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Stockings Hung With Care? ~ The History of Ordinary Things

Stockings refer to over-the-knee hosiery. They have been worn by European noble men for horseback riding since the 15th & 16th centuries. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth I began wearing knit silk stockings for their softness and comfort. They were held up by garters attached to a belt or corset.

In the early 1900s, stockings were knit flat, cut, and sewn together down the back of the leg. This created the famous back seam which incidentally was not popular among women who wanted to appear as if they were not wearing stockings. Imagine the scandal of appearing in public with bare legs! And then there was the matter of getting the seam straight on your leg.

Full-fashion stockings came in sizes 8.5 to 10 which considered the shoe size and leg width. They tended to bag at the ankles because the fiber had no elasticity and stockings were overcut at the ankle to get your foot into it. As dresses became shorter in the 1920s, it was socially unacceptable for a woman to leave the house without her legs covered. Pants were not yet an option, so stockings had their heyday.

Stockings were typically made of silk or the newest thread, rayon, which came to the market in 1917. Rayon, made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, was the first silk substitute. A mix of silk or rayon with cotton supplied the best of both materials and longest wear.

Fishnet stockings revealed too much leg for most women. In the 1920s, they were worn only by show girls and those especially naughty flappers. The flappers, not wanting to wear garters or girdles, created rolled garters to hold up stockings rolled below the knees. Flappers also applied a little leg make-up to their bare knees to tease men with a risqué glimpse of skin.

In 1930, the DuPont Company created NYLON, the first synthetic fiber made entirely from chemicals. The new fiber was touted “as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web”. It was introduced for fishing line, toothbrush bristles and surgical sutures. Nylon stockings were shown to the American public at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Women loved them!

In 1937, Louis Goldschmidt, a German sock maker, invented a fine gauge knitting machine to create a circular sock. They were shaped by pressing them on a form. Women soon had a tubular stocking with NO SEAMS.

In 1942, nylon went to war replacing the Japanese silk in parachutes and tents. Stocking factories were repurposed to produce wartime necessities. Bare legs were still unacceptable, so women used a leg make-up to stain their legs and drew leg seams with an eyeliner pencil to give the impression that they were wearing stockings. In 1948, those war-time factories began producing stockings again.

In the 1940s, Dunlop chemists (the tire people) developed Lastex, thin strands of rubber wrapped in cotton threads. Used in bras and girdles, Lastex was great for firming, but HOT, as rubber does not breathe. In 1949 Dupont created a type of stretchy polyurethane fabric trademarked under the name Lycra. Also referred to as Spandex or elastane, it was introduced in bras and girdles in 1959.

Panti-Legs were also introduced in 1959 and took hold in the ‘60s with the popularity of the mini-skirt. The pantyhose made girdles unnecessary, but women continued to wear them for the shaping they desired. The “control top” previewed in 1970.

Pantyhose became a staple in every teen and woman’s wardrobe. Sales expanded as more women went to work.

The glory days of stockings came to an end in the 1990s. Women were wearing pants with trouser socks. The casual fashion styles had arrived.

Spandex was introduced in the footless Spanx leg coverings which were intended for under garments, but quickly expanded to outerwear. The life cycle for hosiery had peaked and waned.

Today exposed skin is the norm. But that too will evolve.

What will be next?

Doris Montag

Doris Montag

Doris is a collector, a storyteller and a free-lance curator whose passion is unlocking the stories in collections from family or private individuals. She develops and installs exhibits in small museums, libraries, and public spaces. And she writes about her experiences in her column, The History of Ordinary Things. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer