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DesignPhilly 2011: “Mad Men” Chic Discussed Chemistry of Fashion

Today, style is all about personal expression through material possessions.  We use our clothing to make a statement about our personality and mood without saying anything at all, but in the past expression through the use of clothing and other belongings was limited because of a lack of easily accessible materials.

Yesterday, the Chemical Heritage Foundation hosted a lecture by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, author of “The Color Revolution,” discussing the emergence of synthetic materials, and how they revolutionized the fashion and interior design industries during the “Mad Men” era.

Before the introduction of synthetic materials, quality clothing was very expensive, but in 1935, DuPont introduced nylon.  During WWII, the military used nylon to make parachutes for WWII troops, which allowed DuPont to heavily market nylon for consumer goods with the help of haute couture designers like Dior and Givenchy.

Initially, DuPont marketed nylon and spandex to women for pantyhose and undergarments respectively, but artificial materials quickly spread to other parts of the wardrobe.  Designers found synthetic textiles are less prone to wrinkles than their natural counterparts.  Blaszcyzk said the use of man made fabrics gave men and women the polished look commonly associated with the 1960s.

People were able to express themselves further as chemical companies discovered new ways to dye their materials.  People didn’t have to worry about their clothes fading in the laundry because the colors were bonded with the materials, so their sizzling reds stayed hot, and their blues remained icy cool.

Because chemists could produce almost any color imaginable without worrying about it fading, DuPont turned to color psychologist Faber Birren, who mapped out human reactions to each color on the spectrum.  Interior and fashion designers used his findings to create moods from their pieces.

Frigidaire advertised the importance of color in the modern kitchen.

Consumers took the influx of widely available colors and textiles to express themselves in relation to their life at the time.  More women were able to diversify the colors in their wardrobes without breaking the bank, and as color became more prevalent in society, people personalize their homes with their favorite tones.

Before latex paint, homeowners had to hire crews to apply lead based paint to the walls.  Acrylic emulsifiers replaced the lead base of paint, so it was easy to change the color of the kitchen on a whim.  Chemical advances in the 1950s paved the way for even further color personalization with the introduction of acrylic lacquers.  They allowed appliance manufacturers to design brightly colored gadgets to match their consumer’s décor.

In a world of constant customization, it’s hard to imagine life before synthetic materials.  We constantly use them to communicate without verbally saying anything because of technological advances employed in the “Mad Men” era.  The sciences aren’t usually associated with fashion, but in this case science opened up a world of opportunity for the fashion industry.  Blaszczyk said, “better living [was achieved] through chemistry.”


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