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

By | February 14, 2019

test article image
Model Christie Brinkley in a pink spandex unitard and leg warmers, 1982. Source: (Bettmann/Getty images)

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

test article image
Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face.' Source: (

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.