A History of Hosiery

When Cole Porter wrote the words “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows Anything Goes!” in the 1930s for his hit musical Anything Goes he was taking a humorous look at the changing attitudes of his time.  However, coming across these words again recently, I realised how closely the history of hosiery reflects the changing definitions of femininity throughout the 20th Century.  For example, stockings came to prominence in the early 20th Century when it became socially acceptable for women to show their legs but tights became the dominant product when the hemlines of the more liberated 1960s woman rose well above the knee.  In the 21st Century, stockings are again finding their place as the burlesque movement has helped women to fall in love again with vintage sensuality.

Before anyone had even conceived of nylon, the Reverend William Lee invented the first knitting machine in 1549.  At this time stockings were worn predominantly by men and were made from wool, silk and cotton.  Two hundred years before the industrial revolution sprung into action and having watched his mother and sister spending hours on laborious knitting work, the Reverend decided to find a way to automate the process and free them from this time consuming task.  It worked and it made him famous though I’m less clear on whether it actually freed his mother and sister from the drudgery of domestic work.

Things didn’t really get interesting for women’s hosiery until the early 1930s with the invention of revolutionary fabric – Nylon.   This fabric, which was according to inventors Du Pont “as stong as steel, as fine as spiders web”, was an instant hit with the women of New York when it was released in hosiery form in 1940.  64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold in the US in the first year alone.  When all nylon production was focussed on the war effort – nylons became difficult to obtain and highly coveted.  Girls famously stained their legs brown and drew the seams up the back to emulate stockings – proving what a fashion essential nylons had become.  Later in the War those American GIs stationed in UK, who still had some access to supplies of nylons, became very popular with the British ladies!

The stockings worn by the ladies of the 1940s were “Fully Fashioned”.  Because nylon has no stretch they had to be fashioned to the shape of the leg and they came in a great number of sizes.  They were knitted flat and then the two sides were sewn together by hand to create the fine seam up the back.  They are less commonplace now but if you are a fan of vintage glamour you can still get your hands on traditional stockings like the Gerbe Carnation Fully Fashioned Stockings.

The next big revolution in hosiery came in the 1950s when manufacturers discovered that they could add stretch to nylon by crimping it under heat.  Lycra was invented and hosiery has never been the same again! Lycra is found in so many garments these days that it is easy to take it for granted but this strong and ultra stretchy fabric has completely transformed hosiery.  Now women had stockings that would keep their shape and not bag around the knees and ankles.

In the next decade, Lycra enabled another fashion revolution.  As hemlines rose in the 1960s, stockings were beginning to look rather unsuitable under those mini skirts.  Tights were the solution and they rapidly gained 70% of the market – and allowed hemlines to rise even higher!  At the same time, manufacturers had developed tube knitting which meant that tights could be woven in once piece and without the seam.  The practical advantages of tights for many girls meant that nylons with a seam virtually disappeared.

In recent years, the demand for vintage has become increasingly mainstream and many high street chains have drawn their inspiration from this movement, tale a look at the Pretty Polly Nylons collection for a touch of vintage glamour.  It has been good to see that many young women are now experimenting with vintage underwear and with traditional stockings – it looks great and guys still find this style incredibly sexy.

Of course now, instead of staining our legs to look like we are wearing stockings, the modern woman wants her summer bare leg look to look flawless but as natural as possible.  The development of fine yarns in products like Falke’s Shelina Tights and Wolford’s Luxe 9 have created virtually “invisible” tights.

Elsewhere, hosiery has become more than just an accessory but a fashion statement in its own right.  New knitting and printing techniques have allowed more elaborate and complex designs.  From the Henry Holland range for Pretty Polly which cleverly mixes different deniers to create cutting edge designs to young British brand Bebaroque who embellish their tights with jewels, pearls and intricate flowers to print specialist Celeste Stein with her quirky and original and often humorous designs.  It is certainly true that anything goes in hosiery these days and the modern woman really is spoilt for choice when it comes to her leg wear.

Founder of MyTights.com

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