My post exploring the early development of rayon kicked off a series of posts on the history of this most beloved of vintage fabrics. But rayon wasn’t always called “rayon”, or even always “artificial silk”; in fact its early incarnations were known by a plethora of different terms. Despite the hype surrounding the wonders of artificial silk, manufacturers were cautious about the public reception. Advertising was often rather coy, frequently avoiding the term “artificial” altogether and merely hinting that their wares “look and feel like silk”. Artificial silk was also known as fiber (fibre) silk, wood silk, vegetable silk, art (short for artificial) silk or by various trade names such as “silkilo”, “near-silk”, and “ososilkie.”
While the initial aim had been to develop an affordable alternative to costly natural silk, by the 1920s so-called artificial silk had come on by leaps and bounds and production was growing. However, it suffered from an image problem. Firstly, although a wave of “early adopters” had embraced the exciting new textile, the drawbacks associated with early rayons affected consumer perceptions. Second, Rayon “laboured under the handicap of the misnomer ‘artificial silk’”. Early marketing strategies for artificial silk had emphasised the fibre’s thriftiness as a substitute for silk, which had the unfortunate side effect of saddling rayon with the legacy of its characterisation as a cheap, inferior imitation, aspiring to the status of -- but forever in the shadow of -- ‘real’ silk.
Industry stakeholders felt it was time to shed the ‘artificial’ tag and establish the new fibre as an important textile in its own right. Equally, those in the silk trade were eager to reinforce the distinction: as early as 1914 the American Silk Journal had called for a new name for the new fibre, citing the “undignified” connotations of the ‘artificial’ label (although a skeptic could infer that this perspective might have had more to do with maintaining the prestige of silk than any actual altruism).
In the US, the National Retail Dry Goods Association launched a competition to find a new name for the artificial silk, avoiding the word "silk". Proposals included “lustron” and “glistra”, among others. The winning entry, “Rayon,” was evocative of the French word meaning shine or ray of light, referencing the bright, glossy sheen of rayon filament. It was also allusive of newly-discovered radium -- the name radium silk had been used as a trade name for a particularly shiny fabric since 1905.
The new name was poetically described as "euphonious and descriptive [...] conveying the meaning of the radiance of bright sunshine, tempered with the soft glimmers of rippling waters in moonlight." The name was officially registered in 1925 in the US, and was quickly picked up in other countries: it was reported that “The British Silk Association, on which body the producers and distributors of artificial silk are represented, also [decided] to adopt and register the name Rayon for cellulose and other synthetic fibre products hitherto known as artificial silk.”
Thus bestowed with a new identity, rayon could shed its inferior status once and for all, and the industry proceeded to go on a charm offensive. Trade associations such as the American Rayon Institute and industry leaders like DuPont and American Viscose Corporation launched advertising and educational campaigns with the aim of persuading consumers of the value of rayon as more than just a ‘cheap’ alternative to silk.
They published books and pamphlets on rayon. They sponsored rayon fashion shows, and gave Paris dressmakers a retainer to use rayon in their lines. They offered free advertising in high-profile magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to Fifth Avenue stores for adverts featuring rayon dresses. They partnered with haute couturiers on promotional campaigns: one series ran in Good Housekeeping and the New Yorker magazines, and featured top Parisian designers of the age extolling the virtues of rayon fabrics.
The methods proved effective: these high-fashion associations started to lend prestige to rayon. By the 1930s it had jettisoned its second-rate reputation and taken a place alongside the natural fibres as a new textile category.