Material Marvels: Textiles in couture culture

Materials World magazine
7 Aug 2019

Look at a collection of materials at the core of couture, through the creativity of fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

The fashion and fabric industries go hand-in-hand. Textiles’ opulence, the uncompromising quality of the raw materials and their cutting can take mere clothing to incredible heights, capturing the imagination of both wearer and viewer. When aiming for the catwalk and luxury market, the choice of fabric is fundamental, and so is an understanding of the properties of a textile, as well as high attention to detail of the cuts, folds, stitches and silhouette of an outfit.

During his career, French fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, has experimented with different fabrics, cuts and shapes – his work was initally slow to gain public attention, but it took one key moment to propel his style from obscure to iconic. Indeed, when Madonna wore a custom-made Gaultier bustier during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour as a symbol of female strength, sexuality and empowerment, Gaultier’s name and the concept of underwear as outerwear reached a wide audience.

Through his creativity, Gaultier has taken familiar and even common fabrics, elevating them to works of art. Here we take a look at some of his key pieces, and the origins of the textiles.


Gaultier’s first foray into undergarments can be traced back to when he was a child. He once attached cardboard conical breasts to his teddy bear in a way that would be revisited many years later for Madonna. He has used satin in his ready-to-wear collection of corsets, and also designed a red satin dress for Kylie Minogue, which she wore in the Xposed section of her KylieX2008 tour. The sheen and glamour of satin has made it popular for use in lingerie, evening gowns, neck ties and furniture coverings.

However, satin is technically not a material, but a weave used to combine different yarns together. It typically has a glossy side and a dull side. The weave comprises a series of yarns, called weft and warp. The weft yarn is held under tension and runs horizontally, while the warp goes over and under the weft vertically. But this is not uniform – for every weft yarns there might be one warp yarn, and vice versa. The sections where thread exposed are called floats, and it is this property that gives satin its lustre.

The term satin is used if filament fibres such as silk, polyester or nylon are used in the weave, while the word sateen is used if short staple yarns like cotton are used. Satin was expensive, particularly in the middle ages, because it used to be made from silk only. Over the years, the trend of developing synthetic alternatives infiltrated this category, increasing the use of polyester and nylon to produce fabrics with similar properties at lower prices.


Silk has been a favourite fabric of Gaultier for years, and he has used it in numerous collections. In his 1985 collection, he designed a black evening dress with a bustier-inspired chest design pairing silk with metal for elegance. He also used silk, metal and cotton in a bustier during the same era.

China is thought to have been manufacturing silk since 3,000BC, where filament produced by silkworms was traditionally spun into yarns and woven into textiles. Today the material is produced across the world and is highly prized for its comfort factor - it can also absorb up to 30% moisture without feeling damp – and it is strong, despite its delicate appearance.

Silk is sourced from silkworms. Once the insect reaches its full size, it stops eating and starts to make a cocoon. The main component in the silk is fibroin, which comprises of alanine and glycine. Mature silkworms build their cocoons by extruding fibroin and sericin. These fluids harden when they come into contact with air, forming the cocoon, which becomes the silk. Sericin is a gummy substance that acts as an adhesive for twin fibroin filaments. A single Bombyx mori cocoon can yield 1,600m of filament, which can be strung together to make an endless thread. Silk fibre has micro-fibrils, which are packed together to form a fibril bundle, and several fibril bundles produce a single strand.

But silk production is a slow and resource-intensive process. Ethically, concerns have been raised about live silkworms in cocoons being boiled or gassed to death before the insect hatches. This practise is done as it can be hard to unravel the cocoon and spin the silk fibres once the insect has broken out of the cocoon. In recent years, manufactures have turned to alternative ways to extract the fibres without killing the insects.


This material’s foundations were born around the time of World War II, amid disruptions to trade routes, particularly for organic fabrics such as cotton that would otherwise be imported. As such, the search was on to find synthetic alternatives to expensive and hard-to-acquire imported commodities.

DuPont Research Division Leader, Wallace Carothers, produced and patented a synthetic silk substitute, nylon, in 1935 at DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware, USA. So significant was it that nylon hosiery made its worldwide debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Stockings hit the shelves in 1940, and 64 million pairs were sold in the first year. From 1942, resources for nylon products were needed for military applications, such as tents, and when civilian production re-started, demand could not be met. In the make do and mend era, women were known to cut up nylon tents to sew wedding dresses and run-up blouses until supplies caught up.

The product DuPont patented is known as nylon 6,6. It is made with two monomers, hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid, which both have six carbon atoms, hence the name. The material is made by polycondensation of the amine and the acid. They are combined with water in a reactor, then crystallised to form a nylon salt, which gets polymerised in a vessel. From this, nylon 6,6 is formed either by extrusion and granulation, or spun into fibres through a spinneret and cooled to form filaments. Nylon 6,6 has a melting point of 264°C so is robust enough for use in textiles, carpets and moulded parts.

Nylon has been used in many of Gaultier’s ready-to-wear collections, including cargo trousers, jeans and dresses. Bucking textile trends, he also made a wedding gown of nylon, rayon, silk, leather and metal for the autumn/winter 2008–2009 collection. Exploring the idea of playful, inner and outerwear styles, the veil took inspiration from the common structures used in undergarments in the 19th Century.


This semi-synthetic material is comprised of cellulose-based polymers. Its history dates back to the mid-19th Century and was born out of a response to the escalating costs of silk, and a desperate need for a replacement to be found.

France and England were among the countries that helped pioneer the material. French Chemist Anselme Payen separated cellulose from vegetable matter in 1838, but it was Hilaire de Chardonnet in Échirolles, France, in 1884, who found a way to make it into artificial silk. Rayon was patented in 1855 by Swiss Chemist Georges Audemars. In England, Chemist Sir Joseph Swan was inspired by Thomas Edison’s incandescent electric lamp to experiment with extruding Audemars’ cellulose solution through fine holes into a bath to make filaments. His fibres were used in Edison’s invention as well as for an 1885 exhibition of textiles his wife crocheted from his new fibre. Rayon has had several spinoffs, including viscose and cellulose acetate.

In 1993, Gaultier released a striking evening gown that had a tapered and loosely pleated skirt, matched with Doc Martin boots. From his spring/summer 1996 collection, he used rayon, wool and silk to make a jacket that upon first glance appeared to be see-through, but was an illusion created by a print of a body on the outside.


Cotton’s versatility, breathability, durability and ease to cut have made it a valuable and accessible fabric. It was a highly sought-after commodity from the East to the West after the Middle Ages and for some time the European fashion heavily used the material, particularly sourced from India. It has continued to be used in both high street and high-end fashion markets, such as when Gaultier launched his men’s skirt lines in the 1990s, and drew attention to it by wearing a kilt of his own design when presenting a television programme in 1993.

Cotton comes from the malvaceae plant family and grows in a boll around the seeds of the cotton plant, which is native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, India and Africa.

Fibre can vary from 10–65mm in length and 11–22 micrometres in diameter. Longer fibres are generally stronger and easier to spin into a smooth and strong yarn. Fibres are attached to seeds inside the plant’s boll, of which there are seven seeds inside that have 20,000 fibres attached.

Cotton fibres are a single plant cell and comprise four sections – an outer cuticle, a primary and a secondary wall, and an inner lumen. The waxy cuticle offers a water-resistant coating.

The primary wall is 200nm-thick and includes cellulose fibrils. These spiral about 70° to the fibre axis, giving strength to the overall fibre. The secondary wall is also of cellulose fibres, but spiral are about 30° to the fibre axis. The lumen is a canal that runs the length of the fibre and used to be the vacuole of the growing cotton fibre.

The right cut

The fabrics we use reveal much about the raw materials, textile manufacturing technology and help us see changes in how people all around the globe have chosen to clothe themselves over time. Often materials have been created as a response to major world events and resource pressures, such as nylon. Whether born out of necessity or discovery, textiles indicate social and cultural change, so if that is a man wearing a skirt or a suited woman in a bustier, the materials used help to tell the stories that weave our social fabric together.

*Jean Paul Gaultier – Fashion Freak Show, was held at Southbank Centre, London, UK, from July 23–August 2.