Celanese might not be a fabric you’re familiar with, but when the British Government cancelled contracts for aircraft dope after the first world war, two Swiss brothers saw an opening for their cellulose acetate manufacturing plant in the fashion business.
Henri and Camille Dreyfuss had been invited to come to Britain in 1916 to help set up the British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Co. The pair had already developed acetate lacquers and the British Government saw the partnership as a way to reduce the cost of fire-proofing and strengthening the canvas material that covered the aircraft used during the hostilities. When the war finished the brothers needed new markets in which to sell their cellulose based products and started to develop textiles. With a growing demand for fashionable garments at a sensible price, this proved to be a very successful move.
Celanese was an acetate fibre that claimed to be softer and stronger than Satin, Crepe de-chine and Taffeta. It was used to make a range of garments from lingere to raincoats and being a man-made fibre it was significantly cheaper than silk. The name, a combination of cellulose and ease was part of the company’s fight against the silk market that looked to discredit the synthetic fibre manufacturers that were starting to encroach on their market.
According to the Giles County Historical Society, which holds one of the last Celanese coning machines, “Acetate had several qualities that were superior to silk, including the ability to hold permanent moiré designs and pleating,” and revolutionised the dress industry.
During the 1920s, the British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Co changed it’s name to British Celanese and its American “cousin”, The American Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Company, that Camille Dreyfuss headed up in 1918 became the Celanese Corporation of America, which still exists today.