Shivers, now 10
years retired, says that when he takes long walks near his home in West
Chester, Penn., he often sees men—grown men—race past him wearing unitards.
"I look at them," he says. "They're wearing stretch tights. I
think, Who would have thought?"
Indeed, who would
have thought a lot of things? Who would have thought that Du Pont scientists,
armed with accelerometers to measure buttock bounce and pressure transducers to
gauge skin-to-garment tension, would use Lycra to provide women with the most
comfortable foundation garments since the dawn of civilization? And who would
have thought that those same women, in the decade after Lycra's birth, would
not only shuck their girdles but burn their bras as well? Yet Du Pont was not
to worry, because just around the corner were the health-and-fitness wannabes,
who would learn that to feel good was to look good. And they could, in
At about the same
time, satellite technology and cable TV began to bring rock videos and every
sporting event known to man into our homes. They dictated fashion. On the
street, otherwise normal women strolled in petticoats pulled over Lycra tights.
Bras came back—as outerwear. Madonna and Flo-Jo owe Shivers a big hug. Without
him, they would have had to do their things in puckery cotton togs. Without
him, Bo would have had to learn Diddley in baggy sweatpants.
Time was, if it
stretched, it was rubber. Elastic rubber—a chemically altered tree sap—was
O.K., but Du Pont executives, with the creation of synthetic nylon under their
belts, thought the time had come to improve on rubber. They wanted something
stronger, less bulky, more heatable, freezable, dyeable, permeable, stretchier
and long-lasting. And, most of all, something Du Pont.
can remember one portentous day when his test tube broke and the goo inside
bounced on his desk, there was no magic moment in the discovery of Lycra. One
Du Pont official says its creation was the result of "blood, sweat and
tears." Du Pont trademarked the name and patented the formula—therefore it
is public record—but the process used remains secret.
Lycra is created
from petroleum-based raw materials combined into a long-chain synthetic
polymer, of which at least 85% is made up of segmented polyurethane. But that
doesn't tell me why my tube tops stay up and my socks don't fall down.
work in elasticity, in part, is entropy," says Du Pont chemist Dr. John
Boliek. Webster's defines entropy as "a measure of the disorder of a closed
thermodynamic system in terms of a constant multiple of the natural logarithm
of the probability of the occurrence of a particular molecular arrangement of
the system that by suitable choice of a constant reduces to the measure of
Help, Dr. Boliek,
help! In a calm voice, he explains that Elle Macpherson's swimsuit stays up—at
least in terms of the fabric's responsibility—"because all things in the
universe desire to be in disorder. Entropy is a measure of the drive of an
ordered state to be disordered." While Boliek is talking in terms of atoms
and molecules, he thinks of a bigger example. "Take everything on top of
your desk," he says. "If it is in order, it took energy to get that
way. If you gather everything up off your desk and throw it into the air, it
will come down in a random pile. That is how it likes to be. It will take
energy to put it back in order again." In time, entropy drives all things
back to disarray. This is your good ol' second law of thermodynamics—this is
also the reason you dropped chemistry after one semester.
desktop example down to the Lycra in your socks is a bit of a reach, but Boliek
can help us. In creating Lycra, Du Pont used to its advantage the natural
resistance of atoms to staying neatly organized. Each Lycra molecule consists
of straight, hard sections and soft, curly or coiled sections. Although these
soft segments prefer to stay curled up in their natural state of disorder, they
can be stretched, just like taffy.