The history of Lycra
Sep 14, 2016 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we’ve discovered in other posts – plastics is one of the great 20th century inventions, with its impact being felt throughout the fashion, home goods, and military industries. (Can you imagine a genre that encompasses more categories?) Today we pay homage to one of the great moments in fashion: Lycra. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as Spandex (they’re rivals after all), it’s the reason vintage designers could explore new forms. Join us as we investigate the history of Lycra and the quirky scientist who discovered it: Joseph Shivers.
His quest started at DuPont, with the aim of finding a rubber alternative. While rubber worked great for tires, as a material choice for clothing it was less than ideal. It couldn’t breathe, but women suffered at the hand of rubber girdles for years until WWII made finding an alternative necessary. Who could use rubber for your undergarments in a time when the boys needed equipment for victory? It was just un-American!
With this patriotic inspiration, Joseph hit the laboratory. But best intentions aside he didn’t make a dent in the rubber industry on time, his first big break came following the war in 1949 with the development of an elastic fiber. It was a great scientific advancement, but it fell short of being a viable rubber replacement. (The fiber could breathe but couldn’t mold itself like rubber.) Once war-time economics subsided, the project was tabled.
The experiments could have stopped there – living the rest of their days as journal entries kept in a dusty industrial archive. But Joseph wasn’t one to give up. Influenced by his initial success Joseph forged ahead, burning the midnight oil until the moment when it all came together. In 1958 “Fiber K” was invented and was swiftly re-branded to Lycra. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the time span: 1949 Lycra version one was invented, the project is shelved by the executives that be, and Joseph moonlights for nearly ten years to fulfill his initial project goals. A decade of unsupported efforts – astounding. And talk about stubborn!
From the moment Lycra hit the market, it was a success. A year later and it was incorporated into all corsets. That meant more comfort for women (well, as much comfort as you can expect while being confined in a corset) and a more natural shape. This is no small development. Shapewear that created a more flowing and organic figure meant designers had a whole new foundation to build upon. Clothes could cling with greater proximity, draping could be more dramatic – in general a new freedom in aesthetic and construction was encouraged.
Find great tips on how to care for your Lycra garments here.
By the 1960s Lycra moved beyond the corset to the established world of nylons and to the realm of swimwear. Goodbye to the clunky swimsuits of the past and say hello to lightweight little numbers. With the age of disco fast approaching, Lycra went on to transform jeans. Stretchy bell bottoms twirled around dance floors nationwide. While this revolution in fashion was started by Joseph, a man born in the Jazz Age, it doesn’t mean its legacy is restricted to the world of vintage. Athleisure anyone??
For our readers: We think Lycra is one of the most innovative ideas in vintage fashion. What do you think? What else is on your list and why?