It was in the 1960s that vinyl established itself as the material of the time. Designers were inspired by the new possibilities it represented in terms of geometric, architectural shapes and shiny appearance.
What many people at the time did not know was that PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or vinyl contains some very harmful chemicals. Today there’s a drive towards more sustainable fashion and some fashion houses have banned PVC from their catwalks. However, many others continue to use this material that is believed to be toxic to human and animal health.
Vinyl’s popularity over the years
In the 1960s, couture designers like Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, and André Courrèges embraced the high tech, the futuristic appeal of vinyl.
André Courrèges was famous for his A-line dresses, miniskirts, suits, and helmets. He used vinyl to make his famous white boots, getting his inspiration from astronaut boots. These ‘go-go boots’ were soon being worn by teenagers everywhere.
English fashion designer, Mary Quant, used fabrics coated in vinyl to create the ‘wet’ look, popularizing miniskirts worn with high vinyl boots.
Vinyl clothing was worn by all the fashion icons of the decade, including Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Raquel Welsh and Britt Ekland.
In the late 1970s, it was the turn of the Goths and the Punks to wear vinyl clothing.
In the 1990s, vinyl was just as fashionable and desirable as it had been in the 1960s. It was worn by TV presenters, movie stars and singers. Versace dressed top models in vinyl for its winter-fall collection, including Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford.
In 1995, Michael and Janet Jackson appeared in vinyl pants in the music video Scream and Madonna wore a vinyl catsuit in the video clip of Human Nature. Shania Twain also loved the look and wore vinyl when accepting her music awards.
In the 2000s, science fiction film costume designers frequently used vinyl too, such as the suit worn by the character Trinity in The Matrix Reloaded.
Since 2010, vinyl has been popular in both everyday fashion and haute couture. The year 2018 was another big year for PVC when celebrities and fashionistas all over the world were sporting the look.
Top models today, such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Alexa Chung, are often seen wearing vinyl and top couture brands use it extensively in their collections.
Why vinyl is problematic
The entire life cycle of production, use, and disposal of PVC is problematic. A large amount of chlorine is used in making PVC and one of the byproducts is dioxin, which causes a wide range of health problems in humans and animals.
The EPA has classified vinyl chloride as a group A human carcinogen. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also regards vinyl chloride, the main chemical used to make PVC, as a carcinogen and an endocrine disrupter.
When humans are exposed to dioxin in high levels over the short term, it can cause skin lesions but exposure over a longer-term can affect immune function and impair the reproductive, endocrine and nervous system.
PVC is a hard plastic and it is made softer and more flexible by the addition of Phthalates in production. Phthalates are known endocrine disrupters and humans are exposed to phthalates through direct contact. Phthalates are generally metabolized and excreted quickly but biomonitoring studies measuring urine metabolites in humans have found widespread exposure with women having higher levels of these metabolites than men.
Vegans take note
Vegans who think that PVC is a good substitute for leather need to be aware that the hydrogen chloride gas used to make it can cause severe damage to the lungs and burn the skin of humans and animals. Dioxin can spread through water and air and has been found in the tissues of animals, such as polar bears, living in remote areas. Polar bears are even becoming sterile because dioxin affects sex hormones.
The disposal of PVC is another problem. When it’s buried, it does not decompose, continuing to release poisonous gases into the earth and water table. If it is incinerated, it releases deadly gases known to kill birds.
Alternatives to vinyl
Fashion trends come and go but the use of vinyl in fashion has persisted since the 1960s. The desire for PVC clothing and accessories continues – pervading the dress, pants, trench coat and bag space.
This seems surprising in light of the current concern about plastic pollution around the world. Clear bags made of PVC are a popular current trend.
Greenpeace recommends against using PVC and has compiled a list of alternatives for common PVC products. It regards it as the most toxic plastic of all. Innovative fashion brands, such as H&M, known for its sustainability efforts, are currently researching fabrics that don’t need to use plastics as a base.