The Space Race: Fashion in Sci-Fi Filmmaking

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With the economic boom following the second World War, the United States found a new rival almost immediately in the USSR, spawning the Cold War which lasted throughout most of the 20th century. The so called ‘weapons race’ and Cuban missile crysis may have been peaks of the tension, but the two blocks were competing in more than just purely military areas. Science was one of them – and so came the famous space race.

Once the idea that space exploration, that leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and touching new lands, was physically possible cemented itself in the common civilian’s mind, ideas started spawning like weed. Truth be told, many had written about space exploration before – Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story about a man landing on the moon as early as 1835 (“The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hands Pfaall”), weird fiction cult icon Howard P. Lovecraft penned stories like “Within the Walls of Eryx” (1936). At its peak, the space race in the late 1960s created a rise in interest in science fiction, a genre that had been limited to a niche audience of informed dreamers before. Once the idea of man landing on the moon became an actual possibility, both aspiring and established filmmakers ran for the shelves.

“Barbarella”, Roger Vadim’s visual space travelling extravaganza, came out in 1968 – just one year before Neil Armstrong took a “small step for man, giant step for mankind”. It can be argued that “Barbarella” is the least scientifically accurate science fiction film ever made, but it was actually based on a series of comic books written by Jean-Claude Forest that first came out in 1962 – and comic books aren’t exactly made to be accurate. The excessive, skimpy and unpractical costumes were designed by none other than Paco Rabanne and they serve only to exalt Jane Fonda’s natural beauty and physique in a future where the sexual act isn’t physical. In “Barbarella”, the idea of space travelling and the appropriate clothing for it is borderline ridiculous, but that’s what makes it so particular as a film. While it is not for the mainstream audience – after all, the control room in Barbarella’s ship is covered in orange faux fur – it is this complete disregard for the scientific veracity that makes it what we today would call a “cult film”.  Paco Rabanne’s shiny bodysuits are not exactly made for the space warrior Barbarella is supposed to be as a character, but they fit perfectly within the genre the film created for itself. It is a standalone production as it does not take the space race and the possibility of travelling to faraway planets seriously – instead, it follows the vibrant imagination of a comic book artist to the extreme. It goes beyond science fiction and becomes, in every way, a “space fantasy”. In fact, the main point of the film is not to describe all the possibilities that man can find in space exploration, but to tell a story of the main character’s sexual awakening and discovery of physical pleasure. To judge “Barbarella” as a sci-fi film sticking to standards of accuracy and density of plot would be senseless, simply because that is not the point nor the message of the film. The costumes worn by Jane Fonda are a testament to that: they are colourful, dynamic, sensual, exaggerated, unpractical and borderline fetishist – but they are not, nor were they ever meant to be, realistic.

Within the excitement of space race filmmaking, several sub-genres of science fiction begin to pop up and, within one of the most deliberately accurate ones, is Stanley Kubrick’s ultimate masterpiece: “2001: A Space Odyssey”. A study on human psychology, evolutional theories and the inner workings of our vast universe, Kubrick’s intense and visually perfect rendering of noted author Arthur C. Clarke’s screenplay set the bar for any other science fiction film to come.

Surprisingly enough, considering how completely opposite they are in how they portray the same nearby future, Kubrick’s film came out in the exact same year as Vadim’s – 1968. But while Vadim’s is a lighthearted, joyful and sensual party, Kubrick’s work is a carefully curated visual masterpiece. Every frame of every shot is meticulously coloured, timed and angled to bring out the desired emotional effect in the viewer – whether that be fear, anxiety or even extreme claustrophobia. Instead of following a fast train of action, the film divides itself into only a handful of very long, uncut sequences, making it feel like a slow, asphyxiating build-up to a bullet-fast mind-blowing finale. If “Barbarella” was representing and exaggerating all the fashion and decor trends of the 1960s (complete with big hair and bright makeup), Kubrick’s Odyssey was a denial of all the bright orange positivity and a return to the very roots of mankind – fear and doubt. Of all the characters present in the film, the ones that evolve the most, both psychologically and emotionally, throughout the advancement of plot, are the machines. A reversal of roles that touches on Isaac Asimov’s and George Orwell’s visionary ideas that yes, machines can very well trump over mankind and develop their own thought process independent of programming. The very idea that computers can feel emotions is the driving point towards the deaths of the Jupiter mission’s crew – particularly Frank Poole’s rapid death at the hands of HAL. The master computer controlling the mission, which was said to be fool-proof, became advanced to the point of feeling threatened, of feeling fear, and of actively attempting to defend itself – and, according to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, it acted within its rights. If psychological density were only present in the script, however, it would be a different story: the whole visual, emotional and psychological impact on the viewer comes mostly from Kubrick’s take on Clarke’s imaginary. Now known for heavy use of colour symbolism in his works – particularly the contrast between red and white, or sea-green and blue in room decor to signify the nearing of an end – in Odyssey, Kubrick goes all out.

Red is the dominant colour. While it does not carry a particular by-dictionary definition, it sets a mood. It rings of death, but not violence, contrasted with the purity of white. Dave’s red space suit, for example, is first presented contrasted with a white hallway, while later on after the deaths of the crew, the whole lighting within the ship has switched to red as well. The white creates a faint feeling of purity, freedom, but makes the environment cold, impersonal and emotionless. As HAL descends into what can only be described as extreme human insanity, everywhere Dave walks is lit in red – from his own Pod ship to the hallways down to HAL’s main terminal room. There is no physical violence in Kubrick’s film after the initial sequence depicting the starting point of human evolution, but it remains as one of the main themes of the film. Humanity came from violence and it will continue to grow through violence – and while there is no blood, the gruesome, emotionally and psychologically assaulting final part of the film is considered one of the most violent cinematic sequences in history.

But while Odyssey set the trend instead of following, some items are particularly dated from the 1960s, particularly the non-scientific costume design. Men’s suits are straight, in grey or brown and never black (as black and navy only became standard business suit colours with the rise of the Wall Street empire and ‘white collar’ workers). The male haircuts are typical of the decade, cut very short at the nape and longer but carefully brushed back and slicked on top. Not even in outer space are Dave and Frank suffering from a bad hair day – they are always perfectly combed. While there is only a glimpse of casual womenswear, they wear pencil skirts with tucked-in short-sleeved wool cardigans and very voluminous and short, curly  backcombed hair. From Dr Heywood’s initial appearance down to the straight-cut, baby pink ensemble – complete with pill box hat – worn by the receptionist before the Dr leaves for Clavius, costume design is extremely dated in Odyssey. It does not look forward and settles for the trends already present in the 1960s, right down the anglo-american accents of the original investigating group. The most futuristic example of costume design would be the air hostesses, who wear all-white jumpsuits – presumably to adapt to artificial gravity – and bubble-shaped helmet-like hats.

It is from this almost nurse-like ensemble that other works of science fiction seemed to have drawn inspiration from when designing costumes. The crew of “Space: 1999”, which first aired much later in 1977 followed the geometrical, minimalist military-esque design guidelines despite the world already being quite aware of what actual astronauts dressed like. From then on, ‘minimalism’ was established as the go-to rule for space exploration costume design, right down to the uniforms in the many incarnations of “Star Trek”. With the “Barbarella” ’s aesthetic side of things, it’s easier to associate works of more fantastical science fiction, less focused on the scientific accuracy of space exploration and more geared towards the individual plot of the film, elements of fantasy and action – such as the original “Star Wars” series, or David Lynch’s iconic “Dune” (which, originally, was meant to be adapted by cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky of “The Holy Mountain”). But the end of the space race and subsequent loss of fascination with space exploration did not make any of these two genres – fantastical fiction or scientific fiction – lose their spotlight. In the last few decades, some of the best films to come out were dedicated to the possibilities of adventures set in deep space – “The Fifth Element” (glorious partnership between Luc Besson and Jean Paul Gaultier) in 1997, “Sunshine” (Danny Boyle’s emotionally striking and visually stunning work of art) in 2007, the “Alien” series of sci-fi thrillers. Last year we had “Prometheus” which remarkably mixed scientifically accurate space suits with beautiful, minimal casual uniforms, and this year Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is even generating Oscar buzz.

Yes, science fiction has lost some of its magic. We’ve made it into space. We’ve crossed the final frontier. But there is so much still out there, outside our own solar system. Is there life on a faraway planet, life more intelligent than ours? And will machines eventually overthrow us, like Harlan Ellison predicted in his novels, or will they live alongside us according to author William Gibson? Will we respect them and follow Asimov’s laws? The future is a blank slate, in front of us spans the infinite horizon of the vast black Universe, and the more we become bored with this Earth we inhabit the more we look to escape into outer space. We can’t slip into a silver jumpsuit, put on our bubble helmet and jump out – but we can read, we can watch the films that make us travel. Like literature, like space travelling, cinema is an escape. It is an inspiration, an art form, but it makes us feel and believe that we are meant for greater and better things – whether it’s floating towards Jupiter or fighting aliens in green paillette swimsuits.

The Author

24-year-old Portuguese girl. Bilingual English, fluent in Italian. BA in Fashion Communication. MUA with a proper diploma! MA Creative Media student. Globetrotter and shopaholic, can't seem to be able throw away menswear magazines. Has a serious mental problem when it comes to buying photography books and is working towards being a part of the fashion industry.

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