Joseph Shivers was just trying to change the women’s underwear market, but his invention went much farther than that.
The DuPont chemist, who was born on this day in 1920, had worked for the company on polyester, then a new compound, when he “started working on a project to develop a synthetic elastomer to replace rubber, then the mainstay of foundation garments,” writes the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. Dupont was hoping to find a substance that would do for clothing that used rubber–notably, girdles and other restrictive undergarments generally worn by women–what polyester had done for other clothing.
“Unable to find a fiber that would snap back like rubber, the project was shelved in 1950, but Shivers had learned much about elastomers and his persistence paid off in the early 1950s when he used an intermediate substance to modify Dacron polyester,” the association writes. “The polymer thickened, bounced and withstood high temperatures.” It came to have the name “spandex,” which is an anagram of “expands.”
Meanwhile, writes Randy Alfred for Wired, Dacron was introduced to the American public in 1951 and took off. Spandex, under the brand name Lycra, wasn’t patented until 1958 or introduced to the public until 1962, according to the textile chemistry association.
It quickly became popular. The rubber girdle had replaced the corset in the early twentieth century. “The girdle became an intimate apparel necessity until the 1960s,” write Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle in the Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. These garments were more or less what they sounded like: a sleeve of rubber, which can’t have been comfortable to wear. They were worn by both adolescents and adult women.
Lycra had a few important distinctions from rubber that gave it power in the foundation garment market, writes Chemical and Engineering News. “Always blended with other natural and man-made fibers such as cotton, wool, silk and linen, spandex is lighter in weight than rubber thread. And unlike rubber thread, spandex does not break down with exposure to body oils, perspiration, lotions, or detergents.”
These qualities made it perfect for girdles, bras, and pantyhose. This new comfort in women’s apparel took off quickly, but spandex was also incorporated into a wide variety of other clothing. From swimwear to Lycra ski clothes to, eventually, 1980s-style leggings, Lycra made the rounds. Today, besides the ubiquitous shaping undergarment Spanx, it can be found in clothes ranging from skinny jeans to space suits.
In a literal sense, spandex and its inventor have shaped Americans. Not bad for a chemist.