The Nylon Stocking: An Exciting History

It isn’t common for people to wear nylon stocking options today, but in the past, they used to be an everyday staple. In the 1940s and 50s, if a women left the house without wearing a pair of nylons, it would be like leaving the house half-naked. But what exactly are stockings?

Why were they so important for so many years and why did they suddenly disappear? Read on to discover the unique history of nylon stockings below.

When Was The Nylon Stocking Invented?

Before nylon stockings were invented, women (and sometimes men) wore silk stockings. They were very expensive and very delicate. Throughout the 1700s, both wealthy men and women wore silk stockings. Into the 1800s and early 1900s, silk stockings were mainly worn by women.

It was only in 1937 that the first “experimental” nylon stocking came to light. Nylon as a material had recently been invented in a lab and certain manufacturers wanted to test the strength and delicacy of a nylon stocking since, apparently, nylon had the strength of steel while simultaneously being very thin and soft. These experimental stockings proved to be a success and certain manufacturers started to turn out as many stockings as possible.

Nylon stocking
My pair of vintage reproduction stockings from What Katie Did.

They were seen as extremely luxurious compared to more old-fashioned stockings and every woman wanted a pair once they were released to the public in 1940. More than 4 million pairs of these stockings sold in just a few days. However, only a few years later in 1942, World War II required significant amounts of nylon to make ropes, shoelaces, fuel tanks, and more.

The Details

Women were no longer able to buy stockings due to the rerouting of this synthetic material. However, women of that time were not ready to go bare-legged around town, so they used paint or even gravy to paint their legs a slightly darker color to make it look like they were wearing stockings. They even would use a brush to paint a fake seam down the back of their legs.

In the final years of the war, any time a pair of stockings appeared in stores (which was rare), women would stampede with such mania that it would make even the most frenzied Black Friday shoppers look like playful toddlers. Even for a few years after the war, there was still a big shortage of nylon and women often stood in lines for several city blocks (if not miles) riding on the slim hope that they might get a pair.

After all, by that point, women were probably very tired of painting their legs with gravy.

Understanding Stockings

True nylon stockings, also known as fully-fashioned stockings, are quite different from the stockings we have today. Stockings today are mostly made of elastic and, for that reason, they are often very small and scrunched up in appearance. They are designed to be stretched out when applied to your leg. Nylon stockings are different because they usually don’t contain much (if any) elastic, although there is some natural flexibility from the nylon fibers.

Because there is little flexibility in stockings, they look quite large and are in the shape of a leg. For that reason, it is very important to get the right size since a small stocking won’t be able to stretch around a large leg and a large stocking will be too loose around a small leg.

Also, because of the lack of elastic, stockings would have to be held up with a suspender belt much like the ones you can find here. As long as a woman chose the right sized stocking, the stockings should be comfortable enough to wear all day. They were also very stylish and gave a woman’s legs a slightly shiny and blemishless look.

Nylon stocking from the 1950s.

The heel would be reinforced with a slightly darker and thicker strip of nylon. The heel would often have a unique design that would follow the line of the Achilles’ tendon. For example, the French heel design involved a sleek, tapering line from the base of the heel and up the back of the heel. On the other hand, the Cuban heel was similar but had a flat top instead of a pointed top.

But if nylon stockings were the lifeblood of the 40s and 50s, what ever happened to them? Why are they such a rarity today?

What Happened to Stockings?

The previously uninterrupted reign of nylon stockings came to an end in 1959 when pantihose was invented. Pantihose was a mix of tights and stockings and did not require suspender belts. Pantihose also came in all sorts of colors which made them very popular with the colorful youth of the 1960s.

Stockings fell out of fashion almost completely by the early 60s and almost every woman started to wear pantihose instead. This continued throughout the 1970s until the 80s arrived. By the late 80s and early 90s, many women stopped wearing pantihose altogether and sported bare legs instead.

Pantihose instead of nylon stocking.
1980s pantihose ad.

Today, there is an unusual hatred against pantihose and stockings among some women. Some believe that these simple tubes of elastic and nylon are somehow “oppressive” to women. It is unusual for women to wear stockings or pantihose today except for black pantihose for formal occasions.

There are small niches that enjoy wearing stockings and pantihose even today. But for the most part, stockings and similar garments are not in today’s realm of fashion.

Whatever the case, the history of the nylon stocking certainly has a prominent place in the timeline of women’s fashion.

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