Nylon: A Revolution in Textiles

nylon

[LEFT] Photograph of a nylon tulle dress "glittering with brilliants" from a 1958 Christian Dior collection, circulated by DuPont's public relations department. [RIGHT] A 35-foot-high leg display advertising nylon in Los Angeles, California. The leg was modeled by movie star Marie Wilson, shown suspended from the crane.

DuPont regained control of nylon’s publicity on 27 October 1938, when it officially introduced the stockings to a crowd of 4,000 enthusiastic middle-class women at the future site of the New York World’s Fair. But while the excitement was building, the stockings themselves would not become commercially available for another 18 months. At that point the only women who could experience the stockings firsthand either worked for DuPont or were married to DuPont scientists in the nylon division. A limited supply of the first pairs went on sale in Wilmington, Delaware, in October 1939, but the stockings did not reach the national market until 15 May 1940. Offered at $1.15 a pair, they were sold out at most locations by noon. In 1940 DuPont produced 2.6 million pounds of nylon, making a total sales figure of $9 million; the following year the company sold $25 million worth of nylon yarn. Within two years of nylon’s introduction DuPont had captured an astonishing 30% of the full-fashioned hosiery market.

The liberal access to nylon hosiery that American women enjoyed proved short-lived. In November 1941 DuPont shifted its nylon manufacture from consumer to military production as a replacement for Japanese silk: in 1940, 90% of DuPont’s nylon had gone into stockings, but by 1942 virtually all nylon went into parachutes and tire cords. Nylon would eventually be used in glider tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, flak jackets, shoelaces, mosquito netting, and hammocks. In light of tremendous consumer demand, nylon inevitably found its way onto the black market; one entrepreneur made $100,000 off of stockings produced from a diverted nylon shipment.

DuPont jumped back into consumer nylon production almost as soon as the war ended, with the first pairs of stockings returning to stores in September 1945. Everywhere the stockings appeared, newspapers reported on “nylon riots” in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of women lined up to compete for a limited supply of hosiery. Perhaps the most extreme instance occurred in Pittsburgh in June 1946, when 40,000 people lined up for over a mile to compete for 13,000 pairs of nylon stockings. Labovsky recalled that demand remained so high throughout the 1940s that DuPont required all its customers, no matter how large or reputable the account, to pay in advance: “The demand was so great. We had to make sure customers who wanted nylon had the money to pay for it . . . Even Burlington Mills would send a check for $100,000 to fill an order . . . Everybody wanted nylon.” Partly in order to meet demand and partly to avoid an antitrust suit, DuPont finally licensed nylon to outside producers in 1951.

Always in Fashion

Nylon stockings represented only the beginning of what would soon become a fashion revolution. Cheap and colorful, synthetic fibers offered the promise of an easy-care, wash-and-wear, disposable future. By the 1950s nylon and other synthetic fibers could be found in underwear, socks, petticoats, fake fur coats, mock-wool sweater sets, and even men’s drip-dry suits. Women’s fashion was especially transformed by synthetic fabrics, as new Lycra girdles—more comfortable and lightweight than traditional rubber models—cinched women’s bodies into dramatic hourglass figures that could then be surrounded with yards and yards of billowing synthetic material.

Because the variety of synthetic fibers was basically limited to viscose (rayon), acetates, polyesters, and polyamides, manufacturers realized early on that the key to their success lay in branding their specific products as unique. Generic DuPont nylon was soon joined in the marketplace by Bri-Nylon, Dacron (polyester), Terylene (polyester), Crimplene (polyester), Orlon (acrylic), Acrilan (acrylic), Tricel (acetate), and seemingly dozens more. Each of the chemical companies making these products then launched extensive advertising campaigns aimed at winning consumers’ loyalty to a branded fabric rather than to the specific fashions of a given season.