Roger Vadim’s 1968 space drama Barbarella takes kitschy sci-fi to an alternate dimension, one of campy eroticism. It cares more about sex politics than elevating what was a largely neglected genre because Vadim wanted a playful spectacle rather than a cerebral exercise. Barbarella (Jane Fonda) herself is a scantily clad space-traveler of the 41st century whose sexuality and freeness are impossible to measure against our contemporary morality. Both Fonda and Vadim were emphatic that Barbarella had no sense of guilt about her body or bold sexuality. The film’s moral revelations, however, have nothing on the boundless provocativity of its costume design, which practically invented molded body plates and chainmail dresses. Helmed by Paco Rabanne and Jacques Fonteray, Barbarella’s costume design serves to flawlessly encapsulate the invigorating aesthetics of the space age movement.
Though the space age movement technically began in the 1950s, it flourished in the ‘60s. Hot on the heels of the Cold War and international Space Race, it found inspiration in the exploration of unimaginable futures and the immeasurable vastness of our universe. The movement fed on fantasies of flying cars, unknown alien civilizations, and men stretching their legs on every moon and planet they could find. Designers took inspiration from things as real as the revolutionary 1961 Soviet-crewed spaceflight Vostok 1 and as fictional as Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, and Flight to Mars. André Courrèges was so incredibly devoted to the future of space travel that he was personally invited by NASA to visit Cape Canaveral. Also infatuated with space travel, Pierre Cardin visited NASA and tried on the space suit worn on the moon by Neil Armstrong. Rabanne, on a much more curious front, claimed that in one of his past lives he had traveled to Earth from a planet called Altair to organize civilization on our planet 78,000 years ago. As absurd as that sounds, it’s kind of perfect.
Rabanne altogether avoided traditional fabrics in favor of plastics and metals strung together with wire and fastened with glue. His first show in 1966 was rather aptly titled “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials” and featured the first of his now emblematic metal-linked dresses. Other space age designers included synthetic fabrics such as nylon, corfam, lurex, and spandex, as well as other non-cloth materials like PVC, paper, aluminum, and polyester. When traditional fabrics were used, they were often manipulated to invoke unusual textures. This aesthetic was championed by the use of accessories such as sharp-shaped chin-strap bonnets, bright plastic visors, and space-hardy goggles. There was also a heavy focus on the development of new silhouettes and shapes, particularly those with clean lines and boxy, geometric contours. Cardin, for example, wanted to completely ignore the female form in favor of a more structural, architectural unisex look.
The liberation of female bodies became an important theme; many of the movement’s designers felt strongly that the female body should be free and not treated as something so delicate. Courrèges likened bras to harnesses and instruments of enslavement. France was in the midst of its second-wave of feminism, which had begun in the 1940s but continued through the 1990s. Rabanne noted in a 2002 interview that “it was a moment when women emerged to be warriors because they needed to affirm their desire of emancipation, freedom, and liberty. The armor was almost necessary.” The armor he refers to here is his constructions of metal and wire, which certainly evoke something Amazonian and warrior-like, particularly in Barbarella, in which Fonda sports them as she dashes across alien landscapes.
Responsible for the creation of such staples as white go-go boots and sleek miniskirts, the outlandish, subversive designs of the space age movement left a remarkable impression on the fashion industry. For an era so focused on future innovation, its motifs have reemerged unchanged rather regularly over the years with chain-metal dresses being an unrivaled favorite. The space age conjured a fantastic intergalactic escapist fantasy—one that pressed against the boundaries of the known and sent its models to Mars and beyond.
By Jenna Kalishman
Visual by Damien Jeon