AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. We're reporting this year on how life is changing in a nation where one in three people is considered obese. Today, we have a story about how as the waistlines of Americans expand, their clothes are stretching with them - largely because of one product, spandex. Last year, Americans bought 20.5 billion pieces of clothing and 80 percent of those garments had spandex in them. NPR's Marisa Penaloza reports.
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MARISA PENALOZA, BYLINE: Discomania swept through pop culture in the '70s and it crossed over into movies and fashion. Spandex came off the dance floor and into everyone's closet - stretchy leggings, jumpsuits and leg warmers.
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THE TRAMMPS: (Singing) Disco inferno. Burn, baby, burn, burn this mother down. Tried to fight you...
PENALOZA: But spandex had a life before disco. It was invented by two DuPont chemists and it made its debut in 1959. It first used in bras and jockstraps, as well as in workout gear. But it quickly became known as a wonder fiber - it can stretch more than 100 percent and snap back to shape.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This next top: a gorgeous bright raspberry. It's a combination of cotton and spandex, so, George, of course, it's wise enough to give you that stretch.
PENALOZA: George is designer George Simonton. His Simonton Says label sells exclusively on the TV shopping channel QVC.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I told you he was here, the wonderful George Simonton.
GEORGE SIMONTON: God bless you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.
PENALOZA: Simonton's clothes are beautiful and soft and stretchy. His studio's in the heart of the fashion corridor in Manhattan - a minimalistic space on the eighth floor of a high-rise, several racks of couture fill the room. He pulls out a bright, silky red top.
SIMONTON: This is called the cold shoulder - it's poly and spandex together.
PENALOZA: Simonton began his career in the mid-'60s. Back then, he says, fashion was all about glamour, but fabrics were rigid and people were thin. Today, two-thirds of American women are plus-size. Simonton says spandex has changed the industry.
SIMONTON: Years ago, when we made a suit or a coat, it was built like a battleship. It was like bulletproof. Today, it's beautiful clothes but a high comfort level. Everything has stretch - pants, skirts, dresses, blouses, knit tops. Everything has stretch, no matter whatever it is.
PENALOZA: So, what do women make of this spandex explosion? I'm at a swanky, outdoor mall in Maryland talking with shoppers.
JANINE BUFFERED: I do like spandex because of the way it curves my body. We're not perfect bodies, but sometimes you do want to feel lean and beautiful. Put on spandex. You're good to go.
RACHEL GORDON: I personally would never wear it. I definitely see a lot of the spandex, and people probably should not wear as much as they do.
NANCY LEE: You know what, I actually specifically look for it when I look for clothes, because for years I didn't wear jeans until my kids said, Mom, get the spandex jeans. And I put them on, and I was like, yeah, I can wear jeans again.
PENALOZA: That's Janine Buffered, Rachel Gordon and Nancy Lee. Brett Godwin is outside Bloomingdale's and she says spandex is overused.
BRETT GODWIN: I think that spandex is made to accommodate people who are overweight. I've seen some terrible sights. They are overweight, and they will put on the tightest spandex things they can find, and they just look absolutely awful.
ED GRIBBIN: Is that the sign of decline of Western civilization? Perhaps.
PENALOZA: Ed Gribbin is president of Alvanon, a clothing size and fit consulting firm in New York City.
GRIBBIN: Some of us cringe when we see the things that we see. Some people will be poured into a garment and think they look fabulous, and someone else might look at that person and think it's not very attractive.
PENALOZA: Changes in lifestyle, as well as a huge drop in the price of spandex over the last decade, are pushing the use of the fiber in apparel like never before.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN TWO: Do you love stylish, sexy jeans? Do you love soft, comfy pajama bottoms? Now, get the best of both worlds with Pajama Jeans.
PENALOZA: Pajama Jeans came out last year and have sold more than 600,000 pieces online and at stores like Sears and Wal-Mart.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN TWO: The secret is the cotton spandex denim blend that stretches to fit every figure perfectly like a sexy second skin.
PENALOZA: Alvanon's Ed Gribbin estimates that about 80 percent of clothes in retail today have some spandex in them. In other words, we're all wearing it.
GRIBBIN: It actually enables more democracy because the product will morph to the body as opposed to limit the body. But are you in fact encouraging people to be bigger? And a lot of people ask that very same question of the industry. I don't think that's the case at all.
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MARTHA PASCHAL: My name is Martha Paschal. We're in the Tysons Corner mall in Vienna, Virginia. Definitely spandex. We're looking at a dress that crosses over the front on the top, very pretty fabric. This is 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex.
PENALOZA: Paschal is a youthful-looking 50-year-old financial consultant. She calls herself a muffin top, referring to her extra rolls of flab. She says she never thought she'd own a pencil skirt, one of those slim, body-hugging skirts.
PASCHAL: They were designed to be a straight skirt, and muffin tops just don't look good in pencil skirts. But now I am the proud possessor of a pencil skirt that can somewhat camouflage a muffin top.
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PENALOZA: Martha Paschal is in good company. Women buy 78 percent of all apparel sold in the United States, and health officials say 65 percent of them are overweight or obese. Paschal loves spandex, but feels conflicted.
PASCHAL: I mean, it's dishonest. I mean, it lets you get away with wearing things that you probably shouldn't just because it expands to fit. And, well, I think it is deceptive.
PENALOZA: Over the years, Paschal has bounced on and off diets, losing and gaining again and again. She says her comfort is more important to her than her guilt. So she's not ready to give up on spandex, but she forces herself to look in the mirror before heading out. Marisa Penaloza, NPR News.
CORNISH: There's more of our series on the obesity crisis on our website. Go to NPR.org.