Friday, February 20, 2009

Spandex Fabric and It's Use in Sportswear

Although men preferred taking their gymnastics exercises in the nude in ancient Greece, women have displayed a bit more discretion over the centuries. Opting for demure outfits of several pieces around the turn of the 19th century, the mode of dress for women in gymnastics has evolved tremendously over the past 100 years. Gymnastics leotards, however, were actually inspired by the French acrobat Jules Leotard who wore a special, tight fitting garment during his performances. Born in 1839, he is widely accepted as the man for whom the garment we know today as a “leotard” was named. It is unlikely he could ever have imagined that his modest and practical little leotard would one day take the fashion industry by storm and usher in a whole new era of fashion and comfort that has never been equaled since the discovery of spandex. Not just for leotards anymore, the versatile, stretchy fabric has changed the way we wear clothes.

Acrobatics required attire that was both safe and flexible. The leotard seemed to fit the bill perfectly with its close fitting design that was not likely to impair or compromise the safety of the wearer. However, a newer and even more innovative fabric was on the horizon and it would revolutionize the gymnastics leotards forever. Circa 1942 Donald Holmes and William Hanford invented polyurethane, a particular type of elastomeric fiber that became generically labeled as spandex.

This man made fiber of segmented polyurethane could stretch at least 100% and snap back like a rubber band. In the late 1950’s the company of E.I. de Pont de Nemours changed the world with the first commercial production of the wonder material known as Spandex and a whole new world of clothing was born. In fact the very name “Spandex” stems from the word “expands”, an apt description to be sure. Various brand names are closely associated with Spandex including elastane, Lycra, and several others known the world over.

Produced via a complex formula of a very technical nature, spools of the fiber are sent to textile companies for use in manufacturing everything from underwear, to girdles and an array of other garments. Probably the most notable of all uses is in exercise clothing, the popularity of which is world class. It is hard to find any sport or any country that does not utilize spandex in one form or other, especially with regard to gymnastics leotards. Over the past 50 years the fashion industry has had a real love affair with all things that stretch and cling, thanks to the beauty and versatility of that sexy Lycra fabric known for its close fitting body definition.

Breathable and resistant to moisture, most spandex fabrics are made of a 4 way stretch material that includes MicroSuede, Polyester Spandex, Athletic Mesh and Polyester Double Circular Knit, all of which offer the performance athletes demand. The number of brand names and fabric blends that spandex encompasses is enormous and extends to nearly any type of garment that comes to mind. The original leotard worn by Jules Leotard was a one piece garment that has evolved into the one and multi piece garments we see today. Embraced by both men and women alike, fabrics blended with spandex offer much greater comfort and flexibility that traditional clothing. Thus the popularity of a fabric that could be made into great looking exercise attire that would not constrict a person engaged in active sports play.

When you want to be fully clothed and yet wear nothing at all, the gymnastic leotard is where you turn. Both rock and metal bands in the 1970’s and 1980’s went crazy for spandex leggings and other such attire, in every color and design imaginable. Able to retain its shape wash after wash and wear after wear, the popularity of spandex mushroomed as few other fabrics ever have. Perhaps one of the best attributes of all is that the wearer is able to dance, move, jump, and bend without concern for clothing getting in the way, ripping or stretching out of shape. Plus, it looks good hugging body curves and combines well with all other types of clothing choices.

Those gymnastics leotards would become the most practical and popular uniform for the sport was almost a no-brainer. Given the complex moves that a gymnast is required to do, there was no question that clothing must provide safety, adequate protection, and yet be attractive as well. The versatility of spandex meant that it could be dyed almost any color, as well as sewn into any shape.  Actually, Lycra is the trademarked name for the spandex fiber created by DuPont. The terms are used almost interchangeably and the differences are quite subtle.

Lyrca is very lightweight and durable, adding to the attraction for use as a gymnastics leotard where every ounce counts. It has great resistance to pilling and abrasion and is naturally able to pull moisture away from the body making it an obvious favorite of sports enthusiasts. Even plus sized sports fans can be attractive and comfortable with clothing and leotards that bend and stretch along with them.

Gymnastics leotards are essential to the performance of any gymnast. They must be able to remain fully covered and yet show off those hard bodies they have worked so hard to attain. Spectators are able to see muscle movements as well as the entire complex gymnastics move with interference by bulky or constrictive clothing. Modern gymnastics welcomed the leotard with open arms and then improved on it by adding colors and designs that created beautiful and fashionable outfits of every kind.

Today’s gymnasts are revered not just for their athletic ability but also for their fashion sense and appearance on the floor and in competition. Looking back in history we can see a clear evolution of gymnastics leotards from the one piece cotton garment worn by Jules Leotard in the 1800’s, through the 1920’s two piece look and on to the modern day icon of fashion they have become all over the world. The Olympics has long set the bar for athletic attire in every sport but perhaps never more so than in gymnastics. It is safe to assume that spandex is here to stay.