Chapter 5 - 1940s: nylon

The development of new synthetic fibres was key at this time. Nylon was introduced by Du Pont in 1939 and was initially used by hosiery and brassiere manufacturers in the United States, a country not yet involved in the Second World War. Interestingly, the name nylon was never patented by Du Pont and it was introduced as a generic fibre at its launch. By 1940, nylon lingerie was selling as quickly as it could be produced, despite the fact that it was as expensive as pure silk underwear. The initial success of nylon was probably due to Du Pont’s clever marketing of it as an up-market high-fashion fibre from the start. However, the benefits were not simply a marketing ploy as nylon was strong, hardwearing, lightweight and easy to care for.

Although less common in bras than nylon, polyester was also developed around the same time. Susannah Handley states in her book Nylon: The Manmade Fashion Revolution that it was Calico Printers Association in Accrington, Lancashire who made the first test tube filament of polyester in 1941. The rights were then sold to Du Pont (who branded it Dacron) and ICI (branded Terylene) in 1946. Once again, brassiere manufacturers had trouble adjusting to working with these new fabrics. Farrell-Beck and Gau report that ‘new fibers required handling different to the 1920s lingerie standbys of silk, cotton, rayon, and acetate’ thus making the updating of skills and machinery essential.

Darted nylon tulle bra, c. 1940s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

DARTED NYLON TULLE BRA

Date: c. 1940s

Origin: Unknown

Fabric: Nylon tulle

Brand: Unknown

This bra is is constructed from what appears to be nylon one-way stretch mesh, but has no labelling (a label appears to have been cut out near the elastic at the center back) and so the exact fibre content and origin are difficult to determine. It was purchased from a vintage store in Portland, OR.

The bra is constructed with multiple darts around the bust point, vertically and horizontally. The satin ribbon straps can be adjusted with enamelled metal sliders.  A small piece of elastic at the centre back gives a small amount of fit flexibility, with an off-centered hook and eye fastening.

Nylon bras made from marquisette, taffeta, and powernet were on sale in 1941 and 1942, before being withdrawn to conserve supplies of the fibre for use in the war effort.

PERMA-LIFT ‘HICKORY’ BRASSIERE ADVERT

Date:  March 15th 1942

Origin: United States

Brand: Perma-Lift

Many corset firms brought out their own brassiere lines in the 1930s. This was when Chicago’s A. Stein & Company launched Perma-Lift, which was a popular brand in the United States until the 1950s. This advert from 1942 emphasises the ‘gentle support’ provided by Perma-Lift brassieres, using words like ‘soft’ and ‘cushion’ to describe the bra itself, alongside the aspirational words ‘youthful’ and ‘firm’ to describe the shape a woman could hope to achieve through wearing one.

Perma-Lift 'Hickory' Brassiere Advert, 1942, USA. The Underpinnings Museum
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Lift & Separate Exhibition Catalogue, £16. The Underpinnings Museum
Lift & Separate Exhibition Catalogue, £16. The Underpinnings Museum
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The Underpinnings Museum 1920-50s Bra Pattern Pack: 3 patterns for £25
The Underpinnings Museum 1920-50s Bra Pattern Pack: 3 patterns for £25