Do you know what fabric your clothes are made of? Ever wonder why a specific fabric was chosen to create a garment you own? I learned about this when I was in college along with other fabric specifications. That is why when I walked into the Fabric in Fashion exhibition at the Museum at FIT I felt like I was taking another course in college. Another reminder was the guide talking to a small group of students as she explained the different fabrics. If you have a loved one that sews, you’ll also know that fabric selection is important, even if its just for kitchen curtains. A project like that would need a fabric that can resist sun fading, could be easily cleaned and so on. The same goes for the creation of gowns, you want a fabric that will provide movement and work well with the natural form of the body.
All fabrics are not made the same, so it is important that a designer and your local seamstress choose the correct one. Being so, you can imagine that choosing the right fabrics can be a designer’s most important decision when creating entire collections. This precise decision making has been taking place since the 18th century when dressmakers would use specific fabrics and colors to symbolize status and hierarchy. Here is the breakdown of fabrics and how and why they are used both in the past and present.
Cotton– Cotton originated in India and was used as a source of economic control by the British when they invaded the country during the 1700s. The production of cheaper cotton and the use of machinery led to the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Britain. And finally during the 19th-century, cotton became a huge source of income for the United States. Around a total of $115 million dollars was earned in the cotton industry as a result of slavery in cotton fields. The properties of cotton made it a high commodity throughout centuries thanks to its ability to dye easily, breath on the body, take prints and retain colors even after many wash cycles.
Wool– Originating from Mesopotamia wool production crossed into the surrounding countries. Soon England began using it and by 1660 it became a major source of their trade. The colonization of Australia and New Zealand also lead to new sources of wool. This fiber has the ability to be flexible, relislant, and flame resistant. Not to mention the warmth it generates and its ability to be dyed. It is also a source fabric in tailoring thanks to its reactions to heat and moisture which make it a moldable fabric. Pieces shown here are from the 1800’s -2018 from England, Italy, France, the USA and India. Designers include Lilly Dache, Mila Schon, a red coat enseamble by Azzedine Alaia and Bomber jacket ensemble by Brodice Studio.
Synthetics– Synthetics are man-made fabrics produced by chemicals that create cellulose, a fiber that can be found in plants. During the 1930s American companies were the foreleaders in discovering synthetic fibers and the creation of synthetic fabric. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s synthetics were popular not only in fast fashion but in Haute Couture. This material was lower in cost to produce and introduced new fabrics to the market, many that imitate naturally produced fabrics like silk. Although highly resourceful, synthetics are not biodegradable and are a large component of the pollution problem introduced by the fashion industry.
Synthetic fabrics include Nylon, Rayon, Polyester, Spandex, Acrylic imitating wool and Acetate imitating silk. A big example of synthetics is the creation of sportswear garments, which use spandex, nylon and more thanks to its wicking abilities to let go of moisture. Examples shown here range from the 1930’s, 1970’s pieces with the purple Courreges vinyl coat, pink Ultrasued Halston dress. Mustard yellow and burgandy ensable by Nigel Atkinson and Junichi Arai. And finally an Issey Miyake ruffled cape ensemble and Jean Paul Gaultier nylon, acrylic and rayon suit.
Silk– Originating from China, this woven textile was a sign of wealth in the mid 18th century. It was also a predominate fabric in the creation of robes for clergy in the Catholic church. Western fashion not only took to this fabric originating in the East but was inspired by Chinese culture with prints and through the styling of silk fabrics. The garments shown here were created as far back as the 1700s to the present day.
Knits- A knit is a textile that is created from one yarn or set of yarns. Knitting via machinery was introduced in England in 1589. It is one of the most popular fabrics used thanks to its properties. It has the ability to stretch, conform to a body and it is also the fastest fabric to work with due to the fact that it is created with one single yarn. The ensembles shown here range from 1810, 1920 Lelong, 1970 Missoni, 1980’s Azzeddine Alaia, a yellow 1940’s Madame Gres for Alix dress, 1970’s Stephen Burrows enseble, 2010 Ohne Titel muti-media dress and an orange 2015 Alexander Wang knit dress.
Couture Textiles– Before the mid-19th-century designers were not allowed to sell their own textiles, they were only allowed to use what a customer brought into them to work with. After the mid 19th century this rule was changed and designers began obtaining their own fabrics and creating their own designs. By the 20th century, designers moved on to incorporating fabrics from international sources and adding synthetics to their fabrics. Thus the birth of couture textiles, one of a kind fabrics, was introduced. Pieces in this section include House of Worth 1900, Boue Soeurs 1919, Nina Ricci 1935 cherry closure dress and cape, Bob Bugnand dress and mink trim coat. It also includes a silver and gold 1958 aluminum and plastic film fiber evening dress, 1962 Christian Dior yellow silk evening dress, 1862 Balenciaga evening cape and a 2011 Chado Ralph Rucci woven motif white coat.
Prints projected on a plain dress.
This exhibition will be open at the Museum at FIT until May 4, 2019.
Now that you know a little bit more about fabrics I encourage you to pay attention to what you’re wearing. The use of these fabrics require diffrent methods of use and care, and are purposefully used by designers as such. So do you know what fabric you’re wearing?-T.S.