First Man (2018) is not a movie overly preoccupied with fashion, And why would it be? The focus of the story is astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his journey to become the first person to ever walk on the surface of the moon. Armstrong wears a lot of button down shirts, short sleeve checks, neutral slacks, the odd dark single breasted suit for formal occasions – largely dour attire for a dour man. He also wears a space suit, several of them. However, outside of Emilio Pucci’s involvement in designing the logo for the Apollo 15 flight in 1971, fashion rarely intersects with the requirements of surviving in space. First Man costume designer Mary Zophres ensures Armstrong feels of his time for the film’s 1961 – 1969 setting, but it is difficult to not be more drawn toward the clothing worn by his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Not that she is sartorially distracting in any way, rather that it is just fascinating to trace her gentle costume evolution through the timeline. The changing fashions of a busy era.
The film opens in 1961, but don’t expect mini-skirts and kid leather boots. As Janie Bryant’s meticulous costuming for television series Mad Men (2007 – 2015) demonstrated, fashion does not change on the decade, it changes through the decade. Janet’s clothes are a key signifier for this point. The very first dress we see Janet wearing is in ’61 and it’s an A-line. Heavy on fifties details with attention drawn to a slightly raised waistline. To take this dress, this scene, in isolation, we could easily be forgiven for thinking it is set earlier than 1961, late 1950s perhaps. Yet in context, and for the character, it is correct costuming. Janet is in touch with the era, though seemingly not that fashion forward. It does not appear to be one of her priorities in life. Plus the early sixties were all about the UK – ‘Swinging London’. Paris dresses and their knockoffs in North American department stores were sidelined in favour of quick, easy, cheaply made, run-to-catch-a-cab fast fashion. Which is exactly what Janet’s subsequent outfits in First Man represent.
From 1962 onward, Janet wears a succession of shift dresses; lightweight, rear button fastening, with floral prints and always sleeveless (they look to be genuine vintage costumes). This is initially a little jolting after the waist focused A-line dress; these tiny, flimsy frocks that, it must be said, do look very comfortable for the stifling Houston climate. Janet’s shifts vary in hem length throughout the decade, not merely becoming shorter and shorter year after year, because that is not how sixties dress fashion worked, but intermittently higher and lower above her knees. By 1970, hemlines came tumbling down again. There is only so short you can go after all. Fashion is a constant cycle of trend, extremity of said trend and then reset. Janet’s style does not alter much. She tends to favour pencil skirts and a smart sleeveless top for moments in the public eye. In 1968 she does venture into the realm of denim jeans, briefly seen as she comforts Ed White’s recently widowed wife. Her final two ensembles are a blue untucked dagger collar shirt and a white dagger collar shirt tucked into a fiery red pencil skirt. Janet has quietly walked us through this decade of change and now the shocking seventies are whispering in her ear.
As viewers we are, deliberately it would appear, shown a lot of the buttons on Janet’s clothing. Several occasions they can be viewed with fabric hook clasps fastened to the rear of her neckline. Buttons signify a largely accepted symbolism in film and television as a sign of repression. This is particularly apparent in period dramas set in Regency, Victorian and Edwardian eras when sexual freedom was literally kept buttoned and under wraps (which is why folds of skirts have a similar interpretation). It is not even implied that Janet is repressed, sexually or otherwise – the motif does not stack up in this instance. However she is forced to tow the company line, to keep quiet for NASA; to figuratively ‘button it’ when she wants to speak out. A near ubiquitous lack of sleeves break her free; her strong bare arms personify a physically and mentally powerful woman. Not entirely in control of her life, not really, but aware of her world and able to navigate it with fortitude and dignity.
Again, First Man is in no way a fashion film. Honestly it is far more worthwhile as a study of space suits. Yet sometimes the most enlightening movies clothing wise, especially period, are those in which costumes are not prioritised but simply ‘there’. Watch First Man for meticulous insight into the space race, but keep a corner eye on those changing shift dresses that will surely make you pray for an unseasonal heatwave.
First Man is currently on general release. Screencaps taken from the international trailer.
© 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.