The 1950s and 1960s are fondly remembered as an era in which changes in social norms and trends towards individualism and self awareness prompted important cultural shifts. The civil rights movement, post-modernism, rock and roll, and modern pop music changed the landscape of world culture. In the midst of these landmark changes another vastly important creation, one that wouldn’t truly take the world by storm for twenty more years, occurred.
In 1959, at a laboratory in Waynesboro, VA, chemist Joseph Clois Shivers, Jr, an employee of the DuPont company, invented a polyurethane-polyurea copolymer, with a heretofore unseen degree of elasticity. This magnificent synthetic fiber would come to be know as spandex. Used for pragmatic, modest means like athletic clothing, orthopedic braces, swimsuits, bra straps, and superhero costumes, spandex quickly became a household name and one of those inventions people just couldn’t live without. The invention proved to be such a success that Joseph Shivers was honored with the prestigious Olney Medal for Achievement in Textile Chemistry.
Fast forward twenty, or so, years…the world is entering a new decade after surviving widespread political and social unrest, Vietnam, and the dissolution of the Beatles. Drug addled hippies have become successful proprietors of gourmet granolaries, hip-hop is an exciting new kid on the block, disco is in its last days, and rock and roll has splintered into more stylistic varieties than one could count. Spandex was there through it all, becoming ever more popular, but never really coming into its own as a dynamic, exciting, super flexible, truly revelatory textile.
As the 1980s dawned and excess began its most hearty of parties, spandex found itself poised to be all that it could be. As British metal heads ran to the hills, Minnesotan androgyns discussed the acoustics of melancholy avians, and Los Angelinos shouted at the devil through clouds of hairspray, spandex took its rightful place as the king (and queen) of unnecessarily garish fabric. As legions of glam rockers and hair metal heads swarmed across Europe and the USA, and eventually the world, it became clear that a textile that would allow acrobatics and ostentation was needed more than ever.
Spandex enthusiastically filled that role and finally stepped out of the shadows of usefulness and into the blinding limelight of pop culture. It allowed rock and roll and pop music to admin-appropriate stylistic elements from gymnastics, circus acrobatics, martial arts, comic book superheroes, and professional cycling. Without that most versatile of stretchy fabrics, rock and roll high kicks, jumping splits, and foot-on-monitor crotch displays may never have happened. Chest hair revealing, genital enhancing dude unitards may never have happened.
David Lee Roth may never have happened.