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 developed a particularly sophisticated approach to marketing its synthetic fibers. From the earliest days of its rayon production DuPont realized that if it was to capture the textile market it needed to capture the hearts of Parisian couturiers. The company’s Fabric Development Department, established in 1926, worked with designers to produce sample fabrics for textile mills and clothing manufacturers. By the mid-1950s the group was producing well over 1,000 fabric samples each year. DuPont salesmen then attempted to sway fashion designers by providing them with generous samples and free publicity. Their first dramatic success occurred at the 1955 Paris fashion shows, in which at least 14 synthetics featuring DuPont fibers appeared in gowns from Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, and Christian Dior. To heighten the glamour DuPont recruited fashion photographer Horst P. Horst to document designers’ works and then circulated the photographs in press releases across the country. Besides couture by Chanel, Dior, and Patou, Horst’s photos featured gowns by Madame Grès, Maggie Rouff, Lavin-Castillo, Nina Ricci, Emanuel Ungaro, Philippe Venet, Pierre Cardin, and the New York Couture Group, all in DuPont fabrics. A decade later, vanguard 1960s designers Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges embraced the futuristic feel of synthetics as the right look for Space Age living.

By the late 1960s synthetics had moved firmly off the runways and into the mass markets—and therein lay their downfall. Victims of overexposure, nylon and polyester seemed suddenly out of date, and their shiny luster started to look tacky. In the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and a growing environmental movement, consumers were turning to natural fibers, particularly cotton and wool. In 1965 synthetic fibers made up 63% of the world’s production of textiles; by the early 1970s that number had dropped to 45%. Although synthetic fibers regained some of their popularity in the 1990s as technical innovations improved their feel and performance, never again would synthetic fibers dominate the market as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet nylon is here to stay. We may not be wearing it as much, but in one form or another nylon surrounds us in our homes, offices, leisure activities, and transportation. The polymer revolution ushered in by nylon’s discovery has left us with a world of plastics that would be unrecognizable to our grandparents’ generation. Today manufacturers worldwide produce around 8 million pounds of nylon, accounting for about 12% of all synthetic fibers. Nylon may no longer be DuPont’s most profitable product, but it remains one of its most important inventions.

 

Audra J. Wolfe is editor in chief of Chemical Heritage. This article has been excerpted from Molecules That Matter, a forthcoming compilation of essays to accompany the traveling exhibit by the same name, opening at CHF’s Clifford C. Hach Gallery in August 2008.