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Spandex History: How It Became The Fabric Of Our '80s Lives

Fads | February 21, 2019

Model Christie Brinkley in a pink spandex unitard and leg warmers, 1982. Source: Bettmann/Getty

While we're all aware of the look of the wonder fabric known as spandex, its history goes back further than you might think. Originally intended to be a substitute for rubber to further the war effort in WWII, spandex (an anagram of "expands") ended up as a key element of 20th-century fashion. Spandex is in a lot of things that don't look like spandex -- but it's also a fabric and look unto itself. Spandex sports jerseys, spandex costumes for TV and movies, spandex dancewear and workout clothes, and of course flamboyant spandex getups worn by rock stars in the late '70s and '80s. 

Spandex superstars include Jane Fonda (in her workout-maven mode), Debbie Harry of Blondie, Christopher "Superman" Reeve, David Lee Roth of Van Halen, countless professional wrestlers, Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig and others from the Batman TV show, and -- of course -- Olivia Newton-John, who made spandex history not once but twice, in Grease (1978) and the music video for "Physical."

When chemists developed spandex as a rubber substitute during World War II, they probably never imagined the possibilities of their invention. They might have foreseen the fabric's use in women’s girdles, pantyhose and bathing suits -- but stylish disco wear? TV superhero garb? Aerobics and jazzercise attire? These concepts didn't even exist at the time. Spandex -- the shiny, colorful kind, flared up in the '70s and '80s, just another validation of the American dream and American ingenuity we'd fought for all those years ago. As loud, colorful and versatile as the nation that invented it, spandex is the most American of fabrics.

Beatnik Style Paved The Way For Spandex

Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face.' Source: Huffington Post

The history of spandex garments is often bundled with the history of women's leggings, the theory being that at some point these simple, fashionable tight trousers became not just tight, but stretchy. Style icon Audrey Hepburn put the all-black, turtleneck-and-leggings beatnik look on the national fashion radar in the 1957 film Funny Face, and the following year it became an option for clothing manufacturers. Throughout the '60s, stylish celebrities experimented with tight, stretchy leggings, and the general public followed suit.

Superheroes Wore Spandex

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl from 'Batman,' Christopher Reeve as Superman. Sources: Wikimedia commons, pinterest

Another early adopter of spandex was the TV or movie superhero. Caped crusaders and costumed crimefighters, with their skin-tight suits as depicted in comic books, had long been accused of wearing their underwear on the outside. Thanks to spandex technology, they could now do it better than ever. You'll find spandex on superheroes dating back to the campy Batman series that ran from 1966-68, and while Lynda Carter's main costume on Wonder Woman (1975-79) wasn't spandex, some of her specialized outfits were. Movie audiences were treated to the greatest display of heroic spandex in 1978, when Christopher Reeve's Superman was the second-biggest movie of the year.

Science Fiction Imagined A Spandex Future

An agent of SHADO, from the 'UFO' TV series (1970), and Erin Gray as Col. Wilma Deering on 'Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979-81). Sources: IMDB, pinterest

During the filming of Star Wars, George Lucas famously explained to Carrie Fisher that there was no need for underwear in space. And if you look around at the science-fiction of TV and movies from the era, perhaps you'll see why: Who needs underwear when your everyday outfit is a skin-tight spandex jumpsuit? Spandex was really the go-to fabric for conveying the feeling of futuristic utility and, let's face it, space-age sex appeal.

Spandex Becomes Fashion For Regular Folks

Olivia Newton-John charms John Travolta in her sexy shiny pants in 'Grease' (1978); the look seems to have influenced 'Charlie's Angels' stars Cheryl Ladd, Jaclyn Smith and Shelley Hack in 1979. Sources: pinterest; vintage.es

It's one thing for superheroes and intergalactic adventurers to wear spandex; that doesn't necessarily mean the public is ready to try the look. (Spandex by now had also made inroads as a material for disco apparel, and was plentiful at hot spots like Studio 54 in New York City.) An oft-cited turning point is the 1978 movie Grease, in which Olivia Newton-John's character breezes through the final scenes in a pair of extremely tight and shiny black leggings. The movie was the biggest box-office success of the year (denying Superman the top spot) and Olivia Newton-John's look was inspiring. Many women wanted those slinky leggings for their own, and shiny spandex became a mainstay in their closets.

Spandex Was The Dress Code For The Fitness Craze

Dolly Parton working out in the 1970s; Jane Fonda in spandex in the '80s. Sources: Reddit, Pinterest

The applications for the space-age wonder fabric were limitless; by the late '70s spandex was everywhere. It was perfect for the burgeoning fitness movement as well. Americans were joining health clubs or working out at home thanks to new fitness equipment and VCR technology that let them watch and rewatch taped routines. For a few years, Jane Fonda, the biggest fitness celebrity thanks to her Jane Fonda Workout book and video (1981), was seen in spandex more often than in street clothes. And Olivia Newton-John was once again in on the action, creating a legendary exercise-themed, spandex-rich video for her #1 single "Physical."

Wrestlers Are Spandex's Biggest Fans

Hacksaw Jim Duggan in the mid-'80s. Source: wwe.com

Professional wrestlers wore spandex -- and they wore it well. They still do today.

Rock Stars Caught The Spandex Bug

Debbie Harry of Blondie on stage in spandex; David Lee Roth of Van Halen demonstrates a typically loud spandex half-outfit in 1981. Sources: goroovyant70.tumblr.com, pinterest

After the anything-goes aesthetic of the hippies and early '70s rockers gave way to harder-edged jeans-and-leather looks favored by punk and metal artists, popular music was ready for a splash of shiny color. In the late '70s and early '80s, rock stars experimented with spandex like it was a new form of heroin... some were able to handle it, while others became addicted. For bands like Van Halen, the quest for newer, brighter, more outrageous spandex duds was neverending.

Starpoint Did This. Impressive

In 1981, an R&B/funk group called Starpoint released its second album, Keep On It. Starpoint was not a hugely popular group at the time, but in the years to come they would have a few minor hits. Keep On It reached #138 on the U.S. album chart. But it goes down in history as the most spandexed-out record sleeve of all time. Hey, it's something. 

But Where Did Spandex Come From, Anyway?

Source: (lighting-essentials.com)

The invention of spandex, a wonder fiber, was a combination of the tireless efforts of the Du Pont Company and Farbenfabriken Bayer. Farbenfabriken Bayer were pioneers in polymer chemistry and were definitely on the right track. They patented their blend in 1952 but Joseph Shivers, PhD, a Du Pont chemist, refused to give up and 5 years later perfected the stretchy material. He unknowingly earned the unspoken respect of every man, past, present and future. Du Pont named their new funky fabric "Lycra" -- a name that today is primarily used outside the U.S. -- and became the world leader in the manufacturing of one of the best fabrics in the world beginning in 1962.

Chemistry In Action

Spandex didn’t hit the mark of replacing rubber as it was intended but found another very useful purpose; clothing! Source: (Pinterest)

Spandex was a compound polymer that could be spun into tiny strands that were stretchable. It was soon discovered to be great for making clothing. This new fabric transformed sports uniforms, permitting greater freedom of movement for the athletes. It was lightweight, breathable, stretchy and comfortable. It sure beat the heck out of those old itchy, wool baseball and football uniforms. Spandex is also the reason that favorite pair of jeans you have fit like a glove and keep their shape!

Spandex Is Versatile Enough To Be Used In Making Almost Any Garment

Strength training. Source: (irreverentgent.com)

The list of clothing that has been produced out of spandex has grown over the years. Some of the first garments were swimwear and pantyhose. The ‘70s marked a new era of fitness and soon, leggings and other workout clothes were being made. Men could show off their abs and guns and women could highlight their curves.

These days, any garment that is stretchy -- including sweaters and dress pants -- could have some proportion of spandex in it.

Spandex Can Get A Person Noticed, But Not Always For The Right Reason

Wearing spandex can get a person noticed but not always for the right reason! Source: (Pinterest)

 When worn by the right person, spandex can be a real attention getter. The stretchy properties of spandex allow it to stretch out and go right back to its original form. Because it stretches so well, a garment can be made from much less raw material than regular fabric. The fabric is meant to be worn tight and was a great way to flaunt the human form. On the right person, spandex can be an aphrodisiac of sorts. Ironically, spandex can cover a person’s entire body and still leave very little to the imagination.
Some benefits of and facts about spandex, according to fabriclink.com, are:

  • Spandex can stretch 500 times its original size, without breaking.
  • Spandex can be stretched over and over and still contract to its original size.
  • Spandex is 85% polyurethane.
  • Spandex is more durable than rubber.
  • Spandex is white in color in its original form.
  • Spandex doesn’t pill.Spandex is scratch resistant.

  • Spandex is resistant to body oils and sweat.

  • Spandex can withstand temperatures up to 480 degrees F (250 degrees C) before melting.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Audrey Hepburn | Batman | Buck Rogers In The 25th Century | Charlies Angels | Christie Brinkley | Christopher Reeve | David Lee Roth | Debbie Harry | Jane Fonda | Jane Fonda Workout Video | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Science Fiction | Spandex | Superheroes | Superman | Technology | Van Halen | Wrestling In The 1970s | Yvonne Craig

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.