Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution

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9780801863257: Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution

"At a New York fashion show, we saw a girl clad from head to foot in artificial materials. Everything she wore was made from synthetic stuffs created by chemists. Her hat was Cellophane, her frock was Rayon. She wore 'Nylon' stockings and carried a patent-leather handbag and stood in imitation alligator shoes. Even the faint hint of musk on her imitation silk handkerchief came from a synthetic perfume."― National Geographic Magazine, November, 1939

Nylon, the wonder fabric, debuted at the 1939 New York World's Fair and created quite a sensation. Later, following the deprivations of World War II, Europeans and Americans greeted synthetic fabrics so warmly and quickly that they helped to bring about what Susannah Handley describes as a "fashion revolution." The story of synthetics in fashion, she notes, is one of chemical innovation, national pride, couture brilliance, and street style―and it reflects the social trends and desires of every generation in the twentieth century.

Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution folds together an array of topics: the role of technology in modern life, the changing nature of popular taste, the fortunes of the late twentieth-century garment industry, and the design innovations and artistry that synthetics permit, even encourage. Handley tells behind-the-scenes stories about companies like DuPont (inventors of Nylon, the first pure synthetic fabric) and its competitors and imitators. She introduces readers to the world of clothing design and manufacture, tracing the development of fabrics from the semisynthetic "Art Silk" early in the century to polyester, Lycra, and the newest technological fibers and desirable weaves. She examines the advertising strategies that played on and built up consumer expectations. And she describes a not-too-distant future of interactive textiles, solar suits, intelligent jackets, and the "wearable office."

Lavishly illustrated, with many images in full color, Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution is a fascinating combination of social history, history of technology, and the story of fashion.

"So rapid has been the technological progress that we can no longer be sure that the 'natural' material we see and handle is not in fact artificial, and even in the eco-fiber war it is practically impossible to establish whether or not nature's fibers hold the ethical high ground. The story of synthetics is the story of the eternal competition between nature and artifice."―from the Introduction

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About the Author:

Susannah Handley is a research tutor in the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal College of Art, London. She has written on subjects relating to fashion and textiles for many years, contributing to the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian, Blueprint, GQ, and International Textiles, among others. She has worked as a consultant for DuPont, organized fashion shows, and has been a curator for several major exhibitions, including The Plastics Age at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


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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