“Wash and Wear” or is that a leisure suit you are wearing?

Posted by on July 2, 2008

With active children who are constantly growing, it seems we are always buying clothes.  Interestingly enough, I was looking at some clothing labels the other day, (I don’t know why exactly….but that’s another story I guess), and was amazed by the differing compositions.  I had assumed the article in question was made of sturdy, long-lasting cotton.  However, I found out it had polyester in it.

Now say polyester and I see visions of leisure suits from the seventies and the disco ball shimmering around the room.  However, being a history person, I knew this was an unfair assumption.  So, I started digging in to see what I could find out.

Wow!  I found out quite a lot of facts…….


Emerging from the chemist’s labs of the late thirties, forties and fifties, synthetic fabrics changed the face of clothing options for consumers, offering superior wear, ease of use,  and easy cleaning, sometimes advertised as “Wash & Wear”.


Take for example hosiery.  Until the forties, most women’s stockings were made with silk, in particular, silk from the Japanese silk worm.   Nylon, becoming widely manufactured by 1939, soon offered an option to women and was widely embraced.  This became even more important when shipments of Japanese silk were cut off during World War II.  Nylon gained a beachead during the war, and was widely used across the board in many different applications from tires to parachutes to clothing.


One of the best things about these synthetic fabrics were their ease of use as compared to natural fibers such as cotton or wool.  Wool historically is hard to clean and the risk of shrinkage is readily apparent.  Synthetic fibers offered the ability to be washed and then dried directly in the dryer without this risk of shrinkage.

One of the nicer things offered by synthetic fabrics was the removal of wrinkles to a large extent.  Although not always succesful, by the later part of the 1960’s, the process had been refined enough for TIME magazine to say:

“…Just about the biggest thing to hit the clothing industry since nylon has turned out to be durable press — a wrinkleproof, permanent-crease process that permits clothes to be taken out of the dryer and worn without a touch of the iron. First introduced in men’s slacks two years ago, the process has had a runaway success: it is now being applied to shirts, skirts, sheets and lingerie…” (4)

However, synthetic fabrics were not totally a clothing “Nirvana” as their petroleum and coal based backgrounds made them with some significant drawbacks.  These included “pilling” as well as retention of body odors and wacky ways of ironing.

I’ve assembled some good links to give you some more background on synthetic fabric.  It may not be the most exciting topic in history, but it is something you probably come in contact with on a daily basis!

Have a great day!


The Wonderful World of Wash ‘n’ Wear

Manufactured Fiber History (external site)

The U.S. Apparel and Textile Industry…. (Google Books)

Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution

Pressed & Impressed (Time Magazine, 1966)


(1) Nara

(2-3)Internet Archive, Handy Jam Film

(4) Time Magazine, April 15, 1966

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