Hosiery is something that we can pick up at most grocery stores, chemists and even petrol stations. It’s available in all kinds of colours, sizes, in an array of patterns and styles and is generally affordable enough to be disposed of as soon as the first ladder appears (*cries*). However, hosiery hasn’t always been this accessible and it certainly wouldn’t be this way if it weren’t for a US based company called DuPont.
From the 15th century, women would wear stockings made of cotton, linen, wool or silk. Up until the 1920s, stockings were predominantly worn for warmth. With women wearing long dresses, there was no need or desire to show them off so they weren’t designed to be aesthetically pleasing.
As hemlines rose in the 1920s, women were exposing their legs for the first time, which is when a more refined, sheer style of leg-wear became desirable. Silk and rayon (‘artificial silk’) stockings came on the market and they became the modern woman’s hosiery of choice. However silk stockings, were neither cheap nor durable and they weren’t quite sheer enough for the modern woman’s fashion sense.
This is where DuPont, a chemical company in the US, comes in. In 1930, DuPont brought in a team of researchers with the goal of finding a substitute for silk. For those who are scientifically inclined, I have added some science talk about how nylon came to be (If you’re like me and ‘don’t speak science’, just skip the next paragraph).
“Nylon emerged from research on polymers, very large molecules with repeating chemical structures, that Dr. Wallace Carothers and his colleagues conducted in the early 1930s at DuPont’s Experimental Station. In April 1930, a lab assistant working with esters – compounds which yield an acid and an alcohol or phenol in reaction with water – discovered a very strong polymer that could be drawn into a fiber. This polyester fiber had a low melting point, however. Carothers changed course and began working with amides, which were derived from ammonia. In 1935, Carothers found a strong polyamide fiber that stood up well to both heat and solvents. He evaluated more than 100 different polyamides before choosing one [nylon] for development.” *
Interestingly, nylon wasn’t immediately used to adorn womens’ legs, it was put to more practical use including fishing line, surgical sutures, and toothbrush bristles. It wasn’t until 1939 that DuPont began the commercial production of stockings which were launched the following year. DuPont claimed that this new synthetic fibre was “as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web“, which was a welcome replacement for the luxurious but delicate silk stockings. Women were keen to get their hands on these new stronger stockings, and 64 million pairs of stockings were sold in the first year!
A couple of years after World War II broke out, the supply of nylon was redirected to the war effort, where it was used for tents and parachutes. The production of stockings was halted and women were asked to donate all of their hosiery to the effort.
At this time, it was socially unacceptable to be out in public with bare legs, so women resorted to painting their legs with various lotions and drawing seams with an eyebrow pencil. Nylon stockings were in so much demand that houses were apparently broken into and pairs of stockings stolen. American soldiers deployed to the UK would also use some of the last pairs of Nylons they could get hold of to seduce British women. No judgement, I would have been tempted too.
Once the war ended, DuPont ramped up production again and women were desperate to get their legs back into the luxury of nylon stockings. Women lined up for hours to buy themselves a pair or two and the company struggled to keep up with demand. It has been reported that one day shoppers crowded the stores, and one San Francisco shop was forced to halt stocking sales when it was mobbed by 10,000 anxious women!
Nowadays, there are only a handful of manufacturers that make nylon stockings in the old fashioned way, as the non-stretch yarn has mostly been replaced by stretch yarns, but nylon stockings will always be an important piece of fashion history.
*Bellis, Mary. “A History of Nylon.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/wallace-carothers-history-of-nylon-1992197.