2001: A Space Odyssey
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The most stylish space suits in movies, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Sunshine

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Apr 21, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

Before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in history to journey into outer space in 1961, Hollywood had beaten the Soviet effort to this historical milestone by at least a decade. The desire to travel outside of the Earth's orbit has long since fascinated humankind, so it is no surprise that movies also fixed its eye on the sky. Georges Méliès' seminal 1902 silent film Le Voyages dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is an early example of filmmaking and astrological desire. Over the last 100-plus years, movies have ensured the galaxy is not an unobtainable concept; nearly 20 years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the cast of Destination Moon had already been there, done that.

Dressing for space requires a protective garment to put a barrier between the astronaut and the harmful side effects of exiting our hospitable-for-human-life atmosphere. Gagarin wore an SK-1 number, which had the honor of being the first-ever space suit to fulfill its purpose — the SK-2 suit was developed for women in 1963. The bold orange color has been replicated in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armageddon, as well as worn by NASA.

Credit: Rykoff Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

For the first moonwalk, the white bulky visage is iconic, a symbol of potential and great prosperity with the star-spangled banner on the sleeve. Style doesn't rank highly when other factors such as keeping a person alive and flexibility are more pressing issues. The bespoke garment was crafted and conceived by International Latex Corporation in Dover, Delaware, the same company also made Playtex girdles and bras. This clothing crossover doesn't seem all that strange when you factor in the durable and flexible technology of our undergarments.

Credit: Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Moonboot style shoes have had their brief moment in the trend sun and NASA-emblazoned attire has been having a resurgence over the last few years; affordable brands including H&M have produced tees and hoodies featuring this logo. High-end designers have also got in on the space nostalgia, including Coach's NASA knits that also resemble Danny Torrance's sweater from The Shining.

However, a spacesuit and helmet aren't everyday garments — the helmet would prove quite a bit useful right now. This is not to say that on-screen attempts haven't been made to jazz up the recognizable protective gear and this is far from a one-size-fits-all utilitarian look.

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An early standout is the 1950 sci-fi Destination Moon, which showcases a variety of colored space suits — something that Stanley Kubrick would pull off nearly 20 years later in his sci-fi masterpiece — to help the audience differentiate between character. Technicolor was still an exciting development, which the filmmakers used to their advantage with this tale of great exploration. It also offers a somewhat kitsch vibe, even if some of the colors match those that will later be worn in actual space, as well as provide a glimpse at how close Hollywood can get it with features depicting air supply, helmets, and ribbed joints (for flexibility).

Credit: John Cowan/Conde Nast via Getty Images

Cut to the year before the moon landing, when 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted four different styles of extravehicular activity (EVA) suit in different bold shades. The red (which also reads as orange) is the most iconic, as it features in the instantly recognizable shot of Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) onboard the spacecraft.

Practical, functional, and stylish to boot, both the costume and production design hit the retro-futuristic notes that led to its appearance in the pages of Vogue (including the above shot of the actors on the set of the Hilton #5 set). Sir Hardy Amies' innovative costumes have no doubt influenced the last 50 years of astronaut attire.

Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

If 1969 was a monumental year for space travel, 1968 dominated the sartorial on-screen depictions. Released later that same year, Barbarella was less interested in accuracy than sartorial flare — the latter was delivered by fashion designer Paco Rabanne via the now-legendary costumes. The film opens with Barbarella (Jane Fonda) taking off her silver spacesuit, and the detachable sleeves and arms are a unique feature. A clear plastic back and see-through top lean into the sexuality that is absent in Kubrick's masterpiece — aside from the short shorts for jogging around the craft. It wouldn't pass any safety checks, but the transforming helmet would've crushed it at the Camp-themed Met Gala last year.

Credit: CBS

Keeping with the space-but-make-it-kitsch theme, the 1968 Star Trek episode "The Tholian Web" also featured a design that is less concerned with realism. This is perhaps less functional than Barbarella's striptease space get-up, which features colorful attachments and a soft material helmet, resembling a flimsy Tuppawear container. Maybe that far in the future, materials are more durable and destined for glitter domination.

Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

It isn't just humans who require space attire both IRL and in movies. Both the Soviet and US space programs famously sent animals (including monkeys and dogs) into the great beyond, all in the name of exploration.

In the 1971 Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the apes' spaceship is sent through a time warp that causes them to crash land on Earth in 1973. Their no-frills suits further emphasize how out of the ordinary this scenario is. They don't need to up the bizarre factor with detachable sleeves or a shiny design.

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Taking on the shiny vibe is Roger Moore as James Bond in 1979's Moonraker, but as is sometimes the case, the promo costume is not the same as the one in the movie. This silver look, complete with 007 name badge, was the first time a non-tuxedo Bond had featured on the poster.

This is an incredibly jazzed up version of what he actually wears in the movie. The yellow alternative looks more like a nuclear protection suit and is definitely not as thrilling.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Also released in 1979, the first Alien had an unmeasurable impact on depictions of space. Costume designer John Mollo's contribution to science fiction clothing is enormous (he also designed A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back), which saw a somewhat battered-looking EVA suit for the initial exploration. The pads at the front resemble sports protection and there is an armor-like quality that cannot protect the Nostromo crew from what is to come — except for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who climbs into the paneled and quilted garment at the end of the movie as a way to escape death.

Mollo used samurai warriors as an inspiration point and rather than the shiny, clean lines of other spacesuits, he favored a worn appearance. There is nothing glamorous about what the crew of this craft wear throughout the film and their spacesuits are an extension of this rugged aesthetic. It is still worth a pretty penny, though; Ripley's suit went for just over $200,000 at auction two years ago.

Since Alien, there have been many space-set movies including Moon, Gravity, Mission to Mars, Armageddon, and Interstellar. In The Martian, there is a biker uniform quality to the orange and white garb worn by Matt Damon, but a lot of these costume choices revert to a similar style to what you might expect from NASA. In the recent Ad Astra, the gold-coated reflective helmet aspect sadly obscures Brad Pitt's face, but it does add to the tension of the moon chase.

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Gold is a huge part of Sunshine's unique design, which is vital to the work the crew of Icarus II is doing as they near the sun. The view from inside the specialist equipment is a snapshot of this excruciating experience. Suttirat Larlarb's costume design factors in actual materials NASA has used, like reflective Mylar, but she also drew on diving suits in her conception.

The restrictive nature of wearing something like this, coupled with the intense gold vision, only adds to the beauty of Danny Boyle's portrayal of this dangerous mission to save humanity.

It isn't easy to come up with a spacesuit style that hasn't been depicted in real life or countless movies charting the exploration of the galaxy. There are ways to avoid this conundrum, which is something Gattaca did by eschewing this specialist costume altogether instead of flying into space in a regular tailored suit.

Nevertheless, there are still ways to add some glitz to this genre without going full Barbarella, as proven by the blinged-out golden Sunshine suit. Much like reaching for the stars, dressing out of this world is a concept that science-fiction makes possible.

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