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Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution Hardcover – January 19, 2000
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From Library Journal
Introduced in 1939 by the DuPont Company as a "miracle" fiber for women's stockings, nylon was the first completely synthetic fiber. Nylon's ready acceptance led to Orlon, Dacron, Lycra, polyester, and other human-made fibers that revolutionized fashion. Explored here are early attempts to create textiles from chemicals, followed by a chronological review of fashion changes, trends, and innovations of the 20th century. Especially interesting are the chapters on new technology in fiber creation and on clothing that explores the unique qualities of plastics instead of emulating natural fibers. Handley, a consultant for DuPont who is associated with the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal College of Art, presents a very positive view of chemicals in what is also a history of DuPont's contribution to the history of textiles. Generously illustrated and informative without being too technical, Nylon is essential reading for anyone with an interest in fashion. Recommended for academic and public libraries.DTherese Duzinkiewicz Baker, Western Kentucky Univ. Libs., Bowling Green
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
One of the 19th century's most earth-shattering inventions, nylon―yes, nylon―has its history spun in Susannah Handley's Nylon.(Vanity Fair)
Artfully told... Succeeds as a history of advertising, of fashion and of chemical textiles. The expertly selected photographs in it provide a first-rate visual articulation to the text. In fact, they are so appealing that Nylon could do very well as a coffee table book―but that would give short shrift to Ms. Handley's enjoyable prose and history of a surprisingly interesting subject.(Pia Nordlinger Wall Street Journal)
Tracing the evolution of synthetic fabrics from their origins in the chemistry of explosives manufacturing in the 19th century to the wearable computers being developed today, author Susannah Handley manages the rare feat of making serious academic scholarship extremely groovy... Provocative pictures and surprising facts... Who knew a book about chemistry could be so much fun?(Deirdre R. Schwiesow USA Today)
Generously illustrated and informative without being too technical, Nylon is essential reading for anyone with an interest in fashion.(Library Journal)
Much like one of the research chemists described in her work, Susannah Handley brings together disparate elements to create something dynamic and new... This book is a cogently argued, visually attractive contribution to business and fashion scholarship.(Sarah Elvins Enterprise and Society)
An outstanding discussion of the development of synthetic fabrics in England and the United States.(Kathy Peiss Studies in the Decorative Arts)
For those who assume nylon's greatest contribution to the sartorial world to have been the introduction of synthetic stockings to eager North American female consumers in 1938, Nylon offers a far more elaborate account of the manmade fiber's relation to fashion, from ready-made to couture design.(Alison J. Clarke Technology and Culture)
Nylon is an engaging and fascinating study, demonstrating Handley's sure hand with technical and business matters and her fine sensibility for fashion. Her work is unique in having a strong base in the corporate/technological histories that generated synthetic fibers and in the apparel design and marketing terrains that translated the fibers into widely sold, then widely shunned clothes.(Philip B. Scranton, Rutgers University)
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With that expectation put aside, the book rests as a semi-academic and perfectly respectable history of technological innovation in synthetic textiles in fashion. It begins with the half-man-mades, most commonly known as rayon. These fibers were made of regenerated cellulose from wood pulp or other natural fibers. Chemists developed it into a wearable, washable fiber by the 1920s after decades of mostly failed experiments in making artificial silk. Chapter 2 deals with nylon and the revolutionary effects it had on everyday fashion. The most incredible aspect of early synthetic clothing, as Handley often points out, was the skillful marketing that convinced consumers that nylon, and later polyester, were "perfect" fabrics.
Marketing is a major theme throughout the book, and rightly so. What else could explain the mass consumption of powder blue polyester double-knit suits? Handley doesn't say so outright, but it is clear that it took twenty years for the reality of yellowing, clammy fabric to sink in because consumers wanted so badly to believe that America had indeed invented the perfect solution. Marketers worked hard to ally each new synthetic with high fashion. They did this by sponsoring couture lines and hiring the best fashion photographers and advertisers. The illusion worked...for a time.
Another theme is the ongoing search for a solution. The first problem was cost: how could manufacturers of the late nineteenth century clothe the newly moneyed masses in the silk they desired? Rayon provided the solution, if a flawed one. By the 1940s, they had fixed that problem and turned to the next; how to minimize cost and time in the upkeep of one's clothing. This time nylon and polyester stepped up, ready to flaunt their "quick dry" and "no-iron" qualities. The synthetics heyday continued unabated until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the industry took a double hit with the sudden rise in price of petroleum (which is the material base for polyester), and the hippie movement, with its emphasis on natural living.
The last few chapters of the book deal with synthetics in the 1980s and 1990s. Handley takes us all over, from innovative Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo to industry predictions for the future of textiles. It is difficult not to smirk at the wide-eyed hope that the first decade of the twentieth-century would be one of clothing that "acts as a barrier against stress, pollution and bacteria as well as the ravages of the sun, rain and wind." In other words, smart fibers that chemically or electronically adapt to the environment and the wearer.
Those innovations may be a reality, but in the decade since this book was written, it has become clear that the consumer- for now, at least- is more interested in clothes that feel good (physically as well as ethically) than an anti-static ion shirt that protects the wearer from harmful computer screens.
Handley breathlessly fantasizes about the imminent day when consumers are surrounded completely by a computerized world, but I have to disagree. We are so surrounded by technology and man-made materials, I think that we crave the small feeling of nature that wearing a soft cotton t-shirt gives. If there is any revolution in synthetics, it will be in the direction of eco-fibers. The measly page that Handley devotes to "eco-chic" places this book squarely in the twentieth-century. It may be a useful history for students to start their research with, or a fun and visually stimulating read for the proponent of techno-forward fashion, but the book never moves past that mostly superficial level.