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.
September 10, 2012
So it’s Saturday night in 1941, and you want to wear stockings with your cocktail dress, but the new wonder material nylon has been rationed for the war effort and has disappeared from department store shelves. What do you do in such times of patriotic privation? You get resourceful, and cover your legs with a layer of nude-colored makeup, and line the back of each leg with a trompe l’oeil seam.
Last week, in the first post from the Stocking Series, we heard about the huge reception of nylon hosiery. On May 16, 1940, officially called “Nylon Day,” four million pairs of nylons landed in stores and sold out within two days! But only a year later, the revolutionary product became scarce when the World War II economy directed all nylon into manufacturing parachutes, rope and netting.
As duty prevailed, a new fashion arose from the nylon ration. Liquid stockings, it was called. A foundation for your legs, applied carefully and evenly for the illusion of hose. Advanced users got even more realistic by using black eyeliner pencils to draw the “seam.”
Having trouble with your seam? No problem! This contraption, made from a screwdriver handle, bicycle leg clip and an ordinary eyebrow pencil would do the trick!
For those women overwhelmed by options— Ann Barton’s Leg Make-up, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Stocking Lotion, Patrick’s Leg Art, Leg Charm from Cosmetic House, Helena Rubinstein’s Leg Stick and Max Factor’s Pan-Cake Make-up, for starters—or unsure about application techniques, a leg makeup bar at their local department store could provide some guidance for beautifying their gams.
September 4, 2012
Women want men, career, money, children, friends, luxury, comfort, independence, freedom, respect, love and cheap stockings that don’t run.
Nylon stockings made their debut in my hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, on October 24, 1939. That’s because Wallace Hume Carothers, the chemist who invented the synthetic material in 1935, worked for the DuPont company, which is headquartered there. In fact, the first test sale to DuPont employees’ wives took place at the company’s experimental station, just up the street from my childhood home. Not long before the 4,000 pairs of stockings sold out—in only three hours!—DuPont had had women modeling nylon hosiery at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, touting nylon as a synthetic fabric made of “carbon, water and air.” A prototype of that initial run (get it?) can be found in the Smithsonian’s collection.
From the moment DuPont realized what kind of stretchy, durable, washable, dryable revolution it had synthesized, the company channeled its invention to women’s hosiery, a huge potential market. Hemlines were rising throughout the 1930s, and stockings, made at that time from silk or rayon, had become an essential component to a woman’s wardrobe, even though they were delicate and prone to runs. (The delicacy didn’t hurt the bottom line; women purchased an average of eight pairs of stockings per year during that decade.) Then came DuPont’s wonder fabric; the word “nylon,” as the lore goes, originated from the attempted coinage “nuron,”—”no run” spelled backward. Trademark issues caused DuPont to adapt the word to “nilon,” and then finally to “nylon” to remove any pronunciation ambiguity.
DuPont’s initial sales success in Wilmington was just the beginning of the nylon stocking craze. On May 16, 1940, officially known as “Nylon Day,” four million pairs of brown nylons landed on department store shelves throughout the United States at about $1.15 per pair. They sold out within two days. Silk stockings—which didn’t stretch, were challenging to clean, and ripped easily, but had been standard—were quickly supplanted.
That is, until the war came around. As quickly as nylon stockings found their way into department stores and boutiques, providing women with inexpensive, longer-lasting hosiery options, they disappeared. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered World War II, the material that had its beginnings briefly as toothbrush bristles (prior to entering the women’s hosiery market) was severely rationed and channeled into war efforts. Nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting and hammocks, aiding in the U.S.’s national defense. Because American women had seen the future and it had them wearing nylons, they had to be inventive to meet their leg-beautifying needs (Paint-on stockings, anyone? More on that soon.) or turn to the black market (a “diverted” nylon shipment earned one sly entrepreneur $100,000).
When the war was over and rations were eased, nylon stockings returned to stores and sold quickly. In 1945, “nylon riots” ensued around the country when hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of women, queued up to try to snag a pair. The situation got out of hand in Pittsburgh when 40,000 people lined up for over a mile vying for 13,000 pairs.
But Carothers, nylon’s creator, didn’t get to see the mania around his invention. After great scientific success (he also invented neoprene and the first synthetic musk), he committed suicide in 1936 after battling depression for years. And his death, alongside some bad press from the Washington News claiming that nylon could be made from cadaverine, a substance formed during putrefaction in dead bodies, put a morbid slant on the synthetic material.
Nylon’s bad rep was short-lived. After it was lauded for winning the war and changing the future of American women’s gams, the demand for nylon only continued to increase as DuPont shrewdly promoted the product. In one article, Joseph Lebovsky, a chemical engineer working at DuPont’s nylon lab (and, in keeping with tiny Delaware’s inevitable connections, a good friend of my grandparents), recounted how throughout the 1940s, demand remained so high that no matter how established the company, DuPont “had to make sure customers who wanted nylon had the money to pay [in advance] for it. . . . Even Burlington Mills would send a check for $100,000 to fill an order. . . . Everybody wanted nylon.”
After nylon came other easy-care DuPont synthetics (Dacron, Orlon, Bri-Nylon, Tricel), popularized by the company’s business savvy. The company realized, quite wisely, that to win over the textile market, and consumers in general, it had to appeal to high-end fashion designers, and in particular, Parisian couturiers. With its fabric development department, the company courted designers to produce clothing using its inventions. By 1955, DuPont landed a major victory when 14 synthetic fabrics, including quite a few of DuPont’s, were used in gowns from Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. DuPont even hired fashion photographer Horst P. Horst to document the runway fashions and circulated those images in press releases.
As you might expect, synthetic fabrics were key ingredients in the space age fashion trend, mentioned last week in Threaded. But sartorially speaking, they fizzled out. By the late ’60s, the fabrics disappeared from the runways. But they were embraced by the mainstream, at least for a while. Then their artificial, shiny look began to appear tacky (gotta love a red polyester butterfly-collared shirt…) as people returned to wearing natural fabric.
Today we may see (or feel) less nylon in our clothes, but its presence, mostly in the form of plastic, is established in our kitchens, bathrooms and offices. And while Phyllis Diller’s legacy lives on as nylon remains an essential ingredient for our reasonably priced stockings, tights, and knee-highs today, when it comes to the flesh-toned pantyhose business, it has taken a tumble in the past couple decades as women are more likely to go bare-legged. But I can only hope that DuPont is hard at work creating the next revolutionary material to make them less disposable and more earth-friendly.