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Acetate: The Top Choice for Bridesmaids and Prom Dresses The World Over

I don’t know about your local JoAnn’s Fabric store but mine has two rows of fabric devoted to “special occasion” fabric.  The satins, taffetas, and brocades that are made into prom, party, and bridesmaids dresses are almost universally made from one fiber: Acetate.  We’ll find out why it is such a popular fiber for special occasions…and why my acetate-based academic regalia warns against ironing it.


Like rayon and lyocell, acetate is a manufactured regenerated fiber made from cellulose.  It originated in Europe when the Dreyfus brothers of Switzerland used a technique that produced a spinning solution that resulted in a silklike fiber.  During World War I, they went to England and perfected the “acetate dope” as a varnish for airplane wings (Since a form of acetate is used for nail polish, this makes quite a bit of sense).

After the war, they kept futzing with it and finally perfected the process of making acetate fibers.  It was first produced in the United States in 1924.

But there were some “issues” with acetate.

The Dress Of All Time
The Dress of All Time; Saks Fifth Avenue Advertisement; Fabrics by Onodaga in acetate and rayon and Chadron in rayon and acetate; Image courtesy of Jordan Smith on Flickr.com


Because of the chemical makeup of the fibers, it couldn’t be dyed with any of the existing dyes.  So, a whole new type of dye had to be created–dispersed dyes (water soluble, something aqueous suspension, pigment, and then more stuff I don’t get).

But, acetate is still plagued by what is called fume or pollution fading.

Have you ever pulled a pre-1955 party dress out of a closet and discovered that it was miscolored or faded where it was exposed to air?  Certain dispersed dyes changed colors–blue to pink, green to brown, gray to pink–when exposed to “atmospheric fumes/pollutants.”  An inhibitor developed in 1955 helped improve dying performance but fume fading is still a problem.

And then there is the fact that acetate was the first thermoplastic or heat sensitive fiber.

When acetate first came out, it was marketed as a type of rayon.  Women thought nothing of ironing their acetate-based garment– because everything was ironed in those days–until it melted on them (well, I guess, technically, it melted on the ironing board…at least I hope women didn’t iron an acetate-based garment while wearing it!).

Even if you don’t accidentally melt it, acetate shrinks from excess heat.

That is why there are all of those warning labels about ironing acetate at a cool temperature.

It’s also a rather weak fiber, especially when it gets wet.  Which is why it should only be dry cleaned.

And is prone to static buildup.

And it wrinkles easily and doesn’t like being rubbed up against.

Oh, yeah, and acetone nail polish remover causes it to dissolve.

But, other than that, it’s a great fabric!

Advert for 'Celanese' acetate rayon1945
Advert for ‘Celanese’ acetate rayon1945; Image courtesy of Tuppence Ha’Penny Vintage on Flickr.com

So Why Is Acetate So Popular?

One of the primary reasons that acetate is so popular for special occasion use is that it is inexpensive and because durability is not usually a requirement from a special occasion garment.  It is usually only worn once or twice and is an ideal budget-minded alternative to silk because it has beautiful luster, body, and drape (while it lasts).  Plus, it maintains a white color, whereas the best silk can hope for is cream or off-white.

Manufacturers like using acetate lining in their garments because it helps keep costs down.  Unfortunately, acetate lining is not very durable so just be aware that the lining will eventually start splitting apart and shredding if you wear that garment often.

So now you know why acetate is so popular for special occasion garments but not pervasive in everyday wear (except as a lining)!


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