Spandex, also known as Lycra, is a synthetic, or man-made, stretch fabric that gained immense popularity in the 1980s in a range of clothing items, beginning with biking shorts. Its formfitting properties quickly caught on with a younger, body-conscious crowd, and by the 1990s the apparel industry was using spandex and spandex blends in tights, bodysuits, T-shirts, pants, skirts, and even men's shirts. Spandex leggings, usually in black and worn with a baggy sweatshirt that covered the hips, were a popular casual style for young women throughout the 1990s.
Spandex is often known by its trade name, Lycra, which was introduced by American chemical company DuPont in 1959. Technically, Lycra is a fiber that DuPont researchers developed as an alternative to the latex-based rubber used in women's girdles and bras of that era. Lycra was a vast improvement over latex, for it could stretch to six hundred times its original length but return to its original shape, unlike rubber, which could overstretch. It was used in support pantyhose in the 1960s and then in swimwear later that decade. The French Olympic ski team wore Lycra garments for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, and soon athletic-gear makers began using it. It proved especially popular in mid-thigh-length shorts worn by bicycle racers. By the 1980s, as the fitness trend reached a peak in the West, trendsetters began wearing the shorts on the street. French designer Azzedine Alaïa (c. 1940–) and his revolutionary formfitting dresses, which often used Lycra blends, gained a following among fashion models in the mid-1980s. In 1985 American designer Donna Karan (1948–) launched her first collection, which included Lycra-constructed bodysuits and skirts that were proclaimed as the first major innovation in some years.
Spandex proved such a popular fabric in the garment industry that by 1987 DuPont had trouble meeting worldwide demand. In the 1990s a variety of other items made with Spandex proved popular, including a successful line of body-shaping foundation garments sold under the trade name Bodyslimmers. As the decade progressed shirts, pants, dresses, and even shoes were being made with spandex blends, and mass-market retailers like Banana Republic were using it for menswear.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Carnegy, Vicky. Fashions of a Decade: The 1980s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Dullea, Georgia. "The Lean Look on the Beach." New York Times (July 6, 1988): C8.
Hamilton, William L. "Lycra's New Reach: Et Tu, J. Crew?" New York Times (August 27, 2000).
"Spandex." Newsweek (Winter 1997): 24A.