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c. 1930s

Cellophane fashion

For designers of the 1920s and 30s, it was the fabric of the future

Cellophane is made of wood. No, seriously, it really is. I mean, okay, yes, it’s wood that has been highly, highly processed, but the primary ingredient of Cellophane is cellulose, derived from hemp, cotton, and ultimately, wood. 

Which means, improbably, that Cellophane is genuinely biodegradable. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the process to get the cellulose out of the wood and into a diaphanous sheet is highly, and dangerously, toxic, and its days may be numbered.

The see-through wonder film was invented in 1900 by a 28-year-old chemist from Switzerland, Jacques Brandenberger.

Brandenberger had his big “aha” moment when he witnessed someone spill wine across a tablecloth in a restaurant, and as a result, he devoted the next 12 years to perfecting a wipe-clean, light weight, flexible surface.

The fruits of his labor, brought to the market for the first time in 1930, earned Brandenberger a fortune. It also earned itself a place on the catwalk. 

Cellophane shimmers, and for designers of the 1920s and 30s, it was the fabric of the future. In the words of a 1934 article in Harper’s Bazaar: “Designers are plunging their shears into this fantastic material that might have come over the counters of Broadway’s Dazians, woven richly with a new kind of splendor.”

Here we see some of the diverse constructions and settings clothing designers created with the splendor of Cellophane during the first decade of its existence.

1930s: Actress, Carole Lombard, shown from behind wearing a shiny, cellophane backless dress with long train
Getty Images
1930s: Actress, Norma Shearer, seen in profile and with bare shoulders against a clear cellophane-like backdrop
Getty Images
1938: A Cellophane cape over a dress
Imre v. Santho/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
1938: Actress Paulette Goddard around the time of her appearance in the movie “Thrill of a Lifetime”
John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
1933: Mary Jane Sloan as the Sugar Bowl, Lona Andre as the China Teacup, and Gwen Zetter as the Tea Pot from the stage production “Cellophane Chorus”.
John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
1933: Lona Andre as the China Teacup
John Springer Collection/Corbis/ Getty Images
December 1929: In a costume festooned with cellophane at a Santa Claus Ball, Mrs A G McCorquodale (later Barbara Cartland, 1901 – 2000)
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
1932: “‘Save your cigar and cigarette wrappers,’ has become a slogan in Hollywood, when it was found that a cellophane blanket prevents the sun from burning the skin, but allows the ultra-violet rays to create a beautiful tan. June Clyde, movie player, was the first to introduce this fad at Malibu Beach, CA, and is seen here wearing her transparent wrapper.”
Getty Images
1933: “Miss Harriette Eriksen stops traffic in downtown Washington as she appears in the latest creation, “A Girl In Cellophane.”
Getty Images
1936: Sirens with legs and chests wrapped in cellophane to prevent sunburn.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

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