Yes, you read that right… nylon. You might not realise, because it’s often now referred to as polyamide on clothing labels, but it’s actually still used in womenswear these days as nylon is a tough and rather fascinating fibre that’s suitable for all manner of uses. Including fashion.
Nylon was introduced by Du Pont in 1939 and was initially used by hosiery and bra manufacturers in the United States, a country not yet involved in the Second World War. It was said that this strong yet fine completely man-made textile fibre would be able to make the stockings of the future indestructible – a claim that proved to be not completely achievable, but the overall benefits of using nylon remained clear and so demand grew even before the stockings were even available to buy. It was pretty damn desirable. Susanna Handley says in her book Nylon: The Manmade Fashion Revolution that, by 1940, ‘products such as All-Nylon Lingerie made by the Holeproof Hosiery Co, were selling out as fast as manufacturers could get the yarn – despite the fact that prices for 100 percent nylon tricot lingerie were the same as for top quality pure-silk garments’. Interestingly, the name nylon was never patented by Du Pont and it was introduced as a generic fibre at its launch.
In a time when a household’s laundry would take at least a day a week to do and involved rather a lot of boil washing, wringing and ironing, manufacturers of women’s underwear were quick to see the benefits of using this strong easy care fibre for their products. In their book Uplift: The Bra in America, Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau claim that the the initial success of nylon was due to Du Pont’s clever marketing of it as an up-market high-fashion fibre from the start. Many top designers were invited to work with nylon fabrics in order to promote it as aspirational, however, the benefits were not simply a marketing ploy, as Farrell-Beck and Gau explain: ‘Nylon outshone all competitors in tenacity and strength […] nylon stood up well to long use. It was lightweight, washed and dried easily and quickly, and in some weaves did not require ironing’. It’s difficult for us to imagine now, as nylon has suffered from a bit of an image problem since the 1980s, but it really was once the height of fashion to have nylon clothing.
This once revolutionary synthetic fibre is still used today in a lot of very beautiful lingerie, as it can be made into attractive tactile hardwearing fabrics that are much more affordable than something similar produced in silk. This also means that many of the sheer party dresses around at the moment, reminiscent of Molly Goddard’s delightful creations, will often be made from nylon in order to make them cheaper and easier to look after than something made from silk tulle. Basically, if it looks like frothy nightwear from the 1950s the chances are high that it’s made from nylon, but this is no bad thing because it’ll be machine washable and really easy to squash into your wardrobe without it coming out looking worse for wear! Plus, nylon still features in technical fabrics and in blends to make outerwear, such as winter coats, more hardwearing. Even though it’s not as popular as polyester and viscose, once you start looking for polyamide on the fibre content label I bet you’ll be surprised how many garments you can find it in.