Vinyl as Fashion Fabric

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Vinyl is a plasticized variation of Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Although PVC is hard, with the addition of plasticizers it can be made pliable enough, for example, to coat fabrics in any thickness.

In 1926, Waldo L. Semon, a scientist working for BF Goodrich, accidentally discovered this compound while trying to form a synthetic rubber. At first he thought that the rubbery gel he created would work as a bonding agent to adhere rubber to metal. However, through further experimentation he found he had invented a highly versatile plasticized vinyl that, in the early 2000s, has hundreds of uses.

To present his discovery to the company, Semon applied the gel to curtains, creating a waterproof vinyl-coated shower curtain. It stirred a sensation! Vinyl was quickly adapted to umbrella and raincoat fabrics for its waterproof properties. Vinyl was also used to coat wires. Commercialized in 1931, the new technology was highly successful. During World War II, vinyl was turned to wartime use, and so it wasn't until the 1960s that vinyl again became a fashion item.

The 1950s were times for conformity, particularly in clothing. By the 1960s the public was ready to have fun with fashion, and clothes reflected the radical social change of that decade.

In the mid 1960s couture designers André Courréges, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne, noted for their modern and futuristic looks, seized upon the high-tech look of these fabrics. Vinyl-coated fabrics not only gave a new surface appeal to their designs, but lent a modern structural look to the designers' new vision of architectural shapes rather than fluid draped lines. Modern clean-lined geometric shapes characterized their designs. Garments were cut to suggest simple geometric forms, boxy with hard edges, angular straight lines, or circular in shape.

André Courréges, who claimed to have invented the miniskirt, made vinyl fashionable with his miniskirts, helmets, A-line dresses, and suits. Inspired by astronaut boots, he used vinyl in his "Moon Girl Collection" to create the shiny white boots that accessorized his designs. The "Courréges boot" was mid-calf length with open slots at the top and a tassel or bow in front. Soon the look was being copied everywhere. Popularized by teenagers wearing the boots on discotheque television shows, they were soon called "go-go boots" after the gogo dancers who wore them.

At the same time in England, the "Mod" fashion look first appeared on London's King's Road and Carnaby Street. The op art and pop art movements inspired the trendy English designer Mary Quant. She popularized the miniskirt, high vinyl boots, and shoulder bags. She used vinyl-coated fabrics to create what was called the "wet look" not just in raincoats, but in tight miniskirts and dresses as well.

Through the years vinyl coating was able to take on matte and textured surfaces to look more like leather for a cheaper alternative. Vinyl can also be produced in almost any color or can be crystal clear.

The downside of vinyl for cloth is that it does not "breathe." It also does not readily break down when discarded, lasting for decades. However, it can be recycled and converted to new applications.

After its first trendy appearance, vinyl's popularity in rainwear was only occasional because the vinyl coating rendered the fabric unbreathable. Wearing the coat, or other article of vinyl clothing, can become very uncomfortable, keeping heat and moisture trapped next to the skin. Also, although the fabric is waterproof, the garment isn't. In a heavy downpour water can get in through the seams. In the early twenty-first century, hi-tech fabrics and new construction methods have taken over the waterproof category in clothing, but the use of vinyl in other areas continues to grow.

See alsoHigh-Tech Fashion; Rainwear; Umbrellas and Parasols .


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Internet Resources

National Inventors Hall of Fame. 2004. Available from <>. 2004. Available from <>.

The Vinyl Institute. 2004. Available from <>.

"Waldo Simon—PVC Inventor." 2004. Available from <>.

Mary Ann C. Ferro