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Woven of a completely new material, the experimental stockings held in the collections of the National Museum of American History were made in to test the viability of the first man women in nylon fiber developed entirely in a laboratory. Nylon was touted as having the strength of steel and the sheerness of cobwebs. Not that women were jonesing for the feel of steel or cobwebs around their legs, but the properties of nylon promised a replacement for the luxurious, but oh so delicate silk that was prone to snag and run.
By the time the stockings were released for sale to the public on May 15, demand was so high that women flocked to stores by the thousands. Four million pairs sold out in four days. According the American Chemical Society it was a well calculated decision. They state on their web site:. The decision to focus on hosiery was crucial. It was a limited, premium market. The experimental stockings were manufactured by Union Hosiery Company for Dupont with a cotton seam and a silk welt and toe. One of the other hurdles to be overcome was the fact that nylon distorted when exposed to heat.
Developers eventually learned to use that property to their advantage by stretching newly sewn stockings over leg-shaped forms and steaming them. The result was silky smooth, form-fitting hosiery that never needed ironing. It has given rise to a world of plastics that renders our lives nearly unrecognizable from civilizations of a century ago.
There-in lies the true revolution of nylon. Synthetic materials were not completely new.
But until the breakthrough of nylon, no useful fibers had ever been synthesized entirely in the laboratory. Semi-synthetics such as Rayon and cellophane were derived from a chemical process that required wood pulp as a basic element. Manufacturers were stuck with the natural properties plant material brought to the table. Rayon for instance was too stiff, ill-fitting and shiny to be embraced as a replacement for real silk, which is, of course, merely the chemical processing of wood pulp in the belly of a silk worm rather than a test tube.
The completely unnatural features of nylon may not play as well in the marketplace today, but inon the heels of the Great Depression, the ability to dominate the elements through chemistry energized a nation weary of economic and agricultural uncertainty. When new materials began to surface, these were hopeful s.
It was a time when industrial chemistry promised to lead humankind into a brighter future. The modern miracle of that first pair of nylon stockings represented the epitome of human superiority over nature, American ingenuity and a luxurious lifestyle. Perhaps more important, however is that the new material being woven into hosiery promised to release the nation from reliance on Japan for 90 percent of its silk at a time when animosity was reaching a boiling point.
In the late s, the U. The invention of nylon promised to turn the tables. Bythe ificance of that promise was felt in force with the outbreak of World War II. The new and improved stockings women in nylon had quickly taken to were wrenched away as nylon was diverted to the making of parachutes ly made of silk.
Nylon was eventually used to make glider tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, flak jackets, shoelaces, mosquito netting and hammocks. Suddenly, the only stockings available were those sold before the war or bought on the black market. After the war the re-introduction of nylon stockings unleashed consumer madness that would make the Tickle-Me-Elmo craze of the 90s look tame by comparison. Pantyhose —panties and stockings all in one—did away with cumbersome garter belts and allowed the transition to ever higher hemlines.
But by the s the glam was wearing off. By the 90s, women looking for comfort and freedom began to go au-natural, leaving their legs bare as often as not. Fashion editor for the Washington PostRobin Givhan takes a more women in nylon stance. Even at formal affairs, Givhan says bare legs are now the norm. Nylon has become an indispensible part of our lives found in everything from luggage and furniture to computers and engine parts. Chemistry and human ambition have transformed the world in which we live. Continue or Give a Gift. SmartNews History.
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How Nylon Stockings Changed the World