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Most of us wouldn’t think that a simple pair of women’s stockings could have anything to do with the advancement in military research and war, but nylon stockings did! Not only that, but they caused one of the biggest riots in U.S. history.
The First Known Stockings
The first known pair of women’s hosiery were discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 500 A.D. The woven socks belonged to a rich noble and had a detailed fitted heel with a draw-cord top. Prior to that, it is believed that people in Europe and wider continents wrapped flattened animal skins and weaved-animal hair around their legs for warmth.
During the middle ages, early experiments of stockings were developed with the inventions of knitting machines and looms but were usually only available to the monarchy. Reverend William Lee made the first pair of stockings from pure silk and offered them to both Queen Elizabeth I and James I; however, both refused the patent. It wouldn’t be until 1600 for Lee, and his assistant, John Ashton, to bring his full machine invention to fruition and adjust it into wider accessibility.
19th Century Hosiery
Stockings became a necessity in the Victorian era and were worn by both men and women. Hidden away under long dresses, stockings became synonymous with a secretive type of womanhood. Tights also may have been in circulation at this time but were most likely seen as inelegant as they compromised the modesty of layered petticoats.
20th Century Hosiery: The Dawn of a New Age
By the 1920’s it became common for women to wear bare legs under their flapper dresses, some would even use their garter belts to hold their hip flasks during prohibition. During this time stockings were mainly made of out of expensive silk and did not hold up well with normal wear and tear.
In 1939, scientists led by Wallace Hume Carothers created nylon, the first synthetic fiber developed entirely in a laboratory. It was produced for the DuPont chemical company and changed the realm of stockings forever. Nylon stockings were boasted as having the strength of steel with the sheerness of cobwebs. Women could now wear strong elastic stockings that were more cost efficient, provided a beautiful sheen to their legs, and reduced the chances of a snag or a run.
"As hemlines continued to rise throughout the 1930s, silk and rayon stockings had become an increasingly necessary part of every woman’s wardrobe." ~ Sciencehistory.org., Nylon: A Revolutio in Textiles.
Wartime and Stocking Panic
Stockings were an essential part of every woman’s wardrobe and DuPont made their grand debut in an ostentatious display at the World’s Fair in New York (1939). At first, DuPont only offered their nylon stockings to their employees at their factory in Wilmington, Delaware, but after a nationwide campaign, the hosiery went on sale across America on May 15, 1940, and an estimated four million pairs were sold in just four days. One pair cost $1.15.
However, just as the public was getting a taste of this new product, the production of nylon took priority to a much higher purpose during World War II and the material was used to make parachutes, hammocks, airplane chords and much more. This led to a shortage of stockings and created a black market that was astronomical. Stockings were being sold at $20 a pair, which is equivalent to over $300 today. Nylon robberies were also common, and some women used make-up and paint on their legs to give the illusion of stockings.
By the end of the war, DuPont returned to producing stockings but could not keep up with the huge demand; Macy’s in New York sold 50,000 pairs in just six hours and the American press reported a series of disturbances known as the nylon riots.
The first riot happened in September 1945 when a small post-war shipment of stockings went on sale around the country for a limited time. Women across America cheered, but the celebration would be short-lived. DuPont had promised a full production of stockings in the first shipment but were only able to deliver a small fraction. This is when all hell broke loose. Women wanted their stockings, and they wanted them NOW!
Thousands of women from all over swarmed department stores determined to get their hands on these precious commodities. Store managers pleaded with the female customers to be patient, but they smashed out store windows in Washington D.C. and 40,000 women fought over 13,000 pairs of stockings in Pittsburg. Women raced through store aisles, knocking over displays, and fighting each other for the coveted hosiery.
"Everywhere the stockings appeared, newspapers reported on 'nylon riots' in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of women lined up to compete for a limited supply of hosiery." ~ Sciencehistory.org, Nylon: A Revolution in Textiles.
Newspapers reported on the scandalous stories, and some accused DuPont of deliberately creating the shortage.
The scarcity of stockings continued into 1946 until DuPont was finally able to increase production and make 30 million pairs of stockings a month. The widespread availability ended the period of the “nylon riots”.
Because DuPont owned the patent to nylons, it was faced with anti-trust suits in 1951 and they were forced to license the manufacture of their product to their competitors.
In 1958, a DuPont chemist, Dr. Joseph Shivers, invented the stretch synthetic fiber, LYCRA. Hosiery could now stretch to fit a woman’s body and wearers could get longer wear out of one pair of stockings, even if their weight fluctuated. In addition, stockings could be dyed and dried more easily. LYCRA stockings were attached to panties in an all-in-one garment allowing women to do away with their garter belts and girdles to wear a shorter hemline.
By 1965, Pierre Cardin became the first designer to offer tights to women in various colors and patterns for both summer and winter. Mary Quant and Emilio Puccio soon followed with numerous colored stockings and signature-print patterns. By the 1970’s, the sales of tights had sky-rocketed, overtaking that of stockings entirely.
As girls hit the dance scene in the late 1970’s, LYCRA-mix leggings or hosiery became a popular fashion trend. Torn and ripped fishnets paired with stilettos were advertised by the press to make shocking impressions and fashion statements. By the 1980’s women were ready for more feminine and sexy tights such as lace, fishnet, and dark opaque tights worn with a tight-fitting miniskirt.
21st Century Hosiery
Even though tights had endured in popularity for almost 30 years, enthusiasm began to dwindle in the mid 90’s as androgynous fashions became more popular. There was also more focus on formal wear and office apparel.
Bare legs were less controversial, and stockings became more of a choice for lingerie and shapewear that smoothed out the abdomen, buttocks, and thighs to create a supple silhouette.
By the mid 2000’s, footless tights, leggings and jeggings briefly became popular amongst all age groups. There was also a rising interest in dolly shoes and the 80’s retro aesthetic such as mixing old pieces of clothing with new ones.
Today's post pandemic has enabled women the freedom of working from home or going into business for themselves. Tights and stockings will always be a commodity for women everywhere, allowing them to remain fashionable as they also keep up with the forever growing changes in the world as well as in their own day-to-day lives.
VienneMilano offers a wide array of luxury tights and hosiery for every woman and occasion! Product is made in Italy.
Isabella Boston is a multi-talented writer and the founder of Bella’s Attic Studio. She is well-versed in content writing, copywriting, and social media strategies with a focus on health and wellness, fashion and beauty, and natural healing as it pertains to the body, mind, and the soul. She is also a diarist and the author of Passion of Flames.
1. See HOW LYCRA® fiber has shaped the world. History of LYCRA® fiber | Explore Our Timeline | The LYCRA Company. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://www.lycra.com/en/consumers-discover/see-how-lycra-fiber-has-shaped-world
2. Komar, M. (2019, November 4). A history of tights: When pantyhose were revolutionary style. Time. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://time.com/5680431/tights-fashion-history/
3. Nu, D. (2014, May 11). Fashionable violence: The post-war nylon riots. Oddly Historical. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://oddlyhistorical.wordpress.com/2014/05/11/fashionable-violence-post-war-nylonriots/
4. Magazine, S. (2015, May 11). How nylon stockings changed the world. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonianinstitution/how-nylon-stockings-changed-world-180955219/
5. Magazine, S. (2012, September 4). Stocking series, part 1: Wartime rationing and nylon riots. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/stocking-series-part-1-wartime-rationing-and-nylon-riots-25391066/