Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lunar Ladies Who Rock(et): Fashion and Friendship in The Astronaut Wives Club

Tee: Gifted
Skirt: H&M
Shoes: Not Rated, Journeys
Bag: Princess Vera, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Cloud Nine, Ocean City boardwalk

Top: ELLE, Kohl's
Skirt: Worthington, J. C. Penney's
Shoes: Ami Clubwear
Bag: XOXO, Ross
Sunglasses: Candie's, Kohl's

Tee: Marshalls
Skirt: Modcloth
Shoes: Christian Siriano for Payless
Bag: Betsey Johnson, gifted
Sunglasses: Kohl's

Top: Delia's
Skirt: Necessary Objects, Annie Sez
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Candie's, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Candie's, Kohl's
Belt: Apt. 9, Kohl's

Dress: Modcloth
Shoes: Penney Loves Kenny, DSW
Bag: Princess Vera, Kohl's
Belt: B Fabulous
Sunglasses: J. C. Penney's

Starting this post with anything other than a shot of my interplanetary princess tee seemed just plain silly.  Never mind that she's no lunar lady; this "princess" can wrangle solar systems with the best of them while still maintaining her sleek, sassy bob.  I think the astronaut wives would have liked her, right down to her otherworldly blue skin.  But then, I like to think they would have liked my alternate title for this post too, the zingy but nonsensical "Said Saturn to Mars: I'll Run Rings Around You."  Which just goes to show what I know.

Speaking of which, when I saw the cover of Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, my first thought was, "Man, these women look old."  All seven sported the kind of helmet head hairdos that skyrocketed vibrant thirtysomethings into middle age.  But then, that was the 1960s for you: a time of roiling contradictions.  The same second look phenomenon would turn out to be true as I read the pages ahead.  Because I had expected The Astronaut Wives Club to be kind of, well, boring.  You know.  Dry, historical, humorless, and maybe, gosh forbid, a little science-y.  But thankfully, my fears were unfounded.  It turned out to be wonderful, full of the kind of slice-of-life snippets that put the "story" in history.

Koppel introduces us to the real-life wives of the Mercury 7, an elite group of Air Force pilots recruited to be the first men in space.  They came from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds, suddenly forced to live in each other's starched pockets -- and in the spotlight.  Their every move would be shadowed by and published in Life, a publication that would pay them handsomely for the privilege -- much more handsomely, I was interested to find out, than NASA.  That said, the wives' first act of solidarity was to wear Mamie Eisenhower pink lipstick for their famed first cover shoot.  However, Life -- sneaky, pseudo-reality creating media machine that it was -- changed it to red.  The wives were appalled -- they were homemakers and mothers, not starlets!  I was even more astounded to learn that they usually wore no other makeup at all.  Although always on the side of authenticity, I couldn't help but be kind of bummed.  This tidbit dispelled my -- and probably America's -- cherished image of the flawlessly made-up 1960s housewife.  But the lip color kerfuffle showed that this image is just an idea of retro, liberally and wildly tinted by the lens of nostalgia that glamorized the wives, much like Life itself.  The magazine beckoned ordinary housewives to look to these newly-crowned paragons as setting the tone for fashion, housekeeping, entertaining, and motherhood, perpetuating the myth that spins the need to keep up with the Joneses.

Yet despite the wives' reluctance, lipstick was making its mark.  Revlon launched its Moondrops lipstick in 1959, a line that's still going strong on drugstore shelves -- and in my purse -- today.  To that point, style, it seemed, would be one of the things that distinguished the wives from each other.  It may sound a little sexist -- as in, oh sure, the only interesting thing about women is what they wear.  But I don't mean it that way.  (If you're a regular reader, then you already knew that).  If anything, their fashion choices are empowering, symbols of their individuality.  Take Rene Carpenter, who boldly turned up in a tight red flowered dress for the Life shoot, violating the magazine's shirtwaist dress rule.  Or Betty Grissom, a self-proclaimed fashionista (not that anyone used that word back then) who would go on to sport fur hot pants.  That said, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a rivalry between social star Rene and introverted Betty.  But Koppel doesn't go there, leaving much to the imagination (much like those shirtwaist dresses).  She does, however, provide a lot of details about Betty, the Indiana-born underdog who quietly rises as the star of this interstellar story.

"The other wives still thought of Betty as an unsophisticated Hoosier and didn't know that Betty (whose full name was Betty Lavonne) saw herself quite differently.  Betty cared a lot about fashion and thought she was the best dresser of the group.   . . . Not many in the group sought out her friendship, but Louise Shepard was always sweet to her.  She always complimented her on her adorable new accessories, a watch or a pair of screw-back earrings, color-coordinated to one of her spiffy outfits.  "If there is anything out there new like that," Louise would say, gently touching a new wristwatch, "You've got it, Betz."  Louise was the only person who ever called Betty Grissom Betz -- like she was Bette Davis or someone." (61)

In this exchange, Koppel gently reveals the delicate fabric of female dynamics at work in The Astronaut Wives Club, and, for that matter, in groups of women everywhere, highlighting the importance of simple kindnesses.  Everyday social pressures may not seem like a big deal when husbands are being hurtled through the stratosphere or making time with groupies known as Cape Cookies.  But in the microcosm of the Astrowife world, female friendships were center stage, courting anxiety for he shy and the awkward.  This was especially true for Annie Glenn, who suffered from a lifelong stutter so severe that she had to write instead of speak her requests when in public.  Yet, although their husbands' fame foisted them into high profile -- and very social -- lives, it also equipped them with a much needed, built-in network of supportive copilots.

The Mercury 7 wives were more than interesting enough to hold their own.  So, when the Gemini and Apollo wives landed in Houston, I viewed them as something of an intrusion.  Ironically, it was this "intrusion" that gave rise to the official Astronaut Wives Club organization, which had, up until this point, been a string of informal gatherings over ham loaf and Jell-O.  Headed up by "Mother" Marge Slayton, the AWC, as it came to be known, became an almost invisible backbone for the rest of the book as it branched out to make room for the woman behind the men of Gemini and Apollo.  Still, for me, the heart of the story beat in Mercury.  I had so enjoyed getting to know these women, respected their pluck and bravery.  Life's goal had been to present them as perfect, forcing them into the kind of one-size-fits-all mold (and not the funky fresh Jell-O kind, either) that was a sign of the times.  In today's world, the media's objective would be very different, "reality" TV exposing and exaggerating their flaws and secrets Real Housewives style.  But Koppel achieves a balance between keeping it real and keeping it classy, presenting an account that is candid without being callous.

I was so taken with the book that I couldn't wait to watch the ABC miniseries, which premiered last Thursday night.  The reviews weren't great, but then they never are.  There are two reasons why people criticize TV shows and movies based on books: 1) they like to criticize things, and 2) they have such a bond with the book that they think of it as their own and feel that screen adaptations somehow betray it.  I, for one, liked the show, even if it did seem a little more surface-skimming than the book, relying on breezy one-liners to introduce character types.  But to be fair, character development in a book and in a TV show are two different animals, especially when the TV show spans ten plus years in ten episodes and boasts seven leads.  What's more, TV has its own techniques for conveying subtext, and sometimes its delivery is even more powerfully subtle than that of its print counterpart.  For example, always-ladylike Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott) and trailblazing Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) were more in the background in the book but emerge as wives to watch in the series.  Also, in the pilot, the wives are posed around the space capsule for the Life shoot, all wearing the mandated pastel shirtwaists.  Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is the standout, front and center in her yellow dress and matching earrings that are a near-replica of those in the original photograph (these costume people are good), smiling with nervous pride as she smooths her skirt.  Then Rene (Yvonne Strahovski) bursts on the scene, all apologies for being late in her red flowered dress.  She's just the thing to set off the shot, the photographers snap away excitedly, and Betty's smile fades.  See?  I knew there was tension there.  Not that I blame Rene; if I'm being honest, I can see myself pulling just such a stunt.

So, I'm eager to see what develops.  And I'm specially excited to see more swinging sixties fashion.  Many a reviewer complained that the series concentrates too much on costumes and not enough on conflict.  But I disagree.  A whole closet's worth of conflict lies in each circle skirt's crease, in each hat's regal bearing.  Anyone who doesn't feel it needs to get to a lady's lunch, stat -- followed up by a good rummage sale.

1 comment:

Jewel Divas Style said...

That first top is awesome and that mint dress is gorgeous. You have such great taste, Tote.