20th March 2014: The date of the Spring Equinox and the beginning of spring.
I have this delusional notion that on this very day I will shed my fur stoles and preventative flu supplements and gain an abundance of crisp and sunlit days suitable for wearing cat-eye sunglasses. In reality, I will still be wearing my 40 denier tights or 100 denier on especially numbing days. At this point it is indistinguishable as to where my skin begins and the tights end. Hosiery, whether it be tights, stockings or thigh highs are not only a climatic necessity but have a history of associations with modesty, sexuality and femininity. So, as the 75th anniversary of the nylon stocking is upon us, here is a brief look back at the introduction of nylon and its impact on stockings.
Nylon was launched in 1938 in the United States by the DuPont Company and was one of the first synthetic fibres to be produced. Scientific fact of the day: Nylon is a polyamide and manufactured from chemicals by building polymer chains from monomers. The fibre is strong, resilient, and goes back to its original shape after stretching – ideal stocking material. When the fibre was first tested experimentally it was used as a sewing thread in women’s hosiery and parachute manufacture. Nylon stockings were shown in February 1939 at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and at the New York World’s Fair two months later. They were originally going to be called norun but this wasn’t the case as the stockings did run, so they settled upon nylon and it was introduced to the American public in May 1940.
During the Second World War, nylon was primarily used in military supplies for the war effort. In Britain, women were given 66 clothing coupons per year; 12 of which were allocated to purchase 6 pairs of stockings. This was nowhere near enough. Armed with creativity and the refusal to let these rules dictate their lives, they resorted to ingenious methods. MaxFactor produced a preparation to tan women’s legs to replicate the look of a stocking. Likewise, women also used gravy and cocoa to tan their legs and drew a line on the back to produce a mock seam. Silk was banned for civilian clothing in 1941 and rayon was used as a substitute, albeit a poor one. This left women desperate for an alternative; nylon wasn’t manufactured in Britain until 1946 (the stockings were only available on the black market for a highly inflated price). Luckily, in 1942 US servicemen brought back nylon stockings with them for a few lucky ladies. The government’s Board of Trade also gave advice on how to lengthen the life of stockings and how to mend ladders.
After the war, nylon stockings were produced and were in high demand. Nylon gave women a strong and durable stocking that also had a smoother and more natural finish than its silk counterpart. This prompted thousands of women in big cities such as New York to queue around the block at department stores to get their hands on a pair.
Stockings completed an outfit and appeased any issues surrounding social respectability and modesty. The nylon stocking revolutionised hosiery and the excitement that they garnered amongst women is a testament to how important they were.
Written by Giselle La Pompe-Moore.