August 6, 2009


A recent trip to NYC yielded some excellent Spy Vibe treasures, the cream of which is the book Fear And Fashion in the Cold War by Jane Pavitt. Pavitt is the Senior Research Fellow in Product Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She has acted as lead curator for numerous exhibits and has published essential studies of post-war design, including Fear And Fashion in the Cold War and Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70. What our C.O.B.R.A.S. agent Wesley Britton has done for the field of spy fiction and cultural history, Pavitt has brought to the world of architecture, fashion, and design of the Cold War era- a style that I feel is an essential element to 1960s Spy Vibe. Would the James Bond films have been as successful, for example, if Dr. No had been a two-bit mobster instead of a radiation suit-clad baddie plotting to sabotage space tests? It brought the world of spies away from the mahogany desk world of the private detective and into the futuristic, larger-than-life world that we now love as 60s spy adventure.

Fear And Fashion in the Cold War jumped off the table at me- and anyone who has journeyed to the Art floor of The Strand in New York knows that there is a lot to see up there! The cover sports a photograph of a model dressed in what appears to be a white, PVC trench coat with matching balaclava helmet with plastic eye holes. Was it a design by Courreges or Cardin? I was hooked and intrigued! Skimming through the book I could see that it was academic, yet accessible, and generously illustrated with fantastic 1960s fashion photography and advertisements that could have been stills from The 10Th Victim and Barbarella. Perhaps it’s because I am currently lesson planning for a Film and Lit course I’m teaching this year about archetypes, but I felt that my Quest to The Strand had been a success. I had found my “Holy Grail” book of the summer. Pavitt goes into great detail about various materials that were adopted from new technologies and industries by the fashion world, and she explores the world of various designers and companies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. I will explore some of these topics in greater depth in the future and focus now and sharing a few highlights and my own impressions and connections that arose while reading Fear and Fashion in the Cold War. Part One:

I assume Spy Vibers will remember that scene in The Graduate (1967) when Dustin Hoffman is taken aside by an older man and given some valuable life-lessons: “I have one word for you Benjamin… plastics.” The post-war climate of fear of the Bomb, fallout, and the uncertainty of putting satellites and people (and I’m sad to say some animals, as well) into space, research and development departments were hard at work to create new technologies that would bring an edge to Cold War competition and survival. Pavitt does an excellent job describing the duality of fear and fascination of this era. I was reminded of the documentary film The Atomic Cafe. Anyone who has seen it will certainly understand how Cold War fears were projected and acculturated as mascots and jingles in the popular culture. The Atomic Age and the Space Race caused anxiety, but they also captivated people's imaginations and informed new attitudes and sensibilities. Where plastics and new alloys had practical applications in government-level projects for NASA and the military, they were also translated into consumer goods. Chemical compounds meant new materials for clothing. Polyurethane could be used to make flexible, lightweight PVC and Lycra boots, raincoats, accents, and fetish wear; Plastics and nylons- by essence and design made to reflect the fear of fallout and space radiation- were now finessed by designers to define Fab, ultra-modern looks for the youth consumer market.

Pierre Cardin, a leading designer in futuristic ready-to-wear fashion, in fact patented “Cardine,” a synthetic wool substitute manufactured by Union Carbide. The fabric could be vacuum-formed and bonded, allowing Cardin to work without sewing, and to apply three-dimensional reliefs, cutouts, and appliqued motifs (like circles, triangles, and targets). His 1969 red plastic cape with white circles has endured and looks to be the poster template for Target Store’s advertising and logo. I wonder if there is a legal story there?

One element of modern life in the mid-1960s was newness and the notion of disposability- indeed a tenet of Pop Art. As car models changed with the seasons, so did consumer goods. An interesting example is the paper dress, inspired by medical/military uniform material and created as fashion as a sales gimmick in 1966. Just as the Archigram group conceptualized instant cities which could be assembled and restructured at any time, the idea applied now to fashion and to ready-to-wear created a boom in paper outfits that were advertised to be worn four or five times, then burned. A true spirit of 1960s spontaneity (!), but criticized by Alvin Toffler and in The Waste Makers by Vance Packard.

One of the inventive culprits chopping paper patterns was Paco Rabanne (videos below). Similar in construction to using plastics and other synthetics, the paper clothes could be cut in form out of Vilbond and color cellophane tape without stitching. The dresses really took off in 1967, a year in which Rabanne also designed a line of Pacojamas (paper PJs) for Hilton hotels. The advantage of the new materials was that new clothes held their shape rather than being draped over the body. These were clothes for people on the go. Synthetics, bright colors, black and white, and silver with geometric and zipper accents offered an architectural, sculptural silhouette of angular lines. Paco is remembered among Spy Vibers for his costume designs for Barbarella.

The look was lean, youthful, and also saw the popularization of catsuits, body suites, and body stockings inspired by sportswear, especially ski wear and track wear. It was interesting for me to track down that the first widely televised Olympics was in 1960, and that the period also saw a great popularity in auto racing and the styles worn by drivers in the Grand Prix and Le Mans. We see examples of sports-influence in Emma Peel’s costumes in The Avengers. And I would extend that to the general Mod look in Spy Vibe fiction that made use of elements like racing stripes and tracksuits. For women, this style communicated the sexual assertiveness and physicality of the times.

Pavitt cites two great examples of futuristic fashion influence on attendant uniforms. The most well-known of course is the airline hostess costumes for the space commute scene early in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. Designer Emilio Pucci had in fact created futuristic uniforms for Braniff Airlines in 1965, which included a plastic space helmet! (that was quickly deemed inconvenient). An example from the other side of the Iron Curtain is the attendant uniforms for the East Berlin Teletower. Guests visiting the revolving restaurant at the top were greeted by hostesses dressed in silver, imitation-leather, narrow suits, and silver trench coats with Plexiglas belt buckles.

Pavitt goes on to discuss the development of space suits for Russian Cosmonauts and NASA astronauts, a topic we have explored here on Spy Vibe as an inspiration to Courreges’s silver and white collection of the mid-1960s. A fantastic new photo retrospective of Space Suits has been published, and I will review that in more detail later. Recently I came across an excellent documentary about Andy Warhol- another artist of the period that found inspiration in silver. When Andy Warhol purchased his loft on east 47Th street, he quickly established it as a center of his public and work life- a meeting place where he could entertain, make images and films, throw parties, and where he could receive a constant flow of pilgrims. It would become known as The factory, and he found the idea for its design after visiting room covered in silver by Billy Name. Images of The Factory were accompanied by a voice-over reading of a fantastic quote by Warhol that I think captures the time:

“It was a perfect time to think silver. Silver was the future. It was spacey. Astronauts wore silver suits. And their equipment was silver, too. And silver was also the past. The Silver Screen. Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets. And maybe more than anything else, silver was narcissism. Mirrors were backed with silver.” –Andy Warhol

More about Fear and Fashion in- THE FUTURE! References: Fear and Fashion in the Cold War by Jane Pavitt (2008), Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006). Also, check out the blog Paper Pursuits Fashion and the Spy Vibe article, MODS TO MOONGIRLS.


  1. Agent J-

    Love it! My favorite from the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibit was the Jested Television Tower in the Czech Republic. I'm addicted to Spy Vibe and I will definitely check out "Space Suits". It sounds like it's right up my alley.


  2. I just noticed that Cathy Rosier is in the Paco Rabanne video. She's incredible in "Le Samourai"


  3. Cool! I will post info about Space Suits soon. My copy should arrive Monday. Did you see the V&A Museum exhibit? Man, I'd love to have been there. We'll have to pull up more fun details and images for fellow Spy Vibers. I'm psyched you spotted the Le Samourai connection. Now I have a fun bit of homework to check it out. I haven't seen that film in a couple of years. -Jace

  4. Got le Samourai from Netflix today- can't wait to re-explore it!