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November 1, 2011 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Lycra

First published in Third Way magazine, November 2011.

Next time you hear some smart Alice saying she doesn’t believe man landed on the moon, be sure to remind her about smoke detectors and digital thermometers, cordless drills and water filtration units that save lives in developing countries. That’s an awful lot of real technology and innovation developed alongside something just faked up on a back lot in Burbank by Stanley Kubrick. Remind her that our lives today would be very different if scientists in the 50s and 60s hadn’t focused their efforts on the ludicrous notion of getting human beings into orbit. She wouldn’t be bouncing around in her cushion soled trainers fastened with Velcro or bouncing on her memory foam bed; indeed if it weren’t for the developments in textile innovation brought about by the space race, several other things would be bouncing around too. When Neil Armstrong first stood on the moon, he was making one giant leap for mankind and one minimised wobble for the rest of us.

Lycra was developed in 1959 by C. L. Sandquist and JosephShivers, two scientists working for the Du Pont Company in Waynesboro, Virginia. 20 of the 21 layers of the space suits worn by the Apollo crew were made by Du Pont, who had already developed neoprene and nylon in the 1930s. Shivers and Sandquist spent a decade developing polyurethane-polyurea copolymer, a new hard-wearing, lightweight, stretchable fibre which Du Pont wisely renamed Lycra. The filaments in this new fibre were found to be so strong, they could be stretched to seven times their original length before springing back into shape. Lycra could also be blended easily with other fibres, making fabrics that were easy to launder and longer lasting. These unique properties made Lycra an essential for the wear and tear of early space flight, and a gift to modern people who don’t like ironing much.

By the late sixties most professional athletes and swimmers were wearing Lycra. It was not only easy to move in, but also light weight, breathable and quick drying. Textile scientists found that its molecular structure allowed it to take up dyes very easily, so by the time the keep fit boom of the late 70s and early eighties came round, Lycra was available in a myriad of colours. (Thank goodness! Diana Moran doing lunges on breakfast telly as “The Off-White Goddess” just wouldn’t have been the same…)

Even today Lycra remains unparalleled as the most practical fabric you could possibly wear for sport and exercise. Unfortunately it is also unparalleled as the least flattering. By stretching up to 700% it helpfully draws attention to every curve, lump and protuberance.

Countless resolutions to go to the gym have faltered when people have caught sight of themselves in their new Lycra kit and felt too exposed to leave the changing room – making Lycra’s European slogan “Clothes that love you back” feel somewhat insincere. It seems fitting (no pun intended) that Du Pont, who started out as producers of gunpowder and explosives continue to instill terror with their products.

Fortunately Lycra’s stretchiness also means it provides the solution for those who haven’t been going to the gym.  Men can purchase a Lycra-heavy man girdle, or “mirdle”, to tame their beer gut into a tidy six pack, whilst women have a confusing range of “shape wear” and “control” garments to choose from. These terrifyingly constricting items – essentially tight tubes of Lycra – have stern warnings on their labels stating “Do not wear for more than eight hours.” A Victorian woman fainting after squeezing herself into a whalebone corset is not that dissimilar to a modern woman losing all feeling in her extremities after pouring herself into Spanx.

Lycra is a contradiction, aid to both the fit and the fat.  It’s your best friend hiding your lumps and bumps and your worst enemy making you feel exposed. As with all enemies, Christians are advised to turn the other cheek – the great thing about wearing Lycra is you have got the full four cheeks to choose from.

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