Claire Gleason knew she had found a treasure when she stumbled upon a women's black knit suit made from cellophane.
Gleason found the suit during her summer internship at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
``The suit was a 1930s design that had cellophane interwoven into the fabric, which makes it extremely unique,'' she said.
After Gleason's discovery she became very interested in fashionable plastics. She began researching the subject and then proposed an idea for a fashionable plastics exhibit to her graduate class at FIT. They voted on students' exhibit ideas — and Gleason's won.
``Innovation/Imitation: Fashionable Plastics of the 1930s,'' an exhibition at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, examines the role of plastics in fashion and decorative objects. Graduate students in FIT's master's program act as curators as part of a year-long course in exhibition planning.
Because the exhibit had a late start, students had to find pieces for the exhibit from flea markets, private dealers and donations.
Albina Dimio, faculty adviser of the graduate studies class, said the exhibit was put together in an amazing amount of time.
``Exhibits can take anywhere from six to seven months to put together because you have to request donation pieces from other museums at least six months ahead of time,'' she said. ``We had a late start so all of our pieces came from the hard work and determination of the students. We put this together in a matter of weeks.''
Pieces in the exhibit include everything from a navy clutch bag in Lucite acrylic to a traveling clothesline complete with purple plastic clothespins in a coordinating pigskin case.
During the 1930s, Lucite and Bakelite were also used for automobiles, jewelry, fashion accessories, poker chips, cards, dominoes and dice, and cellophane was woven into many textiles.
Jay Ruckle, a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said the 1930s was a fascinating period for plastics.
``During the '30s celebrities adored wearing fashionable plastics whether it be jewelry or hair combs,'' he said. ``You could purchase a set of Spanish simulated tortoise-shell combs that were handmade and they would cost about $10. Six months later the same combs would cost 10 cents because they found a way to reproduce them very cheaply.''
Ruckle said the World's Fair in 1939 had an impact on the popularity of plastics in fashion.
``During the World's Fair designers from around the world were asked to design fashions or decorations using plastics,'' Ruckle said. ``Designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Gilbert Rohde took this opportunity to use cellophane and Bakelite very creatively. The public loved it.''
The exhibit contains high-styled Bakelite objects for handbags made by Westclox, plus the Emerson icon, the tombstone radio made from White Catalin (phenol formaldehyde). Photographs of Radio Music Hall, the Queen Mary ocean liner, and the Twentieth Century Limited luxury train illustrate the designers' use of these ``miracle materials.''
Gleason said she hopes the exhibit clarifies some stereotypes given to plastics.
``One of the reasons I was so delighted about putting this exhibit together was because I wanted people to overcome some of the negative preconceived notions they often have about plastics,'' she said. ``Plastics have been given a negative reputation and I want people to see just how sophisticated and fun they can be.''
``Innovation/Imitation: Fashionable Plastics of the 1930s'' will be on display June 16 through Aug. 1. The exhibition is free and open to the public.