Silk in Fashion

Silk has historically been a prestige fiber associated with high status. In ancient China it was proverbial that members of the upper classes wore silk, while commoners wore garments of hempen cloth. With the advent of silk exportation, there was such demand in Damascus and Rome that only the very wealthy could afford it. Silk was reserved for special events such as festivals, weddings, and other celebrations, and silk wall hangings and carpet were symbols of great wealth and privilege. In the eighteenth century, the clothing of the rich was often made of silk, and as fashion designers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to produce garments for a wealthy clientele, fashion tended to perpetrate silk's aura of luxury and prestige. More recently, businesspeople "dressing for success" have considered silk shirts, blouses, dresses, and raw silk suiting to be classic indicators of prestige.

By the 1930s, synthetic fibers were developed to give the look of silk at an affordable price. With the wartime decline of the silk industries in China and Japan, nylon took over most of the market for silk stockings, and "nylons" became commonly available. Acetate was routinely substituted for silk in prom dresses and wedding attire. Polyester, particularly microfiber, has been the most suc cessful artificial fiber in emulating the look and sometimes almost the feel of silk at an affordable price.

By the 1990s fashion embraced silk as a fiber that should be available to most people. Silk was reinterpreted as a textile appropriate not only for special events but also for casual, everyday wear. Very important to this expansion in silk was the creation of washable silks with a somewhat faded look and sueded silks that were closer to the aesthetic of cotton. Washable silk was also discovered in home textiles for fabulous sheets, bed coverings, table coverings, and upholstery. Silk even became adopted in sportswear as people discovered that silk underwear was warm and non-itching. Raw silk also became popular for linen-like summer attire. Silk was rediscovered not only for its beautiful fabrics, but for its great comfort and affordable price (as increased production of fiber and improved processing techniques have lowered the cost of silk). Meanwhile, the growth of the craft movement and interest in wearable art has put another kind of focus on silk as a fiber that easily lends itself to creating art that is also apparel.

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