Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiber Y

According to an article that can be found in the Time magazine on-line archives, the synthetic fabric Qiana (“kee-ah-nah”)—the name the result of a computer generating random combinations of letters—was introduced by Du Pont Laboratories in June 1968. Apparently the fabric took twenty years to develop. Thus research on the fabric that was eventually named Qiana—a light-weight, nylon-like fabric intended to be a simulacrum of silk—dates back to the years that comprised the collapse of Swing music in post-World War II America (in 1948, Du Pont's nylon was then a decade old). The Time magazine article, dated 5 July 1968, also contains the following information:

Boasting qualities that are superior to the most luxurious silk fabrics, Qiana gives all the appearance of silk. . . . It took 20 years and $75 million to develop (compared with $27 million for nylon). Thus it was no wonder that the security at Du Pont’s Chattanooga, Tenn., pilot plant took on Pentagon proportions. To the trade, it was known simply as “Fiber Y.” Even at the press preview, Du Pont took no chances of leaking the process before it hits the market at year’s end. Six models wearing Qiana garments were escorted by armed guards to prevent any overanxious competitor from the common practice of snipping a sample swatch. The versatile new fabric, which sells for about $5 to $8 per pound (versus $9.30 for silk), will be found initially only in women’s fine apparel, but eventually will be used in all types of clothing. For Du Pont . . . costly Qiana is not expected to mean an overnight boom.

Indeed, clothing made of Qiana was not “an overnight boom,” just as the Time article predicted—it took a few years. But . . . when Qiana caught on, a few years later, it had become the disco fabric of choice. Qiana is to 1970s disco music what flannel is to grunge, what the tie-died cotton shirt is to Sixties psychedelic rock. In Saturday Night Fever (1977)—the film that is to the disco era what Woodstock is to the 1960s—whenever Tony Manero (John Travolta), a member of the vast working class of America used to the sweat that comes from hard labor, took to the discotheque dance floor, he wore a cool, light-weight, faux-silk Qiana shirt.

Eventually, though, this synthetic fabric became an emblem of the tawdry artifice that many saw in disco music (a form of urban pop). Subsequently, as disco music fell from favor, so too did Qiana. Clothing made of Qiana, inexpensive but trendy, became the style of clothing that for many represented the plasticity (artifice) of disco music. Conversely, by the late 1980s—by which time Qiana shirts numbering in the scores could be found in Goodwill stores throughout the United States—flannel came to represent the putative working-class “authenticity” of grunge. Thus it happened that Du Pont’s Qiana gave way to L. L. Bean.

No comments: