Certain couturiers were just as enthusiastic during the decade of space-age chic. Polyester makers, who trademarked their versions of the fiber under such names as Dacron (DuPont), Trevira (Trevira), Fortrel (Wellman) and the defunct StayGard, gave designers such as Andre Courreges, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin manmade fabrics to incorporate into their high-fashion collections, Golbin says. Some of these creations figure in the museum’s collection, including a fluorescent yellow Cardin gown now prominently on display in its current exhibition, curated by Christian Lacroix.
According to Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at F.I.T. in New York, the hippie counterculture later helped reverse public opinion on all things synthetic, creating an extended period in fashion history when the predominant thinking became “cotton good, polyester bad.” That was a time when unnatural colors, wild prints and cheap versions of polyester cemented the fabric’s cheesy reputation. The men’s leisure suit, usually made of stretchy double-knit polyester, became a benchmark of bad taste.
Willie Walters, a course director at top London fashion school Central Saint Martins, says it’s a generational thing. “As a schoolgirl in the mid-Sixties, I can remember making an outfit from a paper pattern in my sewing class, in apricot polyester. It was not easy to sew. The outfit was quite hideous, and I never actually wore it,” she recalls.
Walters’s young students, however, have no such hang-ups and are encouraged to “make up their own minds regarding the possible virtues of polyester. I would not expect them to have only negative associations.” She says they’re more likely to find humor in the fabric’s artificiality—and appreciate its structural qualities.
That wasn’t the case during the Eighties, when many designers shifted their attention to luxury natural fabrics like silk and wool, Steele explains. Yet some, led by the Japanese, continued to experiment with polyester, prized for its ability to register surface effects such as crinkling and puckering. Today, Steele detects a resurgent interest in so-called “techno textiles.”
For his part, Jacobs says there is plenty to love about polyester, starting with a “radiance to the color” not achievable with natural fibers. What’s more, there’s a “beauty in the plasticness of nylons and polyesters” and “a roundness in polyester that you can’t achieve in natural fabrics unless they’re really heavy.”
Steele allows that some of the early polyesters were stifling to wear, reinforcing the view that natural fibers were “purer, more healthy and virtuous.” That reputation is starting to wane. “Cotton may seem natural and virtuous, but the growing and processing can turn out to be more environmentally destructive,” she notes.
Waters admits that the day may never come when a customer walks into a boutique and asks, “Do you have any polyester?” But at least no one is likely to recoil in horror. “Now people just shrug and think, Well, I can roll it in my suitcase,” he says.