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Columbia Missourian

Historic Costume Gallery spotlights polyester, other synthetic fashions

September 12, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

<p>Synonymous with the 1970s, leisure suits and disco, polyester gets its due in a new exhibit at Stephens College. "Synthetic Evolution: The Rise of Polyester and Other Synthetic Fibers" opened Sept. 11 in the college's Historic Costume Gallery.</p>

Stephens College Historic Costume Gallery current houses garments from the 1920s through the '70s made of colorful polyester and other synthetic fibers.

COLUMBIA - Polyester does not bring to mind visions of high fashion. It doesn't breathe. It itches. And for heaven's sake, don't light a match around it.

But it's in virtually every American's closet.

If you go

What: "The Synthetic Evolution: The Rise of Polyester and Other Synthetic Fibers"

When: Sept. 11 to Oct. 26

Where: Stephens College Historic Costume Gallery, on the mezzanine level of Lela Raney Wood Hall, 6 N. College Ave., Stephens College

Gallery hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. Special tours can be scheduled for groups of five or more.

Admission: Free. Parking is available. Call 876-7233 for more information.


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Synonymous with the 1970s, leisure suits and disco, polyester gets its due in a new exhibit at Stephens College. "Synthetic Evolution: The Rise of Polyester and Other Synthetic Fibers" opened Thursday in the college's Historic Costume Gallery.

The Matilda Magnus Price Historic Fashion Collection contains more than 12,000 pieces and includes garments by fashion heavyweights such as Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino. Yet, for this exhibit, polyester beat out Pucci.

"Polyester is not just K-mart," says assistant curator Jennifer Cole. "It's not just the '70s. Polyester is everyday."

The exhibit explores the range of possibilities that synthetic material has brought to day-to-day fashion.

Synthetic fibers like polyester were created during the early part of the 20th century. Polyester began as an experiment by W.H. Carothers, an American who invented nylon fibers. However, the properties of polyester were left undiscovered until four British scientists, J.R. Whinfield, J.T. Dickson, W.K. Birtwhistle and C.G. Ritchie, resumed Carothers' work in 1939. By 1946, DuPont bought the legal rights to the experiment, and by 1951, polyester was introduced to America. A new day in fashion dawned.

Although today polyester has a lowbrow image, it was not always so. Originally advertised as a miracle fiber that one could wear for 68 days straight without needing to iron it, polyester soared to popularity. However, the fabric's reputation for being uncomfortable increased in the 1970s, and sales fell dramatically late in the decade. Today, natural fibers are in, and human-made miracle marvels like polyester are out.

Cole says synthetic clothing has been so important to American society because it is not the best quality. She says Americans' busy lifestyles require garments that can last through the day so one can wear more durable and cheaper items most of the time and save nicer pieces for special occasions.

Samantha Henson, a senior design student at Stephens, spearheaded the exhibit and worked on it all summer as part of her internship in the college's fashion department. Henson says the exhibit is her style aesthetically because she enjoys futuristic, mod designs of the 1960s, which are on display at the exhibit.

The gallery is full of mannequins dressed in a range of polyester pieces: form-fitting mini-dresses, floral dresses, Carol Brady-style dresses, flowing caftans, a T-shirt emblazoned with the Playboy symbol, Barbarella-esque jumpsuits and suits that call to mind John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever."

Visitors can also see examples of the earliest forms of synthetic clothing, including dresses made out of the first incarnation of rayon in the 1920s and 1930s.

Emma Squire, a sophomore from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and a summer intern at the gallery, says polyester and other human-made fabrics have helped shape fashion in a way that would not be possible with natural cloth.

"(This exhibit) shows how man-made fibers have shaped fashion, pushed fashion in a completely different way," Squire says.

Cole and Squire also say the psychedelic patterns popular in the 1960s and 1970s would not have been readily available to the average person if polyester had not come into the picture. While these psychedelics were available in silk, most people could not afford to follow fashion and stay on budget.

The exhibit has been a labor of love for those involved. Cole says she, Henson and their few helpers have spent about 90 hours on the exhibit and have worked on it since early June. Cole says that having little help and few funds is part of the reality for her team.

Cole says they hope to get foot traffic from the remaining Thursday night Twilight Festivals and draw in a crowd who will appreciate the irreverent theme of the exhibit.

She says that whittling down the masses of polyester garments available was challenging. "Some of the things (were) so ugly it's not cool," Cole says.