Tag Archives: gwyn conaway

[Mar. 17, 1962]  Our Knights in Shining Armor (Have Space Suit, Will Travel)

[The Journey’s “Fashion Columnist” returns with a timely piece on the latest advancement in sartorial science…]


by Gwyn Conaway

Last month, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the second American to leave behind our earthly constraints for the majesty of space.

Less than one year after Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket, John Glenn ascended to low Earth orbit in his spacecraft, Friendship 7. He circled the Earth three times at speeds upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, and persevered through the crushing force of nearly eight times the force of Earth’s gravity Gs at reentry into our atmosphere.

What a time to be alive! We are witness to human history! This is a milestone in a long journey toward chasing the unknown. Never have I been more certain that we are explorers, creatures of adventure. And what better bedfellow to our curiosity than innovation?  For to accomplish his mission, Colonel Glenn required two spacecraft: the bell-shaped Mercury, as well as his formfitting personal capsule – the Mark IV spacesuit.

Our newly beloved Space Age is thanks, in no small part, to a little-known mechanical engineer and designer named Russell Colley at B. F. Goodrich Company. Owing to his career-long devotion to high-altitude pressure suits, Colley has been deemed the Father of the Spacesuit, the First Tailor of the Space Age. Mark my words, his Mark IV spacesuits, with their sleek and futuristic design, will inspire generations of fashion to come.

The Mark IV rides on the coattails of many pressure suits designed by Colley and others over the years. Its evolution is a testament to American doggedness and bears the fruits of the unbridled technological advancements in textiles and garment manufacturing we’ve seen through the past decade.


The Post pressure suit, first flown in 1934. This suit had a skewed visor to favor Wiley Post’s one good eye.

Colley first began his groundbreaking work in 1934 when Wiley Post, the aviator who achieved fame through making the first solo flight around the globe, commissioned him to design the world’s first pressurized suit for high-altitude flight. Later the same year, after two failed designs, Colley built a rubber bladder suit with long underwear and a diver’s helmet on his wife’s sewing machine. This suit launched Wiley Post 50,000 ft into the air and jump-started an evolution over the next thirty years that leads us to our current moment of triumph – the Mark IV spacesuits.


John Glenn being fit for his Mark IV, destined to carry him into orbit last month. What once looked like a diver’s suit has now been transformed into a feat of futuristic design and engineering.

From 1941 to 1954, the David Clark Company designed and built twenty pressure suit models for the U.S. Military.  When David Clark’s funding dried up, B.F. Goodrich, where Colley worked, was offered the contract. Colley himself built seven suits at B.F. Goodrich. They started this contract with the Model H (the 8th letter of the alphabet and their 8th suit design, in case you were wondering). Models H through R were built and tested before the company began the Mark series that would take Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and now John Glenn into space.

By the time B.F. Goodrich won the bid to build their Mark IV spacesuits in 1961, the U.S. Military and NASA had collectively funded more than forty pressure suit designs across three major engineering companies.


The Mercury 7 in a fitting for their Mark IV space suits. Note the sage green option for the suit in the back right.

The Mark IV, in addition to its sleek name, is a marvel to behold, unlike any other piece of flight equipment I’ve ever seen. Each suit is fitted by Colley in Akron, OH, where he attended to each of the Mercury 7 pilots. The gloves alone come in fifteen sizes: five palm sizes, each with short, regular, or long digits. John Glenn had a new feature added to his gloves specifically for his February flight: tiny lights affixed to the tops of each finger so he could read the instrument panels.


John Glenn shows off his finger flashlights. Also visible in this photo are the only two instances of metal bearings in the entire suit: the neck ring and glove attachments.

Space suits have made incredible strides since his Colley’s collaboration with Wiley Post more than thirty years ago. When pressurized, these high altitude suits inflate the interior, pushing in on the human body and out on the suit. This provides the pilot with enough atmospheric pressure to stabilize blood flow to the brain and keeping them conscious during difficult maneuvers. However, once these suits are pressurized, mobility becomes extremely limited, and even bending one’s fingers becomes a task of titanic strength.


Astronauts ‘test’ the Mark IV in a light-hearted ball game. Clearly visible along the outer seams of the arms and legs are Colley’s revolutionary elastic pleating to enhance mobility.

The earliest suits were outfitted with heavy metal hinges at the joints for mobility. In a stroke of genius, Colley departed from metal bearings and joints in the Mark series. Rather, he used adjustable cords and pleats to fold the inflated suit at important junctions. While the cords had originally concerned NASA, they proved invaluable in fittings, where Colley was able to replace the lengths of many of these cords with highly-tailored zippers, elastic seams, and pressure pockets for each pilot.


John Glenn’s waffle-weave long underwear can be seen here as he suits up. The waffling occurs across the back, buttocks, thighs, and biceps in reinforced panels.

It’s a daring, romantic choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw John Glenn walk to his shuttle last month and sigh, “Ah, now there is a knight in shining armor!” I wonder how far into the future Russell Colley’s Mark IV will inspire children, artists, and science fiction? How long will the stamp of America’s Mercury 7 linger on the face of space exploration? Decades? Centuries?

Yuri Gagarin may have beat us to space in April of last year, but the cosmonaut’s orange utility suit will not leave such a glimmer in the eyes of our children. The Russians touched the stars first, but Russell Colley has won the hearts of the people of Earth.

[December 3, 1961] Of Wives and Men (or First Ladies’ Fashion)

When I started this endeavor, I never expected to find so many fellow travelers.  Each has provided an unique insight into the worlds of science fiction, comics, science, fandom.  I have tried to balance staying true to my original vision (which is why I promise to keep writing at least a majority of the articles here) with showcasing all of these lovely perspectives. 

A few months ago, I met a remarkable young woman with a keen eye for fashion as well as an uncommon understanding of geopolitics.  The premise of Galactic Journey is that context matters.  This is why I leaven the fiction with nonfiction.  And it’s why the Journey now has…a fashion column.  Read on – I think you’ll agree that Ms. Conaway is a worthy addition to our constellation of authors…


by Gwyn Conaway

This is a time of change and uncertainty, but we are full to the brim with ambition. We hope for a future of technological mastery. An age of abundance and exploration. We see our society as a beacon of moral and economic high ground. The Reds do too.

You see, I observe the world in patterns of psychology, fear, and desire. I’m a costume designer, and I glean more from fashion trends and wardrobe choices than any newspaper. This shadow of nuclear war hanging over our heads is worrisome, but it seems to me, across the distance of ideology and oceans, that we still dream the same dreams.

“It seemed clear proof that an atom smasher is a poor match for an attractive young lady in a well-fitted blouse.”
The New York Times, Style Show – SRO Soviet Exhibition, NY NY – July 2, 1961

First Lady Jackie Kennedy recently met with Nina Khrushcheva, wife of Nikita Khrushchev, the current Premier of Soviet Russia. While many of my cohorts discussed the new president and the premier’s first encounter in Vienna, I was captured by the meeting of the wives.


Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushcheva meet in Vienna, 1961.

Jackie Kennedy wore an elegant black skirt suit, presumably by Coco Chanel. A signature style in her closet, the suit consists of a black silk blouse, a velvet pillbox hat, pencil skirt, and three-button jacket with a three-quarter-length sleeve and delicate lapel. Her pearls are classically understated. She is elegantly reserved, poised for what was sure to be a tense meeting.

What interests me most, however, is the ensemble of Nina Khrushcheva. Her frumpy floral ensemble, designed by Nina Gupalo, is considered a fashion failure around the world. However, what it lacks in style, it makes up for in context.

After World War II, New York quickly overcame Paris as the global leader of fashion. Of course, this means that Russia has spoken out vehemently against the industry. While Americans embrace glamour and beauty, Russian leaders publicly admonish such trends. Instead, they call for art and design that serves the people. In the USSR, utility and function supersede glamour and personal expression these days.

Although Nina Khrushcheva has been an advocate for the fashion industry, her personal style choices have always been dowdy and poorly-composed. Common natural fibres such as cotton and wool combined with boxy tailoring express her loyalty to communist ideals on the global stage.


Madame Khrushcheva invited Christian Dior to Moscow in 1959 for the first fashion show exhibiting Western designers. Here are Dior models in a street show, taken from my old copy of Life Magazine.

This is apparent in an iconic image of former First Lady Pat Nixon and Khrushcheva published on the cover of Life Magazine two years ago on August 10, 1959. Pat Nixon wore a vibrant floral ensemble while her Soviet hosts wore the more utilitarian styles accepted by the Ruskies. What is most compelling about this photograph is not that their respective fashion choices express the ideals of their two nations, but that Nixon’s Russian hostesses appear to be looking in longing at her bold dress and styling.

All three hostesses, Mmes Khrushcheva, Mikoyan, and Kozlov, wear plain-cloth house dresses and skirt suits without jewelry to frame their faces. Much like the communist uniforms of working women and students, their torsos are boxy and loose with minimal darting to shape the bust or waist. Unlike the sweeping pleats of Nixon’s dress, their skirts are straight and simple.


The cover of Life Magazine, August 10 1959

Through this single photograph, the demarcation of both powers’ post-World War ideals is very clear. While all nations limited their consumer goods for the war effort in the 1940s, America and Russia have obviously striven for very different Utopian futures. Pat Nixon’s joyous ensemble expresses America’s newfound abundance; a thriving capitalist economy powered by fast-paced, bold trends conveyed through its loud patterns and colors, the ample use of refined fabrics, and jewelry. Khrushcheva and her comrades, on the other hand, wear the dream of a future that works for the common man, a society of builders rather than consumers, so to speak. Khrushcheva’s fabric, a muted geometric textile, is an homage to this idyllic industrial Russian character.

Now, as I look at Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushcheva’s first meeting, I chuckle. Although Khrushchev has worn florals before, this particular ensemble means more. She is not only reaching out to American women through her words of peace and understanding, but also through this Gupalo design. Unlike Khrushcheva’s usual folkish patterns, this floral acts as a bridge across our two nations. By combining an industrial grey and cream palette with an abstract floral pattern, Khrushcheva has extended her hand in a show of unity between the Reds and the West.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come in the Kennedy Administration. After all, standing next to every great man is an equally great woman. The distance between ourselves and the Russkies is not insurmountable after all.