Continuing with the effect of WW2 on fashion, today I’ll share excerpts regarding textile development of those years from the thesis Meghan Mason. You can find her complete thesis at this link. To be clear with what I’m quoting, I’ve set Meghan’s words in italics.
The new fabrics created during this time are still used today in clothing, household, mechanical, and everyday items. This period in history and the needs it presented are responsible for the innovative research and creation of materials used to help the war effort and also ones that consumers could not conceive of not using today.
Stephen Fenichell notes in his book Plastic: the first plastics were made from cellulosepure vegetable fibers.
Henry Ford made plastics from soybeans.
In the 1920’s Germans made plastic from cows blood which came from abattoirs (9).
The term “plastic” was derived from the Latin plasticas which means “that may be molded.” Plastic came to be a term that encompassed any group of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymers which were usually known also by their brand name (e.g. Rayon, Nylon, Bakelite, etc.)
Enter: Viscose/ Rayon
Synthetic materials were not completely new to the world. At the end of the 19th century, in 1855, Viscose was created. It was the first “man-made” fiber and was patented in 1892. However, it is important to note that Viscose is not an entirely man-made synthetic. It is semisynthetic. Made of wood cellulose, a naturally occurring polymer, mixed with chemicals to produce a fiber that could be used in textiles. Viscose was commercially produced in the U.K. as early as 1910 and it became commercially produced in in the U.S. in 1924. After a competition for a new name for Viscose in 1924 in the U.S., the name Rayon was given to Viscose for U.S. consumers. Many designers used it as a substitute for silk as it had a high luster and lightweight feel.
In an attempt to make Rayon more commercially versatile and viable for use in fashion, DuPont decided to de-luster Rayon, which it did successfully by adding titanium oxide, a white paint pigment. This new form of Rayon was a hit with French couture designers including Elsa Schiaparelli. She used the fabric to create form- fitting evening gowns in the 1930’s.
Nylon on the Horizon
With the success of Rayon, DuPont was on the hunt for a purely synthetic fiber that would one day replace silk hosiery. After much research, finally in 1934, Fiber 66 was created.
Fiber 66 underwent a name contest as well and the winner was Nylon.
Silk stockings were being purchased by women at a rate of 500 million pairs a year by 1938. That translated to an estimated $700 million to Japanese silk producers alone. DuPont was very aware of the market and knew that working women could be counted on to run through 36 pairs of silk stockings in one year.
Nylon stockings were finally introduced to the world at the New York World’s Fair in April 1939.
The Philadelphia Record published this headline the day after the unveiling: “New Synthetic Fiber May Smash Jap Monopoly” The first trial sale of Nylons was in Wilmington, Delaware.
Women were only allowed 3 pair per customer and had to provide a local address to which the stockings would be delivered as they were not permitted take them out of the store. Women came from all over the country, renting hotel rooms so they would have a valid address. The cost was $1.15, $1.25, and $1.35 per pair depending on the gauge. The average cost of silk stockings at the time was $0.79. All 4,000 pairs of the new Nylon stockings sold out.
The availability of the new stocking was to be short lived. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Nylon was pulled from the commercial market and was supplied exclusively to the military.
Nylon was used in war for parachutes as well as tents, ropes, and some rain-gear. With its inherent properties of being abrasion resistant, exceptionally strong, lustrous, and low in moisture absorbency among several, Nylon’s exclusivity with the military would last until the end of the war. When it was available once again to the public, it was a massive success.
The thesis covers 6 designers who had a huge impact on fashion leading up to WWII and even after Paris was occupied by the Nazi regime. They are: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883- 1971), Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), Adrian (1903-1959), Mainbocher (1890-1976), Arnold Lever, and Edith Head (1897-1981).
Their importance lies in the fact that they contributed to women’s wear during the war by influencing the looks of the “working class” woman by the textiles they wore and the imagination that adorned their heads in the work of millinery- one of the few places extravagances could live.
They not only dressed the masses but created some of the most beautiful garments for the stars of Hollywood. These designers helped bridge the gap between the ever disseminating classes and reflected in clothing the rise of the middle class during WWII.
Coco Chanel’s designing career began as a milliner. She designed hats to suit her own simple, elegant tastes. When they caught attention from the public, after being worn by famous actresses in Paris, she began to branch out into designing clothing. However, her designs were free from the restraint of the heavy corsets and binding undergarments that exemplified the time. They draped the body, had a lowered waist, and often were made of light-weight fabrics, making ease of movement a priority. Women loved them and critics loved to hate them.
She used jersey knit fabric to create the first Jersey Knit Suit, which also showed women’s ankles.
Most of her early designs were for day, casual, wear and work wear as more women had stepped into the working world because of WWI. Bathing suits, pants, and jersey knit jackets were also some of the firsts she created in her casual line of wear. She designed evening wear that was just as comfortable, yet used chiffons, silks and tulle to soften the silhouette and make a more feminine statement. Throughout the 1930’s she had a successful career and even was hired by Samuel Goldwyn in 1931 to travel to Hollywood to design couture outfits for the stars of MGM such as Katharine Hepburn.
Chanel was the creator of the first “Little Black dress” that, to this day, is a staple in women’s wardrobes.
Some have wondered whether Chanel’s friend Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on her behalf. While not officially charged, Chanel suffered in the court of public opinion. Some still viewed her relationship with a Nazi officer as a betrayal of her country. Chanel left Paris, spending some years in Switzerland in a sort of exile. She also lived at her country house in Roquebrune for a time” (Biography.com). She did not return to fashion until 1954 when she made a successful comeback with her signature Chanel Suit and the use of inexpensive imitation pearl necklaces. She delved into the world of perfume and created the famous “Chanel No. 5” beginning a still-growing part of her company. Coco Chanel’s impact on fashion in the 1920’s and 1930’s left an indelible mark on the fashion world in the ways of fabric choice,
She delved into the world of perfume and created the famous “Chanel No. 5” beginning a still-growing part of her company.
Coco Chanel’s impact on fashion in the 1920’s and 1930’s left an indelible mark on the fashion world in the ways of fabric choice, liberation of movement in clothing for women, and designing completely out of the box.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), an Italian designer who made her name in Paris, was another pioneer in women’s fashion and also a “rival” of Coco Chanel. While Chanel had a more understated and streamlined aesthetic, Schiaparelli was famous for her use of textiles and shocking designs.
Her first big break came when she designed a simple double knit sweater that had the illusion of a scarf tied in a bow.
In 1930, Schiaparelli introduced the use of the zipper in women’s dresses. These were used up until 1939-1940, when the metal used for the zippers was recalled for war materials. Dresses then returned to using buttons as fasteners until the end of the war, or when she could, she would use plastic zippers.
Both she and American designer Vera Max are credited with being the first to create the jumpsuit for women;
Schiaparelli is credited with creating the “siren suit” used for air raids in Britain. The “siren suit” was complete with a gas mask, a flask, and a turban to cover unpresentable hair, as the women were expected to be torn from bed.
One of the first to use the new world of man-made synthetics in her clothing and apply bold prints to them added appeal and edge; she introduced Rayon as fabric for evening gowns in the mid 1930’s. Her collaboration with the Colcombet Company in France produced many exciting and new designs using synthetic fabrics such as Rayon, Acrylic, and Rayon with metal threads called “Fildifer”. This would prove fortunate when Paris became occupied by the Nazis, she left for New York City where she continued to design during the war. Her knowledge and willingness to incorporate synthetics into her designs only enhanced her popularity and sales during the war.
Some of Schiaparelli’s other major innovations include:
– Surrealist fashions, like erotic-shaped hats, food-looking accessories, fabrics printed with body parts, bones and organs, and even household furniture, so your breasts looked like a bureau drawer.
Shoe Hat” by Elsa Schiaparelli, collaboration with Salvador Dali, Black Wook Felt, 1937-38.
– Ethnic themed collections including the popular Turban hat popular in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
– Culottes, which was a skirt divided to make long flowing shorts, popularized by famous tennis player Lili de Alvarez who wore them at Wimbledon in 1931.
– Waterproof cotton.
–The wrap around dress.
Tune in tomorrow for some more interesting information on other famous war-time fashion designers.
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