I was sitting
near a Clam bar on a southwest Florida beach when I saw 60 billion or so Lycra
molecules writhing in pain. Lycra, the miracle fiber that wraps all of sporting
America—and most of its rock stars—can stretch 500% before it snaps. Beside me,
an abundant woman, packed into an orange bathing suit, was reaching toward a
wicker basket. I estimated that the Lycra at this moment was stretched about
497%. It was an amazing sight, just the kind your mother told you not to stare
Then she leaned
over. The move took the Lycra to 498%. She pulled out two cookies. One cookie
went down: 499%. The second cookie went to her lips. I looked away. I couldn't
stand it. I looked back. The cookie did not break the plane and the Lycra
About that same
time I saw six guys having breakfast beers at the clam bar. They were trying to
focus on the Gulf. Dolphins, I suspected. Wrong. Not dolphins. Danish girls.
Two 16-year-old goddesses making Scandinavian mouth sounds were moving a very
little bit of Lycra—stretched a perfect 0% to 75%—in and out of the surf. More
beer moved from the tap. Breakfast slid into lunch at the clam bar.
But my real Lycra
vacation moment came later, along a canal in a bird sanctuary. I was looking at
an egret when it happened. First I heard a low rumble behind the mangroves. The
egret flew. The rumble got louder. Drug runners, I thought, expecting to catch
a glimpse of the mysterious life of Florida's backwaters. It was worse.
Around the roots
came a bass boat. In it sat a man of about 60, with a world-class beer gut.
Burly. Probably a retired trucker. And he was naked. I reached for my
binoculars. The boat drew closer. The man began to smile and wave. Never one to
miss having the best story to tell over stone crabs, I tried desperately to
focus my Minoltas.
There he was,
better than naked: a 300-pound Adonis standing up to show the world that he, a
man who once negotiated the mountain passes of West Virginia hauling steel, was
rich, retired and completely at home in his silver-white Lycra bikini bathing
suit. I waved goodbye to the dimples in his butt.
I was beginning
to think that Lycra had taken too much of America—a nation apparently devoid of
mirrors—by storm. Then, the next morning, it happened to me. A girlfriend, not
a vain woman, had lying on her bed the prettiest swimsuit I had ever seen. All
by itself, it had bosoms and a narrow waist and rounded hips. It's called a
Slim Suit, and it has, sewn into the inside, a Lycra power sheath shaped the
way any woman would like to be shaped. I pulled the suit onto my tree-trunk
body. First my bottom lifted. Then my waist cinched. Then the power cloth did
what nature cannot: It pushed all that was still available up into my bosom. A
totally new body, with my head, looked back from the mirror. I suddenly
realized that I was the last person alive still swimming in a cotton bathing
suit. By the grace of god, the local mall was only 15 minutes away. Lycra
swimsuits, diving suits, boardsailing suits, surfing suits. Lycra runners'
suits and bikers' suits. Row after row, as far as the wallet could walk, there
hung colorful, shiny little garments made of Lycra.
miracle fiber has opened up a whole new world of garments that compress our
muscles to keep us warm and carry away our sweat to make us feel cool. It
expands and contracts without fatigue, better than our skin. Lycra can make
wrestlers hard to hold. It speeds up sprinters and gymnasts and swimmers by
becoming a sleek second skin, one that cuts drag and flattens and smooths the
body. Cowboys—both the ones who play football and the ones who ride horses—wear
it. In its macho girdle form, replacing the jock and adding back support, Lycra
peeks out from under basketball shorts.
It also lets us
fearlessly eat cookies at the beach, dance in the surf and wave proudly from
bass boats. It cinched my waist and led me further into a sort of national
vanity. The Associated Press reported that last year Du Pont sold $600 million
worth of Lycra. None of this would have happened without the second law of
thermodynamics and man's ability to triumph over molecules.
That victory can
be traced back to 1949, when a young chemist named Joe Shivers, a Ph.D. from
Duke, was put to work on one of Du Pont's highest-priority projects: creating
stuff from which a better girdle might be made. It took him the best part of a
decade, but he succeeded, and in 1958 a Du Pont computer programmed to spew out
new product names christened Shivers's brainchild Lycra. Spandex, as Lycra is
known generically, is a synthetic elastomer—which is simply a material, in this
case a fiber, that changes shape when under the influence of a force and then
returns to its original form when that force is removed. Although Du Pont is
not the sole U.S. manufacturer of spandex, it has so much of the market—95% of
the swimwear industry alone—that spandex and Lycra are thought of as one and