A Fabric Revolution: the Evolution of Fashion Fabrics
Prior to the 20th century, clothing was made entirely from plants and animals. Cotton, linen and bamboo textiles are all examples of plant textiles and the fabrics derived from animal sources, include wool, silk and fur among others. These fabrics were harvested and processed the same way for eons and they each had their own pros and cons.
image via ecouterre.com
Beginning in the 1800s, scientists began to attempt to create artificial fabrics. Artificial fabrics are made from natural materials that have been manipulated to improve upon their natural properties. The first artificial fibre, made from cellulose, was first created in the mid-19th century–in the 1920s, it would be called Rayon when it was released for mass-production. It became a popular fabric during the Roaring 20s.
The first synthetic (completely man-made and fabricated from petroleum products) fabric to be introduced was Nylon. Released by DuPont in 1939, Nylon became a popular replacement for silk in stockings – silk was rationed during WWII for silk parachutes and since much of the silk came from Japan.
Rayon and Nylon were just the beginning; the development and popularity of other artificial and synthetic fabrics only increased as the 20th century progressed.
Of course that doesn’t mean natural fabrics fell out of favour, they have continued to be an important part of the fashion world. We are going to look mainly at artificial and synthetic fabrics in this article though, since many may not be as familiar with them.
Significant Synthetic and Artificial Fabrics in Fashion
Rayon Day Dress from the Museum of London
Called “Artificial Silk”, Rayon rose to prominence in the 1920s as the cost was half the price of silk. The Lawrence Daily Journal-World of January 10, 1925 wrote about that “flappers vanity brings prosperity” to the artificial silk manufacture. It was used for stockings, blouses, skirts and even dresses.
Nylon Stockings via Half Moon Bay
Introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair, Nylon was billed a miracle fabric and were mostly used in women’s stockings. They were an immediate success and were nicknamed as “Nylons”, which is how many refer to them today.
Dacron Blouses via tuppencehapenny.
Introduced as Dacron in the early 1950s by DuPont, Polyester is a synthetic fabric. Fuelled by the cheap price of petroleum (it’s main component) and a strong interest in technology during the post-War era, Polyester fabrics took off. Crimplene, another version of Polyester, came out in the 1960s and was a perfect fit for the a-line dresses that were popular at the time. By the 1970s though the fabric had become a punchline – it was hot to wear and it became synonymous with out-of-date fashions.
Lycra Girdle via Partial Coverage
Spandex, another synthetic fabric produced by DuPont in the 1950s and also known as elastane or Lycra, revolutionized the fashion world for it’s ability to allow stretchiness to clothing. The name spandex is an anagram for the word “expands” and it alludes to the fabrics ability to stretch. Spandex is just as popular today as when it was first released.
Orlon & Wool Label via Sammy Davis Vintage
Yet another synthetic fibre released by DuPont, acrylic was first sold by the name of Orlon as an alternative to wool fabrics. It is lighter in weight and easier to care for than wool though, but it also very warm. First released in the 1950s, acrylic remains a commonplace fabric today.