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New Textile Exhibit Highlights the History of Synthetics

Synthetic materials have been incorporated into trendy apparel for many years, unknown to many. From surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli to unconventional muse Iris Van Herpen, synthetics have played a crucial role in the development of style culture.

In celebration of New York Textile Month, the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a seminar Tuesday for an upcoming exhibition, “The Secret Life of Textiles: Synthetic Materials,” to address the incorporation of synthetic materials in vintage apparel and the challenges that come with preserving them today.

The exhibition will feature wearable textiles from various designers, including American evening wear designer Marguery Bolhagen and ‘60s tech designer Diana Dew. Other featured pieces include an Elsa Schiaparelli embellished suit jacket and an Iris Van Herpen 3-D printed ensemble.

Innovative yet restrained, clothing created with synthetic materials doesn’t last forever. With the emergence of plastics preservation, museums are able to prolong the life of these special garments and inform people about their rich heritage and properties.

“Plastics conservation is actually very new; it’s only been going on since the ‘90s when conservation scientists that worked in museums and especially scientists that worked in heritage collections, realized that plastics, despite being a dirty word, actually became a valued part of our system and people thought they didn’t have plastics in their collections,” Met Costume Institute research fellow Leanne Tonkin said.

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Synthetic materials, including cellulose acetate, cellulose nitrate, elastane and polyamide were all used in antique garments to maintain structure, highlight intricate detailing and provide the wearer optimal comfort.

Currently, synthetics provide similar characteristics to other garments, including performance apparel pieces. Although synthetics are widely embraced in the fashion industry today, they were not as well known known in the past.

“There is this increasing rise in body consciousness and flexing capabilities, in particular with elastic,” Met Costume Institute conservator Sarah Scatturo said, adding, “You see time and time again that fashion editorials and ads are really trumpeting the fact that you can bend and have complete freedom of your body.”

Although these vintage synthetic-based clothes are in pretty good condition, there are many obstacles that come with plastic preservation. Due to the man-made material in these antique pieces, the garments are slowly falling apart from plastic degradation. Changes in the environment are to blame for the deterioration of this apparel. A slight shift in humidity, impact of oxygen or temperature takes a toll on the way these garments age. Nitrate acid and sulfuric acid also offset gas as synthetic-based apparel ages. Synthetic materials are also highly electrostatic, which cause the accumulation of dust over time.

With the help of advanced testing methods, including chemical analysis and static analysis, the museum is able to foster new ways to keep these garments intact and display them in a way that won’t cause damage.

As more methods are developed to absorb gases and isolate these garments from the environment, museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, will be able to connect past and present together with synthetic materials’ immersion in fashion.