked to tender. Moreover, the two managers from the corporation's Playtex subsidiary had barely an academic qualification between them. One had started in the company as the CEO's TV repairman, the other had been a sewing machine salesman with some Air Force experience. Derided as having graduate qualifications only from the 'school of hard knocks', they took on the taunt as a badge of honour and called themselves the 'Hardknockers'. But their empirical experience was invaluable for creating the prototype spacesuit which they designed in consultation with their most skilled seamstresses, who then, in a desperate rush to meet the deadline for their tender, actually produced it.
They were all experts in neoprene rubber garments and nylon tricot – a fabric much used in underwear because of its properties of stretch or hold in different directions. Thus girdle and bra know-how formed the basis of the suits, and this was allied with the technology of the 21 (later 29) layers of scientifically produced materials to give the multiple protections required. The layers had to be carefully sewn together with a tolerance of one 64th of an inch, and no pins were allowed which might have compromised the pressure bubble which the suit effectively was. The Playtex managers brought in skilled seamstresses from its consumer products factories. 'I was sewing [latex] baby pants,' said Eleanor Foraker, who would go on to be a spacesuit assembly supervisor, 'and an engineer came to me and asked me if I would mind trying something else'.
Neil Armstrong declared himself delighted. Cutting edge technology in already available materials, allied with the empirical knowledge of the body and all its flexible needs, assembled through the skills of the seamstresses, produced the suits which took the first men safely to the moon and back on multiple occasions.
Men sporting the suits were much photographed and they became cultural symbols from the moment more than 500 million people around the world witnessed the first tentative steps off the ladder in July 1969. But the critical contribution which female craft culture and skilled handiwork in sewing had made received little formal acknowledgement. Why did the Playtex contribution receive such poor publicity?
As shown in Hidden Figures
, the core ethos of the NASA enterprise at that time was that of the macho male experts. In all the documentaries, no woman is seen on the control room floor. How could they celebrate the fact that ladies' underwear seamstresses had been a key part of their success?
Later acknowledgement of the Playtex team was grudgingly appreciative but still rather disparaging of their skills. As Michael Collins wrote in 1975:
When you think of a spacewalker, you may visualise a chap confidently exploiting the most advanced technology that this rich and powerful nation can provide, but not me friends. I see a covey of little old ladies hunched over their glue pots in Worcester, Mass, and I only hope that between discussions of Friday night bingo and the new monsignor, their attention doesn't wander too far.
Patronising? That doesn't begin to cover it!
Mary Simpson is Professor Emeritus of Classroom Learning at Edinburgh University