Museum Collections: What the Ban-Lon?!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

One of the craziest things about working in a museum is that you never quite know what you will be doing from one day to another. Sometimes this fact can be frustrating – like when you realize that there is water leaking somewhere where water should not be leaking. But, other times, it can be fascinating and force you to learn about things you never knew you wanted to know about!

A month or so ago, I received an email inquiring whether the museum would like to acquire a Ban-Lon men’s shirt. Some of my audience right now may already know about this material – and how I wish I could see your reactions through the screen! But if you are like me (a 30-year-old who had never heard of this product before), let me fill you in on Ban-Lon.

2021.7 – Polo shirt; Ban-lon® by Bermont

In 1954, Joseph Bancroft & Sons created a synthetic yarn called Ban-Lon, by crimping yarn to Nylon. This technique created a fabric with a larger bulk than with just ordinary yarn alone. The synthetic fabric was used to make polos, sweaters, swimsuits, and even wedding gowns. Surface level, it seems like the most versatile product on the planet!

'The Carefree Beauty of Spring Ban-Lon Sweaters,' 1958

Hagley Library’s Digital Archives is a virtual treasure trove of advertisements for Ban-Lon. It was marketed to be as soft as a kitten and extremely flattering to the figure. Ban-Lon was popularized further when Joseph Bancroft & Sons sponsored the Miss America pageants from 1953 to 1957. During those years, the crowned Miss America promoted a variety of Ban-Lon pieces, like the lace pageant gown below.

Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, in North American Ban-Lon lace pageant gown by Al Bosand

However, people outside of the advertising and pageant world seem to have other, shall I say, strong opinions on the fabric. I have seen it called a hot, snagging, “evil material” that is wildly unforgiving. And, if you are a Seinfeld fan – you may remember a certain episode where Frank states, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in Banlon.” Kramer proceeds to simply shake his head at the very thought of it.  

So, how do you remember Ban-Lon? A miracle or a misfortune?

Caroline Western is the Museum’s Curator of Collections​ at Hagley Museum and Library.