Long used to describe socks or any covering for the feet, the term "stockings" has come to refer to the sheer foot and leg coverings worn mainly by women. Once made of thick cotton or wool, stockings were mostly hidden under long skirts and only seen in provocative glimpses. Since the 1920s, however, women's skirt lengths have remained well above the ankle, and sheer, colored, embroidered, or patterned stockings have become a highly visible fashion accessory. Since the beginning of the 1940s most stockings have been made from nylon.
Knitted stockings have been commonly available since an English clergyman named William Lee (c. 1550–1610) invented a knitting machine in 1589. Though women had worn plain cotton or wool stocking for centuries, it took the rising hemlines of the 1920s to make stockings fashionable. Young women wearing their skirts at knee length wanted to show off their legs in pretty stockings. Soon embroidered cotton stockings appeared, but these became baggy around the knees after a few wearings. Even rayon, a new sheer fabric invented in Germany in 1915, had the same problem. Stockings made of silk held their shape better and soon became quite popular, though they were expensive. Manufacturers began to make stockings in a variety of flesh colors, and soon legs appeared almost bare, except for the seam that ran up the back. Silk stockings were held up by garters, elastic circles that fit tightly around each leg, or garter belts, elastic bands that went around the waist with several fasteners that hung down to secure the stockings.
Women liked silk stockings, but they were easily torn, so in the late 1930s scientists at the DuPont Company in Delaware began experimenting to create a stronger fabric. In the lab they called the result Polymer 6.6, and DuPont claimed that it was almost indestructible. They intended the fabric to be used for women's stockings, and they introduced it at the 1939 New York World's Fair, displayed as a giant stocking on a giant replica of a woman's leg. They named the new fabric nylon after New York, and stores quickly sold out of the new stockings. The first year that nylon stockings were available, women in the United States bought sixty-four million pairs. By 1941 20 percent of all stockings produced in the United States were made of nylon.
The new nylon stockings, or nylons as they came to be called, were very popular with women because they were comfortable, inexpensive, and attractive. In only a few years, however, World War II (1939–45) had started, and nylon was needed for the war. The new fabric was needed to make tents and parachutes and was no longer available for women's accessories. During the war years it was not uncommon for women to draw a black line down the back of their bare legs so that it would appear as if they were wearing stockings. Some women even used makeup to color their legs darker. When nylons appeared in stores again after the war, women lined up by the thousands to buy them.
By the early 1960s circular knitting machines could create seamless tubes of fabric to make nylon stockings without a back seam, and by the late 1960s very short hemlines had popularized sheer tights called "panty hose," which eliminated the cumbersome garter belt. By the last decades of the twentieth century, most women wore pantyhose or trousers with socks or knee-high stockings. Traditional stockings and garter belts have become rare but are still considered elegant and sexy by many.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.
[ See also Volume 5, 1961–79: Pantyhose ]