March 18, 2013
Last month, Chinese school uniforms made the news. Studies had shown that possibly as many as 25,000 children in Shanghai, China, were wearing mandated uniforms that were essentially poisoning them. The fabric contained toxic aromatic amines, thought to be carcinogens and found in plastics, dyes and pesticides. Ingesting, inhaling or absorbing the chemicals is considered hazardous and some countries have banned them. Students were told to stop wearing the outfits made by Shanghai Ouxia Clothing Company until a complete investigation had taken place.
Horrifying, but not particularly surprising, considering how much China appears in the headlines for tainted products, the incident recalled a moment this past November when big, fast fashion chains were in the news for selling toxic clothes. Greenpeace published a report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, in which it uncovered how retailers including Zara, H & M and Nike had been incorporating harmful dyes into fabrics. More specifically:
A total of 141 items of clothing were purchased in April 2012 in 29 countries and regions worldwide from authorised retailers. The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments. NPEs [nonylphenol ethoxylates] were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested), showing little difference from the results of the previous investigation into the presence of these substances in sports clothing that was conducted in 2011. In addition, the presence of many other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals was discovered across a number of the products tested.
According to the Huffington Post, just over a week after Greenpeace released the report, the international clothing chain Zara, committed to changing its ways. It will ”eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals” by 2020, the company said.
So how far have we really come from the time when ancient Egyptians used copper and lead in their eye makeup? In the 15th to 17th centuries, Romans used variations of lead and mercury to lighten their skin. When “Irish beauty Marie Gunning (a k a the Countess of Coventry) died in 1760, the press called her a ‘victim of cosmetics.’ ”
Style has trumped safety and comfort for centuries. Even though we now know these chemicals and dyes are bad for us, they keep creeping into our clothes and makeup. Sometimes we make decisions about what to wear based on what we think looks good, and in doing so, we do more damage to ourselves than we knew was possible.
For starters, take women’s shoes. High heels may make our legs look slim and elegant, but they are also known to cause ankle and heel pain, plantar fasciitis, painful swelling of the bottom of the foot, bunions and corns. Thick wooden wedges, five-inch stilettos and the heel-less Lady Gaga variety change our posture and how we arch our posteriors.
This performance offers a stark commentary on the subject, with the model assuming egretlike movements in order to walk in a very nontraditional pair of heels.
Historically speaking, one of the best-known examples of harmful body modification is foot binding. The Chinese practice kept a woman’s feet “dainty” and “lady-like” by tightly wrapping them when she was a child to prevent natural growth. The painful process was done to secure her role in the upper echelons of society.
By grossly deforming and disabling their feet and wearing tiny, delicate shoes, women would be more attractive to their mate, they were told, and would not be expected to work. Thankfully the practice was banned in 1912 (although people continued to bind in secret). On occasion, it’s still possible to encounter a woman from an older generation in China hobbling around on bound feet.
Speaking of hobbling, how about the hobble skirt? This form of restrictive, perilous garment was popularized in the 1910s and is generally attributed to French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Skirts were long and full, and they narrowed at the hem, or even at the calf, to provide a ballooning effect.
But there’s another version of the skirt’s origin that suggests a practical side to the style. The story goes that when Mrs. Hart Berg went on a flight with the Wright brothers, the first woman to do so, she tied a rope around the bottom of her long skirt to keep it from billowing in the air. Soon the Wright brothers’ sister, Katherine Wright, did the same. The trend took off and women attempted to wear these hazardous skirts to perform everyday tasks without falling flat on their faces, as depicted in numerous news stories from the time. The style lost its luster with the advent of the car, which certainly makes sense. Imagine trying to climb into a Ford Model T with the equivalent of an unforgiving elastic band wrapped around your calves.
Finally, no overview of clothing hazards would be complete without acknowledging the corset. For hundreds of years, the corset has been worn to mask or accentuate the natural curves of a woman’s, or man’s, body. With whalebone or metal boning and tight-lacing, the body-binders prompted medical professionals, especially in the 1800s, to try to bring an end to their use, explaining that they hindered muscle development, mobility and, well, the ability to breathe. The doctors were on to something, but, as was the case with bound feet, many women weren’t ready to give up the body-shaper because, they, or society, preferred the corseted shape over their natural one.
What are examples of dangerous or precarious clothes, shoes or underwear you’ve worn, purposefully – or unbeknownst to you? (Take the case of Isadora Duncan, who was strangled by her scarf.) Or, what do you try to stay away from?
Thanks, Laura Jane Kenny!
January 22, 2013
It was 1991: “Roseanne was on TV, Terminator 2 was on the big screen, Color Me Badd was on the radio and Hypercolor t-shirts were on the backs of millions of middle- and high school-age kids across America.
The Hypercolor fad gripped the nation that year, thanks to the Seattle-based sportswear company that created them, Generra. In fact, in a brief three-month span, between February and May 1991, the company sold a whopping $50 million worth of color-changing, heat-sensitive T-shirts, shorts, pants, sweatshirts and tights.
In addition to its color-morphing cool factor, the “mood-ring of the ’90s” also had game-changing potential for a young adult brimming with hormones. Imagine: You could walk up to your crush in the hallway between classes, take note of the shirt he or she was wearing emblazoned with “Hypercolor,” casually place your hand on him or her, and the warmth of your touch would change the shirt’s color before the eyes of both of you. Let the sparks fly!
Besides functioning as a flirtation device, Hypercolor was a mysteriously rad technology you could wear on your back for about $20. But how simple was it?
The “Metamorphic Color System,” as Generra cryptically called the manner in which body heat (or excessive perspiration, for those unfortunately prone to sweaty armpits) changed the fabric’s color using thermochromatic pigments as its special sauce. Mental Floss explains that the shirts were dyed twice: first with a permanent dye and again with a thermochromatic dye. The thermochromic dye is usually a mixture of a leuco dye, a weak acid, and salt. (Leuco dye is also used on the side of a Duracell battery to see if it’s still charged or on food packaging to gauge temperature.)
When the shirt heated up or cooled down, the molecules in the dye changed shape and shifted from absorbing light to releasing it, making the color transform, as if by magic!
Sadly, though, after a handful of washes, or one laundering misstep in too-hot water, the magic powers faded and the shirt froze permanently into a purple-brown mushy color.
But that wasn’t Hypercolor’s only misfortune. As a result of mismanagement and overproduction, Generra couldn’t handle its overnight success and declared bankruptcy only a year later, in 1992. An article in the Seattle Times in 1992, Generra: Hot Start, Then Cold Reality—Company Reflects Industry’s Woes, recounts company principal Steven Miska saying, ”We tried to make too much product available in too short a period of time.” If he could do it again, Miska said, he would have limited distribution, “which would have done a lot to prolong the life of the product.”
Hypercolor went the way of Color Me Badd: from Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to a one-hit wonder.
Attempts to reinvigorate the brand, the concept or the lifestyle—if you were a real Hypercolor fanatic—never quite gained the momentum of the initial early ’90s fad. Around 2008, Puma, American Apparel and other indie designers dipped their toes into the color-changing concept with sneakers, T-shirts and scarves, but the “special effects garments” as Body Faders calls current-day Hypercolor have nowhere near the cachet they had a couple decades ago.
December 28, 2012
What do Michael Jackson, King Tut and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? A penchant for sequins.
At some point between 1480 and 1482, Leonardo whipped together a sketch for a machine that, using levers and pulleys, would punch small disks out of a metal sheet.
Since the device was never actually made, we don’t know if the Renaissance jack-of-all-trades dreamt it up to glamourize the gamurra, a typical women’s dress of the time, or if it had some greater utilitarian purpose.
Going back centuries before Leonard, there’s Tutankhamun (1341 B.C.-1323 B.C.). When King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, gold sequinlike disks were found sewn onto the Egyptian royal’s garments. It’s assumed they’d ensure he’d be financially and sartorially prepared for the afterlife.
Sewing precious metals and coins onto clothing wasn’t just prepping for the hereafter. In fact, the origins of the word “sequin” have always referenced wealth. The Arabic word sikka means “coin” or “minting die.” During the 13th century, gold coins produced in Venice were known as zecchino. For centuries, variations of sikka and zecchino were used in Europe and the Middle East. Incidentally, in England, they’re not sequins—they’re spangles.
Sewing gold and other precious metals onto clothing was multifunctional, serving as a status symbol, a theft deterrent or a spiritual guide. Especially for those with more nomadic lifestyles, coins were kept close to the body and attached to clothes (see example above). In addition to safekeeping valuables, sequined clothing doubled as ostentatious displays of wealth in places like Egypt, India and Peru and, with their glaring sheen, they were meant to ward off evil spirits.
An example of how we wear sequins today comes from the Plimoth Plantation women’s waistcoat. The museum website explains, “These fashionable items of dress were popular in the first quarter of the 17th century for women of court, the nobility and those who had achieved a certain level of wealth.” The jacket, a reproduction of a garment at the Victoria and Albert Museum, includes an astonishing 10,000 sequins hand-stitched by volunteers using a historic technique.
The reflective bits of metal—sewn onto the Plimoth jacket and dresses, bonnets and other jackets during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—made the garments and accessories look fancy. And that trend grew exponentially after the discovery of sequins in King Tut’s tomb. The round disks became all the rage on garments in the 1920s and were typically made of metal. (Imagine a flapper dancing in a dress weighed down by thousands of metal sequins.)
In the 1930s, a process to electroplate gelatin (hello, Jell-O…) produced a lighter-weight version of the shiny metal disks. But one major obstacle (besides the color being lead-based) was that the gelatin sequins were finicky; they would melt if they got wet or too warm. So getting caught in a thunderstorm could leave you in a sequinless sheath. Or, as the blog Fashion Preserved mentioned, “missing sequins can tell tales.” For instance, the warmth of a dance partner’s clammy hand on the back of a dress could melt the sequins. While not viable for their longevity on clothing, today they’ve become known for their edibility; it’s easy to find recipes to make palatable (although definitely not vegan) sequins from gelatin to decorate cakes and assorted baked goods.
The guy behind our contemporary understanding of sequins is Herbert Lieberman. After realizing that gelatin sequins wouldn’t do the trick, he worked with Eastman Kodak, a company that had begun using acetate in its film stock in the 1930s (acetate film is a specific type of plastic material called cellulose acetate) to develop acetate sequins. They looked beautiful but were still fragile. As Lieberman told Fanzine magazine:
“The light would penetrate through the color, hit the silver, and reflect back,” he says. “Like you painted a mirror with nail polish.” Brilliant, but brittle. “Acetate will crack like glass. The harder the plastic, the nicer the sequin’s going to be.”
In 1952, DuPont invented Mylar and that changed the sequin game yet again. The largest sequin producer, the Lieberman-owned company Algy Trimmings Co., now based in Hallandale Beach, Florida, adopted the transparent polyester film. Mylar surrounded the plastic colored sequin and protected it from the washing machine. Voila! Or, sort of.
Eventually the Mylar-acetate combination was discarded for vinyl plastic. More durable and cost effective, yes. (Although we now know that eventually the vinyl plastic curls and loses its shape.) Just as sparkly? Not quite, but good enough.
Which brings us to Michael Jackson one night in 1983 when he performed “Billie Jean” and premiered the moonwalk. He wore a black sequin jacket along with his iconic rhinestone glove (see first image in post), a look that made a lasting impression on the 47 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special. But that wasn’t the last time he’d be covered in shiny platelets. How about when he met the president of the United States in 1984 wearing a military-style, sequin jacket? Or on the HIStory world tour when he wore a white sequin number?
Melting, edible disks be damned, sequins are here to stay (and who knows what they’ll be made from 50 years from now). Yes, we expect to see them on a New Year’s Eve dress, but we’ve also grown accustomed to seeing them emblazoned on a basic white T-shirt or pair of flats. With accessibility comes diluted trends and with that comes, well, shapeless Uggs boots covered in what was once a symbol of attention-grabbing glamour.
November 9, 2012
James Bond’s accessories are never what they seem, thanks to the ingenuity of “Q” as Desmond Llewelyn was known in the 17 007 films in which he appeared. A watch was never just a timepiece. A briefcase was never a mere file holder. His accessories weren’t chosen for style (although, of course, if they were Bond’s, they were always stylish), but for their function. In those 17 films, audiences would await Q’s customary arrival. He’d present an impeccably dressed Bond with his new handy—and always handsome—tool kit, demonstrating gadgets that would be critical to the upcoming mission. With just the click of a button or the turn of a knob, those inventions always got 007 out of a bind, debilitating his enemy and enabling a quick getaway.
What better way to prepare for Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie that’s opening in theaters today, than a look back at five accessories-turned-gadgets-turned-accessories spanning five decades of Bond films.
Movie: From Russia With Love (1963)
Bond: Sean Connery
Desmond Llewelyn made his first appearance as Q in From Russia With Love. After meeting Bond (Sean Connery), he demonstrated how the nondescript black leather briefcase could turn lethal. Complete with 20 rounds of ammunition, a flat throwing knife, an AR7 folding sniper rifle .25 caliber with an infrared telescopic sight, 50 gold sovereigns and explosive tear gas, Q’s creation was a serious attache.
Movie: The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Bond: Pierce Brosnan
Bond wore these (humorously unstylish and conspicuous) blue-tinted X-ray glasses to enable him to see through clothing and get the upper hand on who was packing heat. Amusingly, the X-ray specs also provided an unexpected benefit for Bond. Bespeckled, he could use his special powers to observe women’s undergarments (What a coincidence!).
Movie: Live and Let Die (1973)
Bond: Roger Moore
When is a Rolex more than a status symbol? When it can shoot lasers and deflect bullets, of course. In Live and Let Die, Moneypenny presents a Rolex to Bond after Q has equipped it with its special features. Besides deflecting bullets, the watch featured a spinning bezel, essentially a mini rotating saw that helped him cut rope. Bond counted on this accessory to free himself from captivity, including once from a pool of man-eating sharks.
The Rolex “Sawtooth Submariner” that Moore wore in Live and Let Die sold for $198,000 at Christie’s in November 2011.
Movie: Goldeneye (1995)
Bond: Pierce Brosnan
Another day, another killer pen. Click the top of this Parker Jotter pen three times and it detonates a grenade. After Q showed Bond his latest instrument of death, Bond quipped, ”They always say the pen is mightier than the sword.“ Q responded, “Thanks to me, they were right.”
You, too, can own this pen for just $8. Explosive capabilities not included.
Movie: Thunderball (1965)
Bond: Sean Connery
Jetpacks were the way of the future that never quite arrived. We’d all own one and zoom around to run errands or get to work. In Thunderball, their full potential was envisaged when Connery used one to airlift himself back to his Aston Martin after killing Colonel Jacques Bouvar.
The pack Bond strapped onto his back had been developed by Bell Aerosystems as the Bell Rocket Belt. Using hydrogen peroxide fuel, the pack could only be flown for 20 seconds. The scenes in Thunderball were shot using two stuntmen and the abrasive sound of the jets was overdubbed with the more gentle sound of a fire extinguisher.
Fun fact: In 1984, a Rocket Belt was used in the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
A few decades later, our go-go-gadget cufflinks have been activated as we await 007′s latest mission in the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall.
September 24, 2012
“Is the knitted way of life your life?”
—The Great American Knits Fall 1965
DuPont certainly hoped so.
On a recent trip to visit my family in Delaware I dropped off my overnight bag in my childhood bedroom and found a stack of papers and books my mother had left on my bureau that belonged to my grandmother. As I sorted through the pile of 1950s barbecue how-to booklets, 1970s Valentine’s Day cards and other miscellany, I found this gem of an advertisement from the New York Times, August 29, 1965, “The Great American Knits Fall 1965.” How timely with the first fall chill in the air! Printed on newsprint, the 20-plus-page advertising supplement showcased DuPont’s newest synthetic fibers via a catalog of sweaters.
Orlon! Dacron! Antron! Following on the heels of the nylon’s invention in the late 1930s (in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, no less!) forever changing women’s hosiery, these pseudo-space-age-sounding textiles made from DuPont fibers also transformed the way we dressed. When Orlon acrylic, Dacron polyester and Antron nylon, the branded names DuPont gave to these synthetic fibers, were first available, the company went to great lengths to target Parisian couturiers who incorporated them into their runway designs in the 1950s. Then, with marketing campaigns like this one, Orlon, Dacron and Antron hit the ready-to-wear knitwear market in the 1960s.
Touting their durability, washability, vibrant colors and remarkable textures, DuPont began manufacturing the complex materials just as the United States was preparing for its first moon landing. Along with Playtex, the company instrumental in Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, DuPont played a significant role in the Apollo project of the U.S. space program in the 1960s. Concurrently, the upcoming lunar landing inspired designers to create the space-age, op-art fashion of the times as the fashion spreads illustrate.
What I love about this multipage ad for knits—besides the heavy eye makeup, bangs, angular poses and pointy fake press-on nails —is that DuPont, whose own marketing slogan was “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry,” realized the importance of hopping on the fashion bandwagon to hype its own scientific discoveries. Including apparel brands like Melloknit, Sweetree and Crazy Horse, the ad declares, “Some women have made collecting knits almost a cult.”
Sadly, I can’t ask my grandmother why she held onto this ad, if she ever wore any of these outfits or what she thought about the heyday of synthetic fabrics. But I’m glad my mother, who knows I’ve always appreciated what others carelessly toss in the trash, saw the potential in this 47-year-old newspaper insert and left it on my childhood bureau.