Pleather – portmanteau fans, that’s, plastic ‘leather’ – makes us uncomfortable, despite its animal-free makeup. There’s the touch; it doesn’t feel quite like real thing, the fabric equivalent of a Beyond burger. Equally, though, it now makes us figuratively feel a sense of unease, an uncanny, synthetic version of something natural.
It wasn’t always like this. After nitrocellulose, the main ingredient of gunpowder, exploded onto the scene in the 1840s, it started to be converted to brittle plastic collodion and then applied to fabrication. In the 1920s, Naugahyde was invented, sheared from the gormless, toothy-grinned Nauga, an animal that naturally sheds its own skin. Well, that’s how the advertising campaign had it anyway; while it led to an actual urban myth, the Nauga was nothing more than a fictional mascot, helping to sell PVC pleather by appealing to its durability, easy-cleaning and seamlessness.
It gave way to tons of copycat fabrics, promising the look of leather at a cheaper price and without the need for intensive labour. Aside from cost, too, there was an ethical slant; now, there was no need to kill a cow to look like a cowboy. By the turn of the century, it was here to stay. “Fall promises to provide a plethora of pleather, a shorthand name for plastic leather that’s sexy, supple and synthetic,” goes this 2000 article from The Los Angeles Times. Or, if you needed any real millennial validation, this scene from Sex and The City:
Party host: Is that pleather?
Carrie Bradshaw: Yes, and thanks so much for noticing!