When ICI ruled the fashion world

Celebrate Winter at Wynyard

Award-winning writer Harry Pearson with his latest exclusive Tees Business column…

Like all Teessiders, my grandfather was fiercely proud of the region’s achievements.

Once, in a pub in the Lake District during my childhood, a bloke from South Yorkshire said to him, “We’ve a lot in common, Middlesbrough and Sheffield. Both great steel towns, aren’t we?”

“Aye,” my grandad replied, “’Cept we build bridges with ours and you make spoons.”

I thought that was quite a funny joke, though when I repeated it 30 years later, at a book event near Bramall Lane, Sheffield, it didn’t get much of a laugh. You can’t figure people out sometimes.

“The only thing they export from Lancashire is tripe,” my grandad would say whenever he was at our house for Sunday dinner.

My father – his son-in-law – had had the misfortune to be born in Manchester, only moving to Teesside when he was a toddler.

Dad would shrug and roll his eyes. He didn’t argue. Grandad came from Essex Street.

He could raise a lump on your head just by looking at you. It never paid to answer back.

If tripe was Lancashire’s most famous export, back then Teesside’s were steel and steam freighters. But they weren’t the only things by any means (and the tradition continues with firms like Wilton Engineering, as you can read elsewhere in the spring issue of Tees Business).

Grandad worked for ICI in Billingham and Wilton. The scientists and chemical engineers in those giant plants had developed all kinds of stuff that made his heart swell with pride: antifreeze, Perspex, fertiliser, insecticide, a method of extracting car fuel from coal.

Though he never made much mention of it, a personal favourite amongst the Teesside exports of that era would be the synthetic fabrics Terylene and its derivative Crimplene. The latter was actually invented in Macclesfield and named after the Crimple Valley near ICI’s HQ in Harrogate, but it was produced using the fibres made in vast quantities at Wilton.

Back then, Teesside was not – I think even my grandad would have been forced to admit – the centre of world fashion, but it’s fair to say that without Terylene and Crimplene the Sixties would not have been anywhere near so swinging.

Fashion icon Mary Quant used Terylene to make the original miniskirts, while actress Diana Rigg dazzled as Mrs Peel in the TV series The Avengers wearing John Bates-designed Crimplene cat-suits which clung to her curves in a manner that made many viewers wonder about the possibility of being reincarnated as polyester. Terylene was so hip and groovy that ICI even managed to persuade supercool Ray Davies from The Kinks to advertise it.

In 1964, that Parisian couturier Pierre Cardin used Terylene-derived fabrics to make his Space Age Cosmos collection – a series of full-on sci-fi-style suits that ended up being copied by the designers on everything from Captain Scarlet to Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Admittedly, a bloke wouldn’t have got away with wearing one of Cardin’s bright orange unisex body-stocking-and-tunicoutfits in Parliament Road on match day (well, not unless he was inside a sharkproof cage anyway), but the Frenchman and the film and TV companies had given us an idea of what the future would be like – bright, sleek and stylish.

Tomorrow’s world, we imagined, would see us all sitting in houses made of white polymers, with electric sliding doors and Moog music on the stereo, being served food (probably made from Teesside’s other great future export, Quorn) by robot butlers that looked like the aliens in the Smash adverts.

Exports from Teesside shaped the way the world thought the 21st century would look.

Sadly, it hasn’t turned out to be quite so cool and clean as it was in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was hardly our fault, was it?

 

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