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This Is How Spandex Became A Global Phenomenon

Spandex – it’s one of the most glorious and versatile of all fabrics and was a veritable revolution in the clothing industry. It’s great as a stand-alone fabric, but it’s also a very common co-factor for many other fabrics, providing support and improved longevity to them. Spandex’s history goes back further than some might think: it was initially intended to act as a rubber substitute during WWII. Its inventors probably never foresaw the far-reaching clothing renaissance that would take place as a result of their invention. And who knew that “spandex” is actually an anagram of “expands” … 

The Chemistry Origins Of Spandex

Spandex was to be the brainchild of two major pioneering companies in chemistry: Farbenfabriken Bayer and Du Pont. Bayer was an expert in the polymer industry, patenting a blend in 1952. That blend was perfected by a Du Pont chemist, Joseph Shivers, five years later. Du Pont would be the company to come up with the name “Lycra,” and became the leading manufacturer of the fabric worldwide in 1962.

A truly revolutionary material, spandex was comprised of many tiny, stretchy strands made from a compound polymer. The big bonus: this fabric was breathable, lightweight, stretchy, and uber comfortable; the complete antithesis of common, itchy wool fabrics. In fact, the list of clothing that has been produced with spandex as a component has become increasingly vast over the decades.

The first garments were women’s pantyhose and swimwear. Then came the workout and fitness uniforms, including leggings, leotards, and sports jerseys. Now any clothing that has a small amount of stretchy component in it, including dress pants and sweaters, most likely has some spandex ratio to it.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Spandex Fun Facts

Thanks to its super stretchability, spandex can be made using much less raw material than other fabrics. Some of its great properties include:

  • Spandex is 85% polyurethane.
  • Spandex is scratch resistant.
  • Spandex can stretch 500 times its original size, without breaking.
  • Spandex is more durable than rubber.
  • Spandex is white in its original form.
  • Spandex doesn’t pill.
  • Spandex can withstand temperatures up to 480 degrees F (250 degrees C) before melting.
  • Spandex is resistant to body oils and sweat.

Beatnik Style As A Spandex Precursor?

Thinking of spandex conjures up images of skin-tight, often shiny leggings and workout wear. The all-black, leggings-and-turtleneck beatnik look popularized by celebrities like Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s and 60s experimented with stretchy, tight fabrics, putting them on the nation’s radar.

Spandex Is The Fabric Of The Future

Television shows such as Star Trek, and movies like Star Wars, proved to us that almost ALL clothing would be made out of spandex in the future. So why not adopt it now? Remember George Lucas explaining to a young Carrie Fischer that there’d be no need for underwear in outer space?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Superheroes Also Wear Spandex

Not to be outdone by people from outer space, superheroes proved that spandex was the most logical clothing choice as well. Skin-tight suits and capes seemed to be all that crime fighters and crusaders ever wore. From Batman and Robin in the 1960s, Wonder Woman in the 70s, and Superman in the 80s, they all seemed to use the same tailor. Similar outfit designs would also be adopted by professional wrestlers in the 80s and 90s, and everyone knows they’re a form of superhero, too.

Official Uniform Of The Fitness Craze

By the late 1970s, spandex was a regular part of the fashion world, with seemingly endless applications. Perhaps one of the biggest fashion statements though – one that would solidify people’s lifelong devotion to spandex – came in the form of workout wear in the 1980s. As Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John showed off every nuance of their trim, toned bodies, Americans suddenly needed to work out in clothing that looked like futuristic swimwear. Spandex became the haute couture of the health clubs.


Further Validation By Rock Stars

As if spandex needed any more help in being recognized as the best fabric ever invented, pop and rock music artists decided to flex their individuality by taking a sharp deviation from the tough leather-and-jeans look adopted by punk and heavy metal artists. Van Halen would actually turn out to be one of the fabric’s biggest proponents, apparently. And for them, it seemed, the brighter the better.

The Next Logical Step

All this endorsement from superheroes, workout mavens, and rock stars meant that the next step in the rise of the dominance of spandex was practically inevitable. It became a mainstay in the majority of wardrobes in American households. If Olivia Newton-John could look THAT amazing in spandex in the movie Grease, why couldn’t everyone else? Thus the explosive popularity of shiny spandex leggings was born and would become an American love affair that prevails to this day.

Very few materials have revolutionized the garment industry – and even the world – in the way that spandex seemed to. It’s such a fabric staple nowadays that the time before spandex existed seems archaic and inhumane. Well, maybe not inhumane, but definitely hard to imagine.