Nylon: Better living through…high fashion?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Today it is easy to take synthetic fibers and their wealth of applications for granted. But in the 1930s wearing an item from human-made materials was a relatively new concept. We are all now familiar with the craze for nylon hosiery that occurred shortly prior to, and immediately after, World War II. Thousands of women lined the streets in order to purchase this exciting new product that guaranteed comfort, ease of care, durability, and affordability. Hemlines had been steadily rising since 1900, and women were covering their legs out of social necessity with stockings made of itchy material, in the case of cottons and woolens, or if they were lucky, very expensive silk. These materials lost their shape with use, were hard to care for, and were subject to pests and mildew. Women were eager for a replacement that not only made their lives easier, but made their legs more attractive. DuPont frequently hired consumer study groups to determine exactly how women felt about their legs and assess their hosiery needs. One such study reads:

A large percentage of women (especially the older women) see their own legs as having defects of one kind or another, which means that, even more so, stockings are necessary if legs are to be judged attractive…There is still a carry-over of the 1920-1930 idea that, a man first notices a woman’s legs so that, just as in the case of social necessity, there is a nucleus of women who have the favorable leg orientation.

Nylon hosiery was sold for a short time before World War II, which only succeeded in heightening the appetite for this new and exciting element of women’s fashion. When DuPont once again began producing nylon hosiery after the war, it is little wonder women were eager to stand in long lines to pay $1.15 for a little piece of glamour.

Nylon fibers would find uses in all sorts of clothing items including socks, foundation garments, sweaters, fake fur coats, and bathing suits. In addition, thanks to nylon, other synthetic polymer fibers were made into new types of DuPont branded fabrics such as “Dacron” (polyester) and “Orlon” (acrylic). There were even different types of nylon such as “Cantrece”, “Antron”, and “Qiana.” DuPont had huge successes marketing sweaters made from nylon or Orlon because of their moth-resisting abilities. This, combined with the “sweater girl” influences of Hollywood starlets such as Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield, created a large demand for this type of product.

However, as with any trend, DuPont knew the excitement with nylon and other synthetic fabrics would one day fade. Also there was still some resistance from potential customers to buy into synthetic materials because of their seeming inferiority to natural fabrics. Thus, an unexpected collaboration was born: DuPont and the Parisian Couturiers.

DuPont offered couture designers such as Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Herbert de Givenchy, Jean Patou, and Pierre Balmain generous samples of fabric and free publicity through their newly created New York Product Information office. These couture designers were seeking new ways to draw customers as traditions in fashions had changed and ready-to-wear high fashion had taken a huge chunk of their market. Thus the designers were quite receptive to these innovative fabrics and they were used extensively in the Paris fashion shows in 1954 and 1955. DuPont circulated press releases and publicity photos for the couture garments in order to create a high-profile link of DuPont fibers and high fashion. Hagley holds a great number of these images including a number of publicity photos generated from the couture shows.

The publicity worked and other high fashion designers soon followed suit. When trends in the 1960s led to futuristic styles, fabric made from new synthetic fibers lent themselves to a natural collaboration with designers like Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges. The 1960s would turn out to be the high point in synthetic fabrics as designers were able to come up with new silhouettes, cuts, textures, and colors thanks to the characteristics of human-made fibers.

By 1969 DuPont had invented seventy nylons and thirty-one polyesters. Due in part to DuPont’s successful marketing, synthetic fabrics were everywhere by the early 1970s and the high-fashion world was beginning to find that the shiny luster of these fabrics that were once embraced had become considered tacky and overexposed. These fabrics thus disappeared from runways and were replaced by high-quality natural fibers such as silks and woolens that had dominated in years prior, and still dominate couture fashion today.

However, in the rest of the modern world, synthetic fabrics are still incredibly popular and will likely be in use for years to come. While they no longer seem glamorous, nylon hosiery is an accepted part of the day-to-day life for many women, as are the other countless products made with nylon such as fishing lines, toothbrushes, guitar strings, carpets, and car parts.

Read about Fashion Meets Science: Introducing Nylon : An exhibit at the Hagley Museum and Library, opening April 6th 2013

Check out the Hagley Digital Archives for a recently added collection of historical images and documents about Nylon


Karla Irwin is an archivist in the Digital Collections Department at Hagley Library