Over the coming glass fiber decades, synthetic material […]
Over the coming glass fiber decades, synthetic materials blossomed and then reigned. The early 20th century saw the development of rayon—made from cellulose—and then nylon, the first wholly synthetic fabric. Marketing materials often variously trumpeted its similarity to the material it mimicked and its wondrously unnatural origins. The fascination with fiberglass dresses presaged the textile innovations that really did revolutionize fashion.
But a fashion historian and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, suspects that there wasn’t much of a real-world market for these clothes. The dress served a different purpose, she says, in “a moment of scientific explosion when it comes to synthetic fibers.” Silk was luxurious and valuable, but expensive and susceptible to pests. Textile makers and the general public were eager for cheap, durable alternatives.
Eulalia’s sister donated her glass dress to the Deutsches Museum in 1924, but it didn’t hold up well. By the time Holzer examined it in detail a few years ago, it was pocked with holes and covered in grime. She speculates that the poor condition could be, in part, a consequence of damage sustained during World War II, when its storage facility was a hard-hit bomb shelter.
By the early 1900s, displays of glass garments traveled to department stores in Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, and Detroit, where they stood in windows alongside some of the equipment—pots, iron molds, sand, lead—needed to produce them. One trade journal estimated that curious shoppers spent as much as 20 minutes gawking at a glass dress, which was modeled by a mannequin bearing a strong resemblance to the actress, who was said to have worn the garment on stage.