A history of hosiery

Stockings have become synonymous with suggestive style. Here’s how hose went from chaste to racy…

Stockings Katy PearsonKnitted stockings (of cotton and wool and sometimes silk) were worn by both men and women until long trousers became the choice de rigueur for chaps in the 18th century. It was at this time that stockings came to be thought of as exclusively for women.

Throughout the puritanical Victorian era even seeing a glimpse of bare leg was “enough to bring on a touch of the vapours,” writes Sarah Roberts in The Stocking Book. A lady, quite simply, would never been seen in public without her stockings (though her stockings would never actually be seen). Indeed Ambrose Bierce in 1850 described a garter as “an elastic band intended to keep a woman from coming out of her stockings and desolating the country.”

But following World War I attitudes changed – none more so than to legs and their coverings.

‘During the 1920s, beige, skin coloured and pastel coloured stockings were in fashion,’ explains Roberts. ‘Feet, ankles and calve were on display. And during Prohibition in America, ladies used to tuck hip flasks of alcohol into their garters.’

It was on May 15, 1940, that the first nylon stockings appeared in New York.

‘Over 72,000 pairs were sold on the first day alone,’ reveals Roberts. Indeed 64 million pairs were sold in the first year. ‘Throughout the 1940s and 1950s women wore stockings fashioned to the shape of their legs. As nylon did not stretch, stockings had to be produced in different sizes.’

Lycra (which is able to stretch to seven times it original length without breaking) was only invented in 1959.

But more hosiery changes were on the horizon. Bare legs started to become acceptable in the 1960s and the arrival of the mini skirt meant tights became increasingly popular

‘By the 1970s sales tights had overtaken those of stockings,’ says Roberts. ‘Tights remained popular throughout the 70s, 80s and early 90s, until 1995 when sales began to fall. This was attributed to the fashion for bare legs. By 2006 leggings and footless tights had become a more popular alternative, and stockings were largely relegated to the intimacy of the bedroom.’

Today stockings scream sex. As the late Victor Arwas wrote: ‘When a woman takes all her clothes off, she can be depicted as a pure, Classical nude. If, however, she keeps her stockings on, she suddenly becomes naked, an erotic creation capable of arousing the viewer’s libido.’

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