Once upon a time, human girth was bound by hooks and buttons, and corsets had metal stays. Along came rubber and a whole new technology of flexible cloth.
January 7, 2021
The New Year has arrived, and if you’re like me, you’ve promised yourself a slimmer, fitter and healthier you in 2022. But in the meantime there is the old you to deal with—the you who overindulged at Thanksgiving and didn’t stop for the next 37 days. No miracle diet or resolution can instantaneously eradicate five weeks of wild excess. Fortunately, modern science has provided the next best thing to a miracle: the elasticated waistband.
Before the invention of elastic, adjustable clothing was dependent on technology that had hardly changed since ancient times. The Indus Valley Civilization made buttons from seashells as early as 2000 BC.
The first inkling that there might be an alternative to buttons, belts, hooks and other adjustable paraphernalia came in the late 18th century, with the discovery that rubber wasn’t only good for toys. It also had immensely practical applications for things such as pencil erasers and lid sealants. Rubber’s stretchable nature offered further possibilities in the clothing department. But there was no word for its special property until the poet William Cowper borrowed the 17th-century term “elastic,” used to describe the expansion and contraction of gases, for his translation of the Iliad in 1791: “At once he bent Against Tydides his elastic bow.”
By 1820, an enterprising English engineer named Thomas Hancock was making elastic straps and suspenders out of rubber. He also invented the “masticator,” a machine that rolled shredded rubber into sheets for industrial use. Elastic seemed poised to make a breakthrough: In the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s shoemaker, Joseph Sparkes Hall, popularized his invention of the elastic-gusset ankle boot, still known today as the Chelsea Boot.
But rubber had drawbacks. Not only was it a rare and expensive luxury that tended to wear out quickly, it was also sticky, sweaty and smelly. Elasticized textiles became popular only after World War I, helped by the demand for steel—and female workers—that led women to forego corsets with metal stays. Improved production techniques at last made elasticated girdles a viable alternative: In 1924, the Madame X rubber girdle promised to help women achieve a thinner form in “perfect comfort while you sit, work or play.”
The promise of comfort became real with the invention of Lastex, essentially rubber yarn, in 1930. Four years later, in 1934, Alexander Simpson, a London tailor, removed the need for belts or suspenders by introducing the adjustable rubber waistband in men’s trousers.
The constant threat of rubber shortages sparked a global race to devise synthetic alternatives. The winner was the DuPont Company, which invented neoprene in 1930. That research led to an even more exciting invention: the nylon stocking. Sales were halted during World War II, creating such pent-up demand that in 1946 there were “nylon riots” throughout the U.S., including in Pittsburgh, where 40,000 people tried to buy 13,000 pairs of stockings.
DuPont scored another win in 1958 with spandex, also known under the brand name Lycra, which is not only more durable than nylon but also stretchier. Spandex made dreams possible by making fabrics more flexible and forgiving: It helped the astronaut Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon and Simone Biles to become the most decorated female gymnast in history. And it will help me to breathe a little easier until I can fit into my jeans again.