The 1960s space race was more than a measure of scientific progress. The anticipation of this next stage of humanity left an indelible impression on culture, too.
President John F. Kennedy’s vision of man reaching the moon soon spawned a throng of TV shows and films — including cartoon sitcom “The Jetsons” and the “Star Trek” franchise — all of which looked to cater to America’s newfound interest in space travel.
The success of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 only whetted appetites further. For fashion designers Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin and Thierry Mugler, it became the rocket that launched a thousand looks, as they centered whole collections around an intergalactic vision of the future.
Whether it was a chain-mail shift dress, a bulbous helmet or a pair of stark white boots, the sartorial legacy of the ’60s and ’70s was defined by a space-race exuberance. But even decades after we first set foot on the moon, the cosmos has remained a mainstay of inspiration for a variety of fashion houses.
Now as a new space race unfolds, this time with a human mission to Mars on the horizon, we take a look back at fashion’s enduring love affair with outer space, in which art imitates life forms — whether alien or astronaut — and celestial bodies alike.
The early work of Italian designer Pierre Cardin, pictured here at Paris Fashion Week in 1968, was a cascade of silver vinyl. Cardin, who died in December 2020, was a pioneer of space-age fashion, crafting sharp, modernist silhouettes from shimmering lamé fabric. His futuristic designs have been worn by the likes of ’60s style icon Mia Farrow and The Beatles.
André Courrèges released his Moon Girl collection, including white go-go boots and tall, spherical hats, in the spring of 1964. The late designer used high-shine PVC to construct stiff A-line skirts that held their own when twisted and contorted in fashion shoots. His interest in intergalactic glamour only grew from there. Three decades later, Courrèges was still sending space-inspired looks down the runway, as pictured here at an April 1993 show in Kyoto, Japan.
For many designers, the space race meant experimentation. Spanish designer Paco Rabanne was no different, fashioning mini shift dresses and matching headgear out of unusual materials like chain mail. Rabanne’s now notorious chain-mail creations made his models look like extraterrestrial warriors — dressed in body armor that was equal parts 16th-century knight and futuristic dancer.
Helmet-hat hybrids were key features of ’60s space-age style. At a London hat show in 1966, the late British designer Reed Crawford debuted the “Dollar Princess” hat, a half-visor, half-space-helmet creation that looked distinctly futuristic — despite being made from silver milk bottle tops.
At Paris Fashion Week 1986, the Fall-Winter collection by French label Thierry Mugler was brimming with embellished star motifs and decorative ear cuffs that stood up like antennae. Much of Mugler’s collections throughout the ’80s involved space-age vixens wearing big, boxy shoulder pads shrouded in gold or silver lamé.
But not everyone felt optimistic about our fast-approaching future. Alexander McQueen‘s 1999-2000 Fall-Winter collection for Givenchy was filled with “curiosity, and fear, of the future,” as one Vogue runway review from 1999 put it. Models were studded with protruding metal plugs, and neon lights radiated off of white PVC as their entire bodies became circuit boards.
After Dior‘s 2006-2007 Fall-Winter Haute Couture show at Paris Fashion Week, the label’s creative director at the time, British designer John Galliano, wore an astronaut suit as he did a customary lap around the catwalk.
At Milan Fashion Week in 2018, Moschino‘s Fall-Winter collection took us back to the space-age ’60s in a different way. Models wore candy-colored mod dresses with high necklines and pillbox hats à la Jackie Kennedy Onassis, all the while sporting supernatural-looking green, blue or yellow skin — a nod to circulating conspiracy theories that the late first lady had been an undercover alien.
For the Chanel Fall-Winter 2017-2018 ready-to-wear collection, the Grand Palais in Paris housed an enormous monogrammed rocket ship that even underwent a fake launch, complete with billowing smoke. Models stood in front of the spacecraft wearing “Jetsons”-inspired ensembles with glitter knee-high go-go boots and double-breasted bouclé skirt suits.
Commes des Garçons
In the same year, Rei Kawakubo’s collection for Commes des Garçons was sculpturally space-age. More abstract than A-line, the inflated garments worn by Kawakubo’s models were made from silver insulation material and looked like floating pieces of space debris.
Iris van Herpen
No designer working today appears more consistently influenced by otherworldly shapes and ideas than Iris van Herpen. The stage design for her 2019 collection Hypnosis featured a spherical sculpture by American artist Anthony Howe that bore a striking resemblance to the lunar phases. According to the show notes, the Dutch designer was inspired by cosmic themes of “infinite expansion” and “a universal life cycle.”
Today, outer space still captures the imagination of fashion. For the Balmain Fall-Winter 2021-2022 collection shown at this year’s Paris Fashion Week, the catwalk became a story of escape. A rocket hangar, an airplane and even the moon hovered suggestively behind strutting models as viewers fantasized in unison about traveling during a pandemic. No destination was out of the question, even off-world.