As I searched through the rack of sequined dresses I sounded like little Miss Goldie-locks as I pointed out to the saleswoman, “This one is cut too low in the neckline, this one is sleeveless. I don’t want to expose my upper arms.” Holding out a beautiful blue dress I complained, “The top of this dress is transparent material. It would allow my undergarments to show through.”
Dress shopping as a young woman was easy. In 1970, almost all women wore dresses. There were several stores along Central Avenue that carried a wide variety of dresses to choose from, ranging from casual to fancy. My criteria for what I wanted in a dress was different back then, too. I wanted the garment to be a color I liked, fit and be affordable.
Searching for a dress to wear to my granddaughter’s wedding has me feeling discouraged. I might be old fashioned, but I don’t think a grandmother of the bride should be a show-stopping spectacle. The dress should be modest and complementary to my aging body and include being able to wear familiar, tried-and-tested foundation garments.
One of the dresses I tried on looked nice, but showed every contour of my midsection. When I told my daughter that I needed to wear a bulge control thing under it, she laughed at me. I find it hard to say the word: girdle. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, I suspect every woman wore one whether she needed to or not. I hated how they rolled and cut into the flesh. Taking a deep breath, I went shopping for what I needed. Eventually I managed to find a girdle that would gently shape my form rather than strangle it.
Since my recent shopping trip for wedding clothing, I came across an article I treasure as a trivia enthusiast. It told of the intimate connection women have with the Apollo Space Program. The Playtex company, famous for bras and girdles since the 1950’s, made the space suits that made it possible for man to walk on the moon.
What NASA wanted were space suits that could be inflated and pressurized from the inside to mimic the atmosphere pressure humans need to stay alive. In essence, they had to be sophisticated balloons. That wasn’t all. The suits needed to be tough, able to withstand the wildly diverse temperature range found in outer space and protect the wearer from micrometeorites traveling at 36,000 miles per hour.
The most daunting challenge was that they had to be flexible. While wearing the space suits, the astronauts needed to be able to climb, bend over, twist and look around, to move their arms and hands. One NASA official said the gloves should allow an astronaut to pick up a dime.
In a six-week period the Playtex company developed and sewed a suit that had 21 layers. Their furious, abbreviated development and production was followed by demanding tests side-by-side with their rivals. During one, the helmet of a competing company blew off. One of the competitor’s suits had shoulders so wide once inflated, the astronaut couldn’t climb through the lunar module hatch. Two other companies had suits with such limited mobility the wearers couldn’t reach up and do routine tasks. The Playtex suit was judged the best, far above the others.
In a test of their own, a Playtex technician went to the Dover High School football field near the Delaware factory where he played football for several hours wearing the suit. He ran, kicked, punted and passed. He touched his toes and dropping to the ground, did push-ups. His helmet stayed in place through it all.
Neil Armstrong, who was the first astronaut to step onto the moon wrote a letter of appreciation to the people who made the suits. He wrote, “It’s true beauty was that it worked. It was tough, reliable, almost cuddly.” The same division of Playtex, now the independent company ILC Dover, still makes every NASA spacesuit at its 1 Moonwalker Road headquarters.
The dress I want to wear to my granddaughter’s wedding has almost as many requirements as the NASA space suit, but not for the ability to run, punt or pass while wearing it. Wearing it on that special day, I want to feel like I am walking by the light of my granddaughter Anne’s silvery moon.