Nylon – the manmade fashion revolution

Nylon by Susannah Handley
Nylon by Susannah Handley

One of our Triborough Reference Librarians, Debby Wale, has been looking through our Costume Collection at Chelsea Reference Library for references to Nylon.

Susannah Handley’s book charts the history of Nylon.

Nylon made from castor oil
Nylon made from castor oil

In 1931 Wilmington’s Evening Journal broke the news that a silk like fabric could be made by combining antifreeze and castor oil.

Now for the technical stuff – I promise, there will be some fab pics from Vogue as usual!

What is Nylon?

This quote was taken from the Encyclopædia Britannica (Britannica Online Library Edition, 22  May  2013 – this can be accessed with Kensington and Chelsea library membership)

In October 1938, DuPont announced the invention of the first wholly synthetic fibre ever produced. Given the trade name Nylon (which has now become a generic term), the material was actually polyhexamethylene adipamide, also known as nylon 6,6 for the presence of six carbon atoms in each of its two monomers. Commercial production of the new fibre began in 1939 at DuPont’s plant in Seaford, Del., U.S., which in 1995 was designated a historic landmark by the American Chemical Society. Soon after the DuPont fibre was marketed, nylon 6 (polycaprolactam) was produced in Europe based on the polymerization of caprolactam. Nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 have almost the same structure and similar properties and are still the most important polyamide fibres worldwide.

 Nylon arrived on the scene just in time to replace silk (a natural polyamide), whose East Asian supply sources had been cut off by imperial Japan. Women’s stockings made of the new fibre were exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The next year they went on sale throughout the United States, touching off a nylon mania that survived diversion of the fibre to military use during World War II and continued after the war with such intensity that nylon virtually established the synthetic-fibre industry.

Right, that’s the serious bit over. Those eyes that have glazed over can wake up now.

On to the nice pictures in Vogue!

These advertisements appeared in Vogue throughout 1958.

Ballito stockings October 1958
Ballito stockings October 1958

Stockings were an obvious candidate for nylon to replace silk – when they first appeared they were referred to as ‘Nylons’.

Bronze nylons by Bear Brand
Bronze nylons by Bear Brand

Astraka fake fur would please the anti-fur movement today, although I’m not entirely sure that poodle is impressed.

Astraka fake fur
Astraka fake fur

Chiffon was originally made from cotton – here is a selection of California Nylon Chiffon ads from Vogue, 1958

California nylon chiffon
California nylon chiffon

Above – You can see the puffball skirt is not an entirely modern invention.

The lady in the conventional yellow chiffon dress on the right is probably saying “I hope she doesn’t have to sit down in that!’

California nylon chiffon
California nylon chiffon
California nylon chiffon
California nylon chiffon

Above – are they amazed by her stylish appearance – or are they looking for the join in her hairpiece?

Nylon is extremely flammable, unless flame resistant treated. Below is an advertisement  from Vogue in 1958 for a ‘flare free’ Heathcoat nylon dress.

Similar items of clothing are still manufactured today as you can see on the Heathcoat Fabrics website.

Flame free nylon mid Sept 1958
Flame free nylon mid Sept 1958

Nylon fabrics were easy to care for. As indicated in the advertisements below with women enjoying everyday activities wearing smart clothes. Smoking, drinking coffee, and possibly standing too close to the fire.

Courtelle advert in Vogue
Courtelle advert in Vogue
Orlon lady drinking coffee
Orlon lady drinking coffee
Courtelle lady smoking
Courtelle lady smoking

I remember being on the train in the days when people were allowed to smoke in carriages. I watched a fashionably dressed lady’s mini skirt start to melt when her cigarette strayed too close to her clothing. Luckily, I alerted her before her mini skirt became much shorter than she intended.

Shop for the shade… Nylon was available in bright, non-fade colours.

Shop for the Shade
Shop for the Shade
Every last thing a sweater can give. The knot and style of Wolsey, the wash and wear of Ban-lon – in specially processed nylon. Downy soft, feather light, with a dreamy eye for colour.
Wolsey Ban-lon
Wolsey Ban-lon

To bring us up to the present day, a 21st  Century take on nylon, visit  the Berg Fashion Library to see this article in full – you will need your Kensington and Chelsea  library membership to access this.

Electric Textiles »by Bradley Quinn

Techno Fashion

Kanebo (Japanese manufacturer of textiles and cosmetics) are also developing ‘Biosafe’, a nylon filament yarn embedded with microscopic ceramic spheres (chemically bound to the fibres) that release a constant stream of silver ions, which has a powerful antibacterial effect.

The fabric is ideal for sportswear, high-performance gear, underwear and hospital gowns. Since the antimicrobial deodorant in Biosafe is kneaded into the fibre itself, its properties are highly durable and withstand repeated washing. Tests have shown the fabric will destroy some harmful bacteria and inhibit the growth of others, making the fabric ideal for hospitals or clinical environments.

Debby Wale
Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Triborough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Library

Winter Kimonos

The books on Japanese costume in Chelsea Reference Library’s costume collection have caught our eye this week.  Although the early 20th Century saw the decline of the kimono as the everyday attire of Japanese people, we have discovered that this beautiful garment continues to inspire and influence Japanese culture and modern fashion around the world.  And as the nights get longer and colder, we have been looking at the kimono in winter. 

Traditionally, the choice of kimono reflects the season not only in how they are made, but also by the patterns that adorn them.  We were fascinated to learn about the many levels of significance that the motifs used on kimonos hold.  The natural world is the source of many motifs and symbols, many of which have a seasonal significance.  There is a Japanese belief in the figurative and also literal power of images, which makes the pattern and colour of a kimono very important for its wearer.  Winter kimono patterns include bamboo, pine trees and plum blossoms because they signify wealth and luck for the New Year.  The plum blossom in particular is popular for suggesting that it will be Spring soon.   Here are two amazing patterns depicting some of these things that we found in a book filled with images of patterns used on kimonos, called Kimono & the Colours of Japan.

Kimono Patterns
Kimono Patterns

 And here are two motifs depicting wintery scenes:

More Kimono Patterns
More Kimono Patterns
Yet More Kimono Patterns
Yet More Kimono Patterns

In winter time extra layers and heavier fabrics are used to keep warm, and cotton padding is added between each layer.  Here are some images we found in Kimonos by Sophie Milenovich of kimonos worn in the winter. Milenovich’s book focuses on how kimonos are worn in the present day.  The shape of kimonos has not changed over time, unlike some other things:

Wearing a Kimono at the Airport
Wearing a Kimono at the Airport
Clashing Kimono Patterns
Clashing Kimono Patterns

We were interested to find out about how much Kimono patterns have in the past reflected the social conditions of the time.  Wintery scenes can be a mark of a time of austerity, as with this photographed in Japanese Costume: and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition by Helen Benton Minnich.  This kimono depicts grasses covered in snow, and was made in a time of Kimono austerity in the Kyoho era under the eighth Tokugawa shogun (1716-36):

Black and White Kimono
Black and White Kimono

As we read more, we discovered different examples of how kimonos reflect a culture based on ideas very different from those of Western culture.  In Beauties of the Four Seasons by Mitsuko Watanabe, we found out about how the clothes worn by women were not made to emphasise the shape of their bodies, as is the emphasis in the West, belying a very different relationship between clothes and their wearer.  In Japanese woodblock prints, beautiful women were not depicted for their bodies, such as can be found in Western art, but for the gorgeous kimonos that they wore.  Here is a print by Kitagawa Utamoro (c.1753-1806), The courtesan Madoka of the Tamaya-nai in which Madoka is wearing a winter kimono with lots of layers and padding:

The Courtesan Madoka of the Tamaya-nai
The Courtesan Madoka of the Tamaya-nai

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan started to be influenced by foreign cultures and the Japanese government encouraged people to adopt Western style of clothing.  So today the kimono is worn mostly for special occasions, but it continues to influence fashion design and is deeply rooted in a Japanese aesthetic.  Here is something we found in Making Things by Issey Miyake, who’s designs are heavily influenced by the kimono:

Kimono by Issey Miyake
Kimono by Issey Miyake

And here is an image of the fashion designer Kenzo Takada that we found in Kenzo by Ginette Sainderichin about the amazing clothing brand that he founded:

Kenzo Takada
Kenzo Takada

Gillian Nunns,  Tri- Borough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns