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Spacewear

Weightlessness and the Final Frontier of Fashion

eBook

Barbara Brownie

Berg Fashion Library


Table of contents

The Clothed Body in Microgravity

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/9781350000353.ch-004
Pages: 93–116

Perhaps the most important thing that future spacewear designers will need to understand is how the relationship between clothes and the body is altered by weightlessness. The body in space is not the same as the body on Earth. When designing for the weightless body, one must take account of shape, posture, and capacity for movement, all of which are affected by gravitational changes. Fluid moves so that mass is repositioned, deforming the body and, over time, muscle atrophy leads to thinning of the limbs. Without the force of gravity, the natural tensegrity of the skeleton and muscles takes over, and the body adopts a neutral posture. Everyday actions such as standing or walking are not possible, so clothing must accommodate new sets of gestures and actions. Movement must be relearned, or substituted for different gestures that have been designed for the weightless environment. The body, its shape and size, and everything it does, are altered in ways that must be accommodated by spacewear designers.

Weightlessness can be presented as “freedom from gravity” (Bureaud, 2006), but with this freedom comes a loss of control that affects movement and interaction with objects including wearables. This loss of control arises in part as a direct result of weightlessness, but can also be a consequence of restrictive wearables. Spacesuits for EVA have contributed to audiences’ understanding of how weightlessness affects human motion, with artificially generated pressure and stiffness that restricts the wearer’s movement and gives moonwalking astronauts a distinctive “hop.” Everyday movements and gestures that our bodies perform under Earth’s gravitational conditions are very different from those that are possible or desirable in space, requiring that astronauts undergo training to “translate” familiar gestures (Gast and Moore, 2011, p. 323). The astronaut’s “action possibilities” differ depending on what he or she wears.

The dialogue between garment, space, and body is very different for rigid and flexible materials, and for different gravitational conditions. The hard shells of some spacesuits and the soft fabrics that can be worn for IVA respond differently to varying gravitational conditions. In this context, rigidity and flexibility can be defined as the extent to which a material is distorted by gravity. While a rigid structure tends to maintain its shape regardless of gravitational conditions, soft, flexible fabric becomes malformed by its own weight in Earth’s gravity. This malformation, commonly referred to as drape, is an essential consideration in fashion design, informing choice of fabric and cut. Drape is, however, currently understood as the extent to which a fabric resists gravity (Cusick, 1965; Cadigan, 2014, p. 140). Future spacewear designers will need to significantly revise their understanding of drape behavior when designing for microgravity. Engineers and manufacturers of the rigid spacesuit concern themselves with enabling the maximum possible flexibility that will enable astronauts to carry out the gestures that are need to perform EVA. By contrast, designers of spacewear for intravehicular activity sometimes have to contend with too much flexibility, and the potential for uncontrollable distortions of form, as when clothing floats upward and outward, away from the body.

“One small step”: Movement in microgravity

Those who have experienced weightlessness describe a loss of awareness of where their body ends and where its surroundings begin. Without the sensation of pressure on the epidermis, skin “stop[s] playing the role of sensor between the ‘interior’ and the ‘exterior,’ between ‘me’ and ‘what is not me’ ” (Bureaud, 2006). If the “external limits” of the body are unclear, then so too is the division between body and clothes. This sensation is compounded within a spacesuit, in which the internal workings of the body are externalized. The externally worn spacesuit becomes involved in actions that normally take place inside the body, and transits related data to onboard computers. In this environment, the act of wearing is not a matter of swathing the body in cloth but, rather, blurring the divide between body and space.

The phenomenology of microgravity can be affected as much by the wearing of a spacesuit as it is by the state of weightlessness. Immersion in a spacesuit makes the wearer hyperaware of his or her own physicality. Astronaut Chris Hadfield describes “the gentle sound of the fan and the liquid cooling ventilation” that acts as a constant reminder that a spacesuit is working to sustain the flow of oxygen to the body (Savage, 2015). When the fan “shuts off it becomes very quiet. [Astronauts] can hear their own body noises (breathing, swallowing, pulse)” (Frost, 2012). On a spacewalk, recalls Hadfield, the sound of “your own breathing” is “your [constant] companion” (Savage, 2015). These sounds are characterized by their closeness. In contrast to the vast expanse of space, where the horizon is so incredibly distant that it curves around the entire circumference of a planet, everything that the astronaut hears is generated from within inches of the astronaut’s body. The vast and distant visual landscape bears no relation to the relatively minute and close aural landscape. The absence of external sound dissociates the astronaut from actions and events outside of the suit, including actions carried out by the astronaut himself. NASA astronaut Piers Sellers describes the “odd” sensation of banging “a hammer or metal tool and bang[ing] it against something . . . hear[ing] absolutely nothing” (Watts, 2011). Without the aural feedback that we take for granted within Earth’s atmosphere, the astronaut is reliant on his visual and haptic confirmation that he has carried out an action as intended. Thus, events do not provoke a complete sensory experience, and the astronaut must become ultra-aware of visual cues, including those that appear to contradict what his other senses are telling him.

A spacesuit so significantly inhibits familiar interactions with other objects, and weightlessness so significantly alters the character of those interactions, that familiar gestures must be relearned in preparation for space travel. The design of a spacesuit dictates the quality and extent of its wearer’s movement, to the extent that motion can be said to be choreographed by the designers and engineers who have developed the suit and its components. The awkward “hop” of the Apollo Crew on their moon landing was, writes Nick Taras (2014), “less to do with the Moon’s gravity and more a result of the lack of maneuverability of the spacesuit.” The rigidity of the pressurized suit restricts movement of joints. This joint stiffness is in part a result of the limited flexibility of the outer layers and in part a consequence of the compression of gases inside the suit. Joint movement is so significantly restricted that it impairs the wearer’s ability to perform everyday tasks. The suited astronaut cannot fully extend his arms or legs, nor fully rotate his shoulders or wrists, nor manipulate his fingers as easily as he can without pressurized gloves and, as a result, maintenance tasks are physically difficult to perform. The distance that a suited astronaut can reach is known as the “reach envelope,” and is significantly smaller than the distance that he or she would be able to reach when unsuited. Within the reach envelope lies the smaller “work envelope”—the area within which the astronaut can reliably operate. The work envelope is limited by the range of motion in joints; the length of the astronaut’s limbs; the astronaut’s strength, which dictates the extent to which the joint can bend; and the area of visibility, which is limited by the helmet (Schmidt, 2001, p. 174). All of these physical restrictions, imposed by the wearing of the suit, affect the speed at which the astronaut moves and works, as well as cause significant physical strain on the body.

Describing her many experiences on board parabolic flights, Susan Buckle of the UK Space Agency tells me how, even without a spacesuit, “your body acts very differently [in microgravity]. It doesn’t really know what to do.” Thus, astronauts must learn to perform familiar actions, such as turning a wrench, in conditions that defamiliarize these everyday actions to such as extent that they must be learned anew. Astronauts must learn to adjust their movements and gestures according to the range of motion that is possible in each of their various spacesuits. In training, astronauts learn a process of “translation” by which they become accustomed to “action possibilities” (Gast and Moore, 2011, p. 323). Annalisa Dominoni (2015, loc. 289; 275) proposes that these gestures must not simply be relearnt, but redesigned, and that designers of products and tools for space must consider “not just objects but the gestures and uses people might make of them.” The process of designing tools and wearables to be used by astronauts in microgravity necessarily involves designing the gestures that permit their use. The design of gestures and the design of objects must go hand in hand, and one will dictate the form of the other. For example, the handle of a tool must be designed in such a way that it can be grasped through a pressurized glove, and the way in which the astronaut is trained to grip that tool will depend on the design of the handle. In the case of a suit or other wearable, new ways of walking or transporting the body must be designed, taking account of the restrictive design of the spacesuit and, in turn, the spacesuit must be moderated to enable this movement to occur. This is an iterative process, in which the work envelope, and the gestures that it permits, inform developments in the design of the tools or spacesuit, and vice versa.

The process of relearning and gestures involves becoming accustomed to the lack of resistance. Earth’s gravity forces the body and its parts to move in largely two-dimensional ways, working with or against gravity. In general, upward movement requires greater exertion than downward movement. When one lifts an arm upward, the muscles resist gravity, and when the arm is relaxed, it lowers, carried downward by the force of gravity. However, without gravity, we are “liberated” to move freely in “three-dimensions.” In a weightless body, “no [more] muscular force is required to move” in any one direction than another (Bureaud, 2003). This freedom of movement can be seen as liberating, with gravity seen as a limiting, restricting force. However, as mankind has historically designed all of its actions and tools for use in Earth gravity, everyday activities are more often enabled by gravity than restricted by it. Familiar movements and gestures have evolved to work with gravity, and in some cases are impossible without it.

Having experienced weightlessness on no fewer than fourteen parabolic flights, choreographer Kitsou Dubois has found this freedom to be a reminder of how many of our everyday movements are dependent on gravity and contact with a stable surface. So many of the movements that our bodies perform on Earth originate from an “impulse point,” at which two opposing forces trigger movement. Walking, for example, requires the gravitational pull of the Earth to attract the body toward the ground with each step, and the stable surface of the ground is needed as a surface from which to launch the next step. A gesture such as twirling in a dress also requires the presence of a stable surface from which the body can propel itself. Once this motion has started, gravity and friction are required to end it. As Dubois experienced first-hand, a body spinning in microgravity will continue to spin, even in a perpetually relaxed state. The freedom of weightlessness is therefore a blessing and a curse: to gain freedom it is necessary to sacrifice control. This problem is illustrated in everyday gestures and activities, such as donning and doffing (see Chapter 3).

The difficulties associated with controlling movement in microgravity arise in part from the lack of stability that affects both the weightless body and the objects with which the space traveler must interact. On Earth we are rooted to the ground, and our fashion reflects this. Shoes are the interface between body and ground, and mediate our experience of groundedness. They are objects through which we experience the effects of gravity, both weighing our feet downward and cushioning the weight of our bodies. The shape of shoes reflects an approach to design that is informed by gravity and its effects. Shoe designers concern themselves with stability and balance, clearly differentiating the sole—the base through which the body is weighted to the Earth—from the upper. Shoe design begins with the assumption that the shoe will be weighted to a horizontal surface, and this platform becomes the starting point for the rest of the design.[1] The fact that weightless objects float rather than fall “obviates the need for . . . flat surfaces” (McKinnon, 2015), rendering the sole of the shoe, at least as we know it on Earth, virtually useless. Without gravity weighing the body to a surface, the need for shoes as we know them on Earth is eliminated. Susan Buckle notes that “when you are floating, your feet become very unimportant.” Like her fellow passengers on board Novespace parabolic flights, she wears white trainers during her weightless experiences, but only so that she can fall feetfirst on the floor of the aircraft when gravity returns to the cabin. Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) do not typically wear shoes, as there is neither a floor on which to stand, nor the possibility of maintaining a standing posture without aid.

The inability to stabilize the body by simply adopting a standing posture means that other methods of stabilization have needed to be sought for weightless environments. On board the ISS, stabilizing holds exist on all surfaces, and are as readily grasped with the hands as they are used with the feet. Thus, astronauts are grounded at whatever point their body makes contact with the solid interior of the cabin. Astronauts can be seen propelling themselves through the cabin with their hands, much like a child swinging along monkey bars (NASA, 2015a). While the interior of the ISS does have footholds incorporated into its surfaces, by hooking their feet into a hold astronauts sense pressure on the top, not the soles of their feet. When astronauts need to remain at a workstation, they must anchor themselves in place by means other than sitting or standing. Anchors can come in the form of foot braces, consisting of one or more adjustable straps, through which the astronaut may slide his or her foot. Less formally, astronauts can be seen hooking their toes under handrails (Behrendsen, 2013). The main point of contact, therefore, is not the sole of the foot, but the top of the forefoot. Astronaut Scott Kelly (2016) reports developing callouses on the top of his feet, while his soles grew “baby soft” through disuse. Were astronauts to wear shoes while using these braces and rails, it would be the toe box, not the sole, through which the body is grounded.

In order to establish a connection between feet and surface, astronauts require not just shoes, but shoe systems. Space stations have employed a range of foot restraints in order that astronauts may hold themselves in place while freeing their hands to work. These are generally in the form of straps or interlocking components, with a foot piece that locks into a platform. Astronauts on the Skylab space station wore soft lace-up boots with rigid soles, to which were screwed triangular cleats (see Figure 4.1). These cleats matched a grid of equilateral triangles cut from an aluminum plate that lined several of Skylab’s interior surfaces. These grids served to stabilize the astronaut, working “as both a handhold and a locking surface for the triangle shoe” (Chowdhury 2016). In order to remain stationary for a long duration, an astronaut could rotate his shoes to lock the triangular cleat in place by locking it into a triangular cavity (Watkins and Dunne, 2015, p. 343). Although Skylab’s cleat system did have advantages, it has not been used in more recent space stations, where straps and bars offer the freedom to more quickly relocate from one foothold to another, without the need for specialist footwear.

Figure 4.1

Edward Howell’s proposed design for Zero Gravity Prehensile Footwear. It enhances the grabbing capabilities of the toes, enabling astronauts to carry objects with their feet while they use their hands to navigate through the cabin of a space station. This illustration depicts one of a series of design by Howell that have a variety of appendages and protrusions for different grasping and holding tasks. © 2010 by Edward L. Howell


Andreas Vogler’s (2005, p. 1) “Design Study for Astronaut’s Workstation” reveals astronauts’ dissatisfaction with the foot restraint as a means of stabilization, partly due to the fact that the standing position is not so easily adopted or maintained in microgravity as it is on Earth. A standing position is stable in Earth’s gravity, and this tradition of associating the standing position with stability has informed the use of foot restraints at workstations on board the ISS, as well as during extravehicular repairs. However, remarks Vogler, the standing position only provides stability when the body is affected by a subjectively vertical force of gravity. Standing and walking, on Earth allow “a very wide reach and good employment of our muscles for physical work,” and require constant physical effort from the body’s core muscles. By contrast, “lying is the preferred mode for relaxing and sleeping, since muscular support of all members is minimized” (p. 1). In a weightless environment, these two “restraint modes” are indistinguishable. The body may only adopt a position similar to standing or lying by being tethered to a stable object. Rather than using the core muscles that are put to work in a standing position on Earth’s surface, foot restraints place constant strain on the shin and toes (Behrendsen, 2013, p. 15).

Vogler (2005, p. 1) argues for stabilization closer to the body’s center of gravity. On board parabolic flights, photographers and instructors are stabilized with tethers attached to their waists, so that they can remain rooted to the floor of the plane and able to assist free-floating passengers. A waist restraint affords “good body control,” but also significantly limits an astronaut’s range of motion, and hence their ability to carry out required tasks (p. 2). Vogler argues that a “chair-like restraint” may offer the best solution, tethering the body at the thighs so that the user may extend his or her reach beyond what would be possible with a waist restraint (p. 3). Tethers or bars located at the thigh suit the neutral posture that the body adopts in microgravity, thereby minimizing the physical strain that is required to maintain a stable position. Such restrains exist in the form of the Munich Space Chair (Igenbergs, Naumann, and Pfeiffer, 1996) and for use of waste collection systems (NASA, 2002). Clothing designed to allow stabilization close to the body’s center, as Vogler proposes, might allow or even facilitate physical connections between the waist or hips and a nearby surface, just as shoes are designed to act as the interface between the body and the surface of the Earth.

Feet are, of course, used not only for standing and stabilizing the body on Earth, but also for transporting the body from one location to another. Weightlessness denies the possibility of walking or running, and as a result astronauts’ feet no longer play a role in transporting their bodies around the spacecraft. Susan Buckle describes how “it takes [astronauts] a long time to figure out how to move around the space station . . . They go head first as if they’re diving through the different modules, so [they] would never walk around like on Earth.” Footage of astronauts navigating through the modules of the ISS reveals that they travel using their hands, not feet. They move through the cabin by propelling themselves between handrails, so that the “primary movement” is performed by the “fingers hands, arms, and shoulders” (Behrendsen, 2013, p. 13). Hands become the main point of contact with a solid surface, and so the sensation of groundedness originates from the hands, not feet. One might, therefore, argue the case for gloves that adopt some of the features of footwear.

These alternative methods of grounding the body introduce the possibility of designing without the need for a stable platform at the soles of the feet. Space travelers may find shoes redundant, or may desire footwear with other practical or aesthetic functions that are unrelated to walking or standing. Designer Edward L. Howell (2011) has recognized the potential for footwear that enables feet to be involved in actions other than stabilizing the body. His Zero Gravity Prehensile Footwear has hooks, extrusions, and valleys above and below the toes and the ball of the foot. These protrusions extend the functional ability of the toes, enabling grasping and holding, so that the wearer may make equal use of hands and feet when navigating through a cabin, or holding and transporting tools (Howell, 2017, p. 8). The design of the interior of the ISS has already led to a kind of substitution of hands for feet, in so far as astronauts use their hands to navigate through the interior. So that feet are not rendered unimportant, Howell’s footwear enables the interchangeability of hands and feet for the carrying out of tasks in microgravity.

For future spacewear designers, the floating, weightless body introduces new possibilities not only for footwear design, but also for the design of garments that might otherwise terminate at the ankle. It is worth noting the extent to which the shape and length of Earth garments are determined by the need to permit standing or walking. Dresses and skirts, for example, must be designed to allow free movement at the hem, and less at the waist, leading to variations on a bell-shaped silhouette. Designers discarding the need for a stable platform at the feet may also find themselves redesigning garments around the whole lower part of the body, freed from the need to permit walking or standing. At the same time, the need to stabilize the weightless body introduces constraints that are not present in the Earthwear design process. Spacewear must allow for tethers, bars, or other stabilizing attachments to be drawn around, or connected to, the body, ideally close to its center of gravity, at the thighs, hips, or waist. Such clothing will enable kinds of physical connections between the body and its environment that are taken for granted on Earth as the body is pulled downward onto the surface on which it stands.

Posture, shape, and the weightless body

The human body is so shaped by the gravitational conditions in which we grow and live that, on entering different gravitational conditions, our bodies immediately begin to reshape. Reduced gravity effects the body so significantly in so many ways that there are, argues Dominoni (2003, p. 284), “new parameters of wearability” that arise from the microgravity environment. For astronauts, clothing designs must accommodate changing body shapes, a variety of functional needs specific to the activities that take place on board spacecraft, as well as aesthetic concerns arising from the poor fit of garments that have been designed to fit a body shaped by Earth gravity. Weightlessness has short-term and long-term effects on the human body, leading to changes in body shape and size that must be accommodated by the spacewear designer. In the short term, fluids are more evenly redistributed so that the upper part of the body increases in volume, leading to a broader chest and shoulders. Astronauts who spend a long time on board the ISS experience loss of muscle and bone mass, as they weaken from disuse. As leg muscles atrophy, the legs become slimmer, contributing to the top-heavy appearance of astronauts who have been on board the ISS for a long-duration mission (see Figure 4.2). In order to minimize the long-term effects of weightlessness, astronauts must exercise for two hours per day in the onboard gym, tethered to a treadmill via a harness, or using equipment that artificially generates resistance using piston-driven vacuum cylinders (Loehr et al., 2011). These immediate and delayed effects of gravity on the shape of the body mean that off-the-shelf clothing selected to fit the body of an astronaut on Earth will not fit so well in space. When worn on a journey to space, preselected clothing will be almost immediately tighter on the upper body, as fluids redistribute, and will become gradually looser on the lower body, as muscles atrophy.

Figure 4.2

The body changes shape as a result of the effects of weightlessness. The upper part of the body increases in volume, leading to broader chest and shoulders, as fluid is evenly dispersed around the body and, after a longer term, the legs become thinner as muscles atrophy


Wearables play a role in partially offsetting the negative consequences of microgravity, helping to preserve bone density by applying pressure to the body in ways that imitate the effects of gravity. When not wearing their off-the-shelf clothing, astronauts on board the ISS may be found wearing gravity-loading suits, designed to counteract the effects of long-term weightlessness. The Russian Penguin (or “Pingvin”) suit houses a series of bungee cords running from the shoulder to heel of the garment, which apply axial force to the body, stimulating the gravity force that we experience when we live on the ground to “prevent the loss of bone density [and] muscle strength” (see Figure 4.3). Stirrups can be tightened to “increase the axial load on [the wearer’s] leg” (JAXA, 2014). Although this does not make the body any less weightless (the wearer may still float about inside the space station), it does counteract the effects of weightlessness on the body. The latest generation of Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit (GLCS) simulates gravitational loading with a complex web of fibers of varying elasticity “that simulates the loading of terrestrial gravity in a more continuous, shoulder-to-ankle manner” than older suits lined with bungee cords (Murray, Waldie, and Newman, 2014). These suits have echoes of the girdle-like pressure garments that resulted from the relationship between the fashion and spaceflight industries that emerged in the 1960s as shapewear manufacturers found themselves developing pressure suits for high-altitude flights (see Chapter 1).

Figure 4.3

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata is pictured wearing the Penguin-3 antigravity pressure/stress suit on board the ISS. While most of the bungee cords are concealed within the suit, this image shows the stirrups that hold the bottom of bungee cords to the heels, from where they stretch up the body to the shoulders, thereby simulating the load of gravity on the shoulders and spine. © NASA


The most recent developments in gravity loading clothing move beyond simply compressing the body from shoulder to toe, moving toward the simulation of a personal gravitational environment. In 2011, NASA commissioned the Draper Laboratory to develop a suit that stabilizes the astronaut’s body, so that movements may be carried out in microgravity. Their experiments resulted in the V2 Variable Vector Countermeasure Suit, which employs gyroscopes to track the body’s movements, and flywheels to create artificial resistance to replicate the sensation of gravity. The suit restores the sense of orientation that is lost in microgravity, by generating resistance when movement is made parallel to a downward direction, and less or no resistance when movement is perpendicular to that direction (Duda, 2014, p. 3). The same technology may lessen the threats imposed by gravity on Earth’s surface. Engineers at the Draper Laboratory recognize Earth-based applications for the V2 suit, where it can provide “gait or movement stabilization for the elderly, or rehabilitating individuals.” The suit could be “programmed to provide a kinematic envelope of least resistance during walking,” or counterbalance that would reduce the likelihood of falling (Duda, 2014, p. 4). In this way, wearers on Earth would no longer be slaves to gravity.

Such developments in wearable technology contribute to the potential for the emergence of the post-gravity human. An advanced stabilizing pressure garment that isolates its wearer from the effects of gravity (or indeed, of the absence of gravity) may enable the human species to transcend concerns about those effects. This resistance and stabilization requires that a downward direction is “arbitrarily specified” (Duda, 2014, p. 3). The post-gravity human is, in this way, centered on self. When orientation is subjective, “you are your own anchorage” (Bureaud, 2006). Individuals determine their own planes of reference. With no natural downward force, the direction of up and down must be defined by the manufacturers or users of the V2 suit. The realization that engineers must artificially allocate upward and downward directions—concepts that are so ingrained in the human psyche that they once seemed natural or universal—contributes to a kind of awakening, similar to the one experienced by the Arts Catalyst philosophers and performers who reflected on their experiences of weightlessness, and who came to a shared understanding that orientation is a subjective experience (see Chapter 1). If future generations can define and redefine upward and downward however they choose, orientation might one day be considered a naïve and antiquated concept that limited the imagination of earthbound ancestors (Doule, 2014a, p. 93).

As well as changes in anatomical proportions, perhaps the most significant factor affecting the wearability of clothes in microgravity is posture. When not making an effort to extend the limbs or spine, the weightless body relaxes into a “neutral posture” that is less straight than the standing, or anatomical, posture one might adopt when on Earth. The astronaut’s neutral posture is much like that of a snowboarder, with head forward, and limbs slightly bent, as if partway between standing and seating (Dominoni, 2003, p. 279, see Figure 4.4). The posture is not identical in all cases; a variety of similar postures are observable in recordings of astronauts on board the ISS: typically, the arms float forward and outward, and are slightly bent at the elbow; legs are gently bent at the knees, even when feet are hooked under a rail to stabilize the body; hips are slightly bent so that the thighs slope forward, and the head is held slightly forward of its usual position. While being interviewed, astronauts are often seen clasping their hands together in front of their waist in order that their arms do not float outward and obstruct the view of their coworkers. Since there is no force pulling the body in any particular direction, this same posture is adopted regardless of the astronaut’s orientation in relation to the cabin or other objects. One consequence of the neutral posture is ill-fitting garments, as can be observed in images of astronauts wearing routine wear in microgravity environments. It is this posture that causes shirt hems to rise, exposing astronauts’ lower backs, and collars are caught uncomfortably under the chin (Dominoni, 2005, p. 4).

Figure 4.4

In microgravity, the body adopts a neutral body posture. The head and shoulders tilt forward, arms float, slightly bent, in front of the chest, and knees are bent. Adapted from Whitmore et al. (2013, p. 10, fig. 2), originally from data collected during observations of twelve Skylab crew members


Clothes, including the COTS garments worn on board the ISS, are currently designed for an upright pose known as the “anatomical position,” with spine erect, legs straight, and feet flat on the floor (Watkins and Dunne, 2015, p. 36). In the anatomical position, the head faces forward, and the head, pelvis, and feet sit approximately in vertical alignment. The body in this alignment stands perpendicular to the ground, and experiences gravity through vertical compression. This is the pose of the dressmaker’s dummy, but very different from the pose of a human body in microgravity. When not subject to the force of gravity, and therefore not forced toward the ground, the body naturally falls out of this alignment. Limbs relax, and pressure is relieved from the spine, and the head tilts forward. Dressmaker’s dummies are today, as standard, designed in the anatomical position. There are adjustable dummies that can be expanded to cater to different body shapes and sizes, but not to alter the dummy’s posture into a neutral posture.

Observing the fit of garments designed for the anatomical position on a body with neutral posture, it is possible to identity points of concern where the fabric is stretched uncomfortably tight, falls untidily loose, or fails to adequately cover the body. Particular points of concern for dressmakers and designers are the collar, armscye, elbow, waist, seat, crotch, and knee. The neutral posture requires garments that are longer in the back; shorter in the front; looser around the knees, seat, and shoulders; and with neckhole and waistband positioned further forward than on garments designed for 1G. At the waist, there is potential for gape at the back and unwanted pressure at the front. The hemlines of shirts lift at the back, and rear of the waistbands of trousers and shorts gape or are pulled downward, leaving an area of the lower back exposed. Meanwhile, the front of a waistband can become rucked and tight, applying uncomfortable pressure to the abdomen. A longer seat seam at the rear, and shorter rise at the front, helps position the waistband on a horizontal line.

Dressmakers who work with dummies in the anatomical position may be ill-equipped to imagine solutions to the problems that arise when clothing the body in neutral posture. Images taken on board the ISS can be useful in helping spacewear designers to identify points at which a routine garment fails to adequately fit when the body rests in a neutral position. Dressmakers dummies that are posed neutrally would be essential in the design and manufacture of spacewear, and would help designers to test possible solutions to the problem of poor fit. It is also helpful to look at the pattern-cutting techniques that are already in use by tailors catering to stooped and seated postures, which introduce many of the same problems as the neutral posture. While in the era of mass-market fashion the anatomical position is taken for granted, historical pattern-cutting resources provide valuable insight into how one might accommodate alternative postures just as readily as manufacturers currently accommodate different dress sizes. Spacewear designers might learn from Compaing and Devere’s Tailor’s Guide of 1855, which includes notes on the consideration of posture as well as size and shape (Breward, 2016, p. 22). Compaing and Devere (1855, p. 5) note that, just as a man may be “stout” or “thin,” he may also “stoop forward or lean backward.” They describe the attitude of a stooping man, which must be accommodated by cutting a shorter front and a longer, wider back, as well as a narrower chest, since a curved back is likely to be accompanied by shoulders that hunch forward (pp. 9–10). Further adjustments are required for a stooping body that bends forward (p. 11). Plates illustrate how, to accommodate a forward bend, the waist seam of a coat must be raised at the front and lowered the back (plate 6). These poses—the stooped posture, bending forward—share similar features with the posture of the upper part of the weightless body. A much more recent guide, Winifred Aldrich’s (2015, p. 217) Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear describes adjustments that need to be made for “figure problems” including stooping posture. Aldrich’s diagram of a stooping silhouette, showing waistline and hemline that angle upward toward the rear of the figure rather than resting horizontally as they do on an upright figure, illustrates problems similar to those observed in the fit of clothes worn on board the ISS.

Earthbound spacewear designers might also observe the clothing of seated wearers to understand the consequences of bent postures. In particular, it may be useful to look at how clothing for wheelchair users is designed to accommodate the seated position, which causes similar stresses and rucks as the neutral posture. The design of clothing for wheelchair users is “based on data obtained for users in a sitting position” (Nowack, 2001, p. 878), prompting “adjustment of the bottom part of clothing in length and cut” and “removal of excess fabric in front” (Nowack, 1999, p. 1343). Brands including IZ Adaptive manufacture garments that meet these requirements, including pants with additional room in the seat so that the waistband rests horizontally on a seated wearer, and tight fit on the underside of the knee (Lubitz, 2016). As in spacewear design, clothing design for wheelchair users is concerned with garments that can be removed with minimal assistance, and is therefore often donned and doffed differently to clothing designed for the anatomical position (Wang et al., 2014, p. 551). Garments may, for example, be divided into a number of separate pieces so that they are disassembled during undressing, a little like a spacesuit. It would be advantageous for future designers to be familiar with such approaches so that they may be applied in the context of spacewear design.

Drape in weightlessness

Designing garments for space, one must consider not only the changes to the body, but also changes in the behavior of fabric. The effects of gravity on the body are, in part, experienced through the clothes that we wear. When cloth rests against our skin we are reminded not only of the presence of our clothes, but also the presence of gravity. The relationship between clothes and the body is governed by the shape and posture of the body, the cut of the garment, and the behavior of the fabric from which it is constructed. None of these can be considered in isolation. Nor can they be considered without an understanding that every one of these aspects of clothing design is affected by gravity. On Earth’s surface, garment design involves seeking a balance between drape and structure: that is, the extent to which areas of the garment respond to or resist gravity (Cadigan, 2014, p. 140). In a microgravity environment, this relationship between drape and structure is thrown out of balance, and the behaviors that we have come to expect from certain fabrics are no longer reflective of qualities (such as weight) that play such an important role in the design of Earthwear.

The weight of a fabric is of particular importance in the design of Earth fashion. Indeed, fabrics are categorized according to their weight, using a measurement of ounces per yard or grams per meter (gsm). A 100 gsm cotton, for example, may be classified as lightweight, while a 248 gsm cotton may be classified as heavyweight (Stecker, 1996, p. 211). These weights are also associated with the seasons, with lightweight fabric sometimes being referred to as “summer weight,” and heavy fabrics as “winter weight.” In these terms, the weight of a fabric is determined by its thickness and density, where density is usually determined by the tightness of the weave. On Earth, weight is closely associated with drape. The weight of a fabric dictates the way that a fabric will distort when draped over the body (Mei et al., 2015, p. 1; Hunter and Fan, 2008, p. 7). Fine, lightweight fabrics are selected for garments that should skim or cling to the surface of the body. Conversely, heavy fabrics tend to be less revealing, having the potential to disguise the contours of the body (Saville, 1999, p. 260). When a fabric is weightless, these rules no longer apply.

Microgravity will cause space tourists to experience the acts of dressing and wearing clothes in new ways. The behavior of fabric in microgravity is unpredictable, and dependent on many variables, not least the weight of the fabric. Even if one were to model the behaviors of one kind of fabric in microgravity, this model would not necessarily be applicable to fabrics with different properties, such as tighter weave or greater elasticity. Designers also need to consider that an understanding of the behavior of a certain textile in microgravity would not necessarily tell us about the behavior of a garment made of that same fabric. Garments do not behave in the same way as an untethered piece of fabric. In a garment, fabric is constrained, and the nature of that constraint depends on the design of the garment and the nature and behavior of the body that wears it. The deformation possibilities of any fabric depend on the ways in which it is cut, stitched, and worn. These and other variables would need to be taken into account over many years of microgravity experimentation before we could confidently predict, with any degree of accuracy, the way that a garment might hang on the body of a space tourist.

It is possible to see the effects of weightlessness on a limited range of clothing in recordings of astronauts on board the ISS. Thanks to an increase in the availability of parabolic flights, footage is now also available that shows the effects of weightlessness on a wider variety of fabrics and clothes, including, importantly, those that are designed to drape. Parabolic flights are being used for the authentic portrayal of weightlessness in science fiction and fantasy films, and in music videos (beginning with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in 1995 and, more recently, for the complete duration of OK Go’s music video, Upside Down and Inside Out, 2014). Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy (2017) features a plane crash sequence for which a period of weightlessness was filmed on board a Novespace zero-g flight. The sequence shows Tom Cruise and his costar, Annabelle Wallis, floating through the cabin of a plane, grappling to strap on a parachute as they become weightless. Wallis, who wears layers including an unbuttoned jacket, is shown spinning through the cabin. As she floats weightlessly, the hem of her jacket lifts upward and outward, exposing her back, and forming a cape-like shape. Such stunt sequences, which are likely to become increasingly common as parabolic flights are on offer in a wider range of locations, provide insights into the way drape is affected by weightlessness and changing gravitational conditions. The sequence illustrates how garments that are designed to drape downward, hanging close to the wearer’s skin, float away from the body in weightless conditions. Increasingly, film costume designers will need to be aware of the effects of weightlessness if they are to work on films that feature such sequences and, at the same time, fashion designers will be given access to an increasing archive of footage that provides insight into drape behavior in variable gravity conditions.

There are several problems encountered when attempting to consider the drape of fabric in a weightless environment. The first is that definitions of drape refer directly to gravity or weight. Of the numerous texts that explore and define drape, many explicitly or implicitly associate it with gravity: for Cusick (1965), drape is “a deformation of the fabric produced by gravity when only part of the fabric is directly supported”; Jiang, Cui, and Hu (2012, p. 661) describe how, “under the action of gravity . . . fabrics will droop . . . and form curved surfaces”; Cadigan (2014, p. 140) categorizes all fabrics according to the extent to which they “resist gravity”; and Cadigan (2014, p. 140) defines drape as “how fabric falls in space.” Drape is measured by apparel and fabric manufacturers using apparatus known as drapemeters, which provide data about the extent to which unsupported fabric is pulled vertically downward by the force of gravity. The simplest measure of drape is the outward spread of fabric from a point of suspension. Some tests also measure the fabric waves, including the amplitude, curvature, and number of waves created when fabric is draped over a plate (Sanad, Cassidy, and Cheung, 2012, p. 354, see Figure 4.5). Such tests assume that gravity will exert a downward force on the fabric, causing it to fall or bend toward the Earth. When tests for the behavior and qualities of fabric rely so heavily on the effects of gravity, they are inappropriate for testing or defining fabrics for use in microgravity. A new approach is needed, one which measures and classifies fabrics and their behavior in weightless conditions.

Figure 4.5

A drape test measures “how fabric falls in space” (Cadigan, 2014, p. 140). A circular fabric swatch is trapped centrally between two rigid plates with a smaller circumference, so that the edges of the fabric drape over the edge of the disk. A light source is placed above the center of the disk, so that a shadow is cast on a surface below the fabric. Drape is quantified by measuring the area of the cast shadow. Thicker, stiffer fabric tends to have a wide spread, as it forms a gentle curve from the edges of the plates, hence it casts a shadow with a large area. Finer fabric tends to have a smaller spread, as it hangs almost vertically downward from the edges of the plates, hence it casts a shadow with a small area. However, this is not the case in microgravity. Since drape behavior is so vital in dictating the form of many garments, and drape is a product of gravity, new methods of defining the behavior of fabric are required for microgravity environments


The second problem arises due to the close relationship between drape, structure, and support in the design of garments. Erin Cadigan (2014, p. 140) presents drape and structure in direct opposition, as either falling or resisting gravity. A fashion designer’s goal, she argues, should be to pursue a “balance between drape and structure” (p. 125). This balance is not achieved only in the choice of textile, but also in the construction of the garment, which may be shaped so as to “fight . . . gravity” (p. 125). As illustrated in the drapemeter test, when drape occurs in Earth gravity, it involves the opposition of gravity and support, as one part of the fabric is held aloft by a supporting structure, and the unsupported parts of the fabric are free to drape downward. Texts that define drape frequently acknowledge that drape occurs only when “part of [a garment or cloth] is directly supported” (Hu, 2004, p. 54). Support works in opposition to gravity: gravity pulls the fabric down, while support holds it up. This support typically exists where the fabric comes into contact with the body, as it does at the shoulder seams and waistband. Earthbound dressmakers begin with the assumption that a garment will “hang” on a human figure.[2] Gravity causes a garment to rest on protruding parts of the body, so that fabric hangs on either side of the protrusion. There are points of direct support, typically located at or near to the top of a garment, at which gravity holds the garment to the body. On either side of those points of support, fabric may hang freely around the body (in a draped garment), or follow the contours of the body (in a form-fitting garment).[3] In a straight cut garment, side seams are perpendicular to the ground, so that, for example, the front and back hem of the garment both fall to an equal distance above the ground when the wearer is standing upright (Stecker, 1996, p. 199).[4]

Figure 4.6 indicates the points of contact with the body, from where the garment drapes in the gravity conditions of Earth’s surface. In this example, in a men’s polo shirt (similar to those worn by astronauts on board the ISS), the primary points of direct support lie at the shoulder seams. These primary points of contact, created by the pull of gravity, vary depending on the nature of the garment. Typically, primary points of contact exist where the body protrudes outward, creating a shelf that is parallel to the ground, or within about 45° of parallel. In a skirt, they are likely to be located on the hips. In a fitted dress, they might be located both at the shoulders and the hips. An artificial point of contact may also be created through elasticated seams or tight fit, such as an elasticated or drawstring waistband like those proposed in Dominoni’s VEST project (see Chapter 3). Elsewhere, where the body is perpendicular to the ground (or within about 45° of perpendicular), the fabric tends not to be supported by the body; rather, it hangs against the body, suspended from a point of contact above. The location and number of points of contact can vary considerably depending on the angle of the body.[5]

Figure 4.6

Diagram of an off-the-shelf polo shirt, showing primary and secondary points of direct support, at which the force of gravity causes the shirt to come into contact with the body. The remaining sections of the shirt are suspended from these points, so that the fabric hangs against the torso but is not supported by it


In a weightless environment, gravity does not hold the garment in contact with the body at those locations; rather, the garment floats around the body, perhaps coming into contact with the body at certain locations, particularly if the fabric is elastic, but generally surrounding the body without being directly supported by it. As a result, fabric does not drape, but rather billows outward. Figure 4.7 shows how the same polo shirt might appear in microgravity. In this environment, the shoulder seam is no longer in contact with the shoulder, and the fabric dos not fall against the chest. Instead, it tends to balloon outward at these points. As the fabric does not drape downward, the hem is lifted upward, sometimes exposing the lower back (unless it is tucked into the waistband). The collar floats upward, so that it rests closer to the astronaut’s chin and, due to the neutral posture, is more centrally positioned around the neck. These effects can be seen in more details in photographs of astronauts on board the ISS (see Figure 4.8). Astronauts’ experiences tell us that as a result of not draping against the body, garments not only look different in space, but also feel different. Astronauts become so accustomed to living without the weight of clothes against their skin that some report physical discomfort from contact with everyday clothing after returning to Earth (Dunn, 2016; Harrington, 2016).

Figure 4.7

Diagram showing off-the-shelf polo short in microgravity, based on a survey of NASA videos and photographs of astronauts on board the ISS. In orbit on board the ISS, astronauts find that their off-the-shelf polo shirts contain but are not supported by their bodies. The garment is no longer weighted by gravity to the shoulder, and appears to float around the body, rarely skimming its contours


Figure 4.8

Cosmonaut Valery I. Tokarev at work in the Russian-built Zarya section of the ISS. His polo shirt balloons outward as if filled with air, surrounding his torso but not resting on it. His collar, which would, on Earth, rest on his chest, is instead lifted close to his chin. © NASA


In the absence of adequate microgravity drape tests, digital technologies offer insights into the effects of different gravitational conditions on drape. Virtual three-dimensional garment simulation, that is already in use in the fashion industry, allows for a reduction in prototypes and samples, enabling more sustainable ways of working (Kuijpers and Gong, 2014, p. 1). Virtual dummies, with infinitely adjustable shape and height, are clothed with virtual garments, constructed from CAD patterns that may be tweaked, resized, and reshaped, in order to instantly visualize the effects of alterations within the digital environment, before manufacture of a real prototype. Users of CAD for garment design recognize that “accurate material representation is required when fitting a garment virtually,” as the bending, shear, surface friction, and weight of a fabric will significantly affect the drape of a garment (Kuijpers and Gong, 2014, p. 18). Drape coefficients must first be measured, in a drape test, to ensure accurate representation of a fabric in the virtual environment. Kuijpers and Gong (2014, p. 22) identify three main factors that are required for the accurate virtual representation of a garment: accurate representation of the human body, accurate representation of the two-dimensional pattern from which the garment is virtually constructed, and accurate virtual representation of the fabric. “Seamless interaction between [these three] key elements” is required in order to realistically simulate a garment. This kind of digital simulation, by default, presents drape behavior as in an Earth-gravity environment. In order to enable simulation of a garment in different gravitational conditions, a fourth factor would need to be introduced, that is, the accurate simulation of reduced gravity.

In order to find digital methods of simulating the behavior of textiles in other gravitational conditions, one must look at activities that take place outside of the fashion industry, in the field of digital animation for games and film. Digital animators are required to design clothed characters for simulated on-screen environments, and objects within these environments are required to behave according to the particular physics of each virtual world, as determined by a “physics engine.” For example, when two animated objects come into contact, they are designed to collide and rebound as if they were real objects. Digital animators have demonstrated concern for the accurate representation of fashion. Kuijpers and Gong (2014, pp. 8–9) cite the example of a spread in Arena Homme+ Magazine, in which a character from the computer game franchise Final Fantasy is shown clothed in a Prada S/S 2012 shirt that drapes photorealistically onto his virtual body. One common three-dimensional modeling software, 3DS Max, allows users to allocate a “cloth” identity to objects, and has presets for a range of textiles, including cotton, satin, silk, cashmere. It further allows users to manually adjust values such as stretch, density, or shear, so that they may tweak the appearance and behavior of a draped cloth. Once the properties of the cloth object have been set, the user may simulate dropping the cloth above a “collision object,” so that it drapes over the object, much as it would in a drape test.

Despite the existence of these tools, the digital environment is not yet fully prepared to accurately represent the behavior of draped fabric in microgravity. In order to fully realize the potential of virtual modeling for the simulation of weightlessness for fashion design, expertise from two different fields—fashion and digital animation—must be shared. While digital animators are concerned with the realism of the bodies and garments that they generate for their virtual worlds, and have found effective methods of simulating weightlessness, they do not have the detailed knowledge of fabric and garment construction that exists within the fashion industry. Conversely, the fashion industry makes use of a range of methods of measuring the weight and drape of fabric that allow very specific differentiation between the qualities and potential behaviors of different textiles, but has not yet applied this knowledge in simulations of different gravitational environments. The fashion industry recognizes that a wide range of factors affect drape, not least, tensile and shear properties (Kuijpers and Gong, 2014, p. 3). Many of these properties can be measured, in part through drape tests, and so there is scope to make this data available in future physics engines for more nuanced simulations of the effects of weightlessness on garments than those that are in use in digital animation.

When digital simulations become more effective at accurately replicating the behavior of fabric in a range of gravitational conditions, they may become valuable in illustrating not only the forms that garments take in microgravity, but also during transition between different gravities. Ondřej Doule (2014a, p. 90), founder of space architecture magazine The Orbit, describes design for space as “defined by variable gravity.” This chapter has so far addressed the microgravity conditions that exist on board the ISS, and that long-duration space tourists would experience on visits to orbiting vessels. However, it is important to acknowledge that many spaceflight participants will experience only short-term weightlessness. Passengers on board parabolic flights experience normal Earth gravity, interspersed with short periods of up to 1.8g (hypergravity) as the aircraft climbs, and shifting to zero-g in freefall, experienced as weightlessness (Karmali and Shelhamer, 2008). Commercial operators, such as Florida-based Incredible Adventures (2016), also offer to replicate the gravitational conditions of the moon (1/3rd Earth gravity) and Mars (1/6th Earth gravity) with shallower maneuvers. Passengers of future suborbital flights may experience approximately five minutes of weightlessness on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceFlightTwo, but will otherwise be strapped to their seats in familiar gravitational conditions (Howell, 2016). These passengers will dress and undress in Earth’s gravity, and so their garments need to be suitable for Earth-gravity activities, including walking to the spacecraft, as well as for activities in a range of other gravitational conditions. On board parabolic and suborbital flights, when passengers are free to remain unseated during varying gravity, the body shifts from a horizontal lying position (or sometimes, an upright standing position) to the neutral posture, and so experiences in-between phases as they gradually become weightless.

A designer’s awareness of gravity must, therefore, extend beyond a binary understanding of the differences between Earth-gravity and microgravity. Designers for space must be aware not only of the effects of microgravity, but also the many different gravitational conditions that may exist, both in spaceflight and, ultimately, on the surface of other planets or in artificial gravity. Moreover, they must accommodate the possibility that those different gravitational conditions will be experienced as part of the same journey, as in the “rapidly changing gravity levels in spaceship interiors for journeys from the Earth’s surface into orbit” that “span from hypergravity to microgravity” (p. 93). Fabric will, in these varying conditions, sometimes drape from points of support on the body and, at other times, float free. It will be necessary for spacewear designers to design garments that are aesthetically and functionally suited to varying gravity. Garments must accommodate a range of postures, ranging from upright to seated to neutral, and must have a form that is suited to resting on, or being suspended around, the wearer’s body. Some designers might approach this with compromise, limiting their engagement with weightlessness to forms that have a track record of use on Earth, or by making only small adjustments to Earthwear designs to accommodate the needs of a weightless wearer. Indeed, this is the approach that has been taken by existing parabolic flight operators, whose all-in-one flight suits resemble those already worn by pilots within Earth’s atmosphere. Designers who are more willing to experiment might view this as an opportunity to design two garments in one—a single design that adopts different silhouettes as its wearer’s environment changes. The potential for fluctuating silhouettes, that visibly evidence shifting gravitational conditions, poses a unique design challenge.