Category Archives: Women’s History

Nylon Stockings: Why or Why Not?

In 2009 journalist Gail Collins wrote a Letter to Young American Women, advising them that if they had come of age in 1960 they would feel more restricted, “if only because you were doomed to spend you days in a skirt, nylon stockings and girdle. (Everybody wore a girdle back then, even Barbie, the individual least in need of a foundation garment in American history.)”

Fast forward to the 1970s. Women wore nylon panty hose under pant suits to the office. The concept that a woman’s bare leg was unattractive was deeply entrenched.

Women had always worn stockings, most often for warmth. Up until about 1910, it didn’t matter how the stockings looked, because no one could see them under long skirts. Prior to the 1890s, stockings were made from cotton, linen, wool, or silk. None of these fabrics adhered to a woman’s leg. They bunched, wrinkled, and may have itched.

Skirts got a little shorter in 1910 with hemlines above the ankle. Hence the line from Cole Porter’s 1934 song Anything Goes

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as somethng shocking but now, God knows, anything goes.”


Hemlines took a serious rise in the 1920s, and women wanted sheer stockings to cover their exposed legs. Typical stockings came just above the knee and were secured by a garter. Suspension belts, also known as garter belts, had been invented in 1912. This 1921 advertisement from the Holeproof Hosery Company illustrates the desired effect. Despite their expense and tendency to run, by the 1930s, silk and rayon stockings were essential to a woman’s wardrobe.

On May 16, 1940  a new stocking came on the market when DuPont revealed nylon stockings with a nylon leg; a silk upper welt, toe, and heel, and a cotton seam at the back. Seams, by the way, had to be worn exactly straight in the middle of the leg. Four million pairs of brown nylon stockings appeared on department store shelves priced at $1.15 a pair. They sold out in two days. Women loved the fit, feel, and versatility of nylon stockings. They didn’t feel properly dressed without them.

On December 8, 1941 the United States entered World War II, and nylon became a vital war material used for parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting, and hammocks. Nylon stockings disappeared, and women were asked to launder their stockings and put them in a bin to be recycled into gun powder bags.  The caption on this recycling barrel reads: “Worn out nylon and silk stockings in this barrel full of salvaged stockings will be reprocessed and made into parachutes for army flyers, tow ropes for glider planes.”

Women were appalled at the idea of appearing in public with bare legs and socks and did everything they could to restore the look of stockings. They stained their legs with gravy browning mixtures, coffee, and cocoa powder. They used eyebrow pencil to draw a “seam” up the back of their legs. They shaved their legs, a grooming habit that hadn’t previously caught on.

Finally, the war was over. The song, When Nylons Bloom Again from Ain’t Misbehavin’ reflected the mood:

“I’ll be happy when nylons bloom again

Cotton is monotonous to men

Only way to keep affection fresh

Get some mesh for your flesh”

In August 1945, DuPont announced it would begin producing nylon stockings, but there were production delays. In September, mobs of women entered stores demanding nylons. Macy’s sold 50,000 pairs of stockings in six hours. There were Nylon Riots in Pittsburgh where 40,000 customers lined up for over a mile. The store only had 13,000 pairs of stockings. Things got ugly. The nylon shortage continued into 1946, but by March DuPont was able to produce 30 million pairs of nylon stockings a month.

Hosery fashion has moved on since 1960. Women still wear nylon stockings that come in multiple styles and colors. They also wear leggings, tights, leg warmers, and socks. They wear pantyhose, garter tops, knee high, and stay-up stockings. And sometimes, women don’t cover their legs at all.

🧦🧦🧦

When Nylons Bloom Again by George Markon, Jr. and Fats Waller.

1922 Holeproof Hosiery Advertisement

1910 Women’s Suit Hat

1921 Holeproof Hosiery Advertisement

Original Package of DuPont Stockings from the Science History Institute

Worn Out Nylons. NARA

“Which one do you like the most?” [Leggings] by mxmstryo

Gail Collins. “Letter to young American women.” CNN. Nov. 2, 2009.

Katelyn Merrigan. “History of Hosiery.” VienneMilano. July 17, 2017.

Emily Spivack. “Stocking Series, Part 1.” Smithsonian. Sept 4, 2012.

Titanic Survivors: The Socialite, The Actress, and The “Unsinkable” Woman

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. At 00.25 a.m. the next morning, the Titanic sent out a distress call. At 2:20 a.m. the ship sank. At 4:00 a.m. the Carpathia began picking up the 710 survivors. This is a story about three women who traveled in first class. One… Continue Reading

Two Coins: A Sense of Place

My latest book, Two Coins: A Biographical Novel, officially released this past Friday, February 1, 2019. And, I’m excited to share some of the background to Mary Pigot’s story, and how I found it. While doing research for Rama’s Labyrinth, I ran across several references to the case of Pigot vs. Hastie, a civil suit… Continue Reading

INGREDIENTS OF AN ALTERED APPEARANCE

Since ancient times women and men have altered their physical appearance to become more attractive to themselves and others. “How ancient?” you ask. Cleopatra used a lip color that got its reddish tint from ground carmine beetles. Before you wrinkle your nose in disgust, consider that modern lipstick formulas contain cochineal or carmine. Cochineal are… Continue Reading

Women’s Equality Day

FEMINISM: THE FIRST WAVE The fight for women’s equality in the United States began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Advocates worked tirelessly circulating petitions, holding rallies and conventions, and marching in public parades. In this parade, 20,000 women marched in New York City, many of them wearing white as a symbol of purity.… Continue Reading

SUMMER READS: Two Novels of Forgotten Women

THE HANDFASTED WIFE It’s 1065 and Edith Swanneck is worried, because “These days everyone talked of how important a church wedding was, a priest listening to vows exchanged in the church porch and then blessing the marriage.” [Handfasted Wife, Chapter 1] Edith Swanneck didn’t stand on the church porch with her husband Harold Godwinson. They… Continue Reading

SUMMER READS: Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton & Patsy Jefferson Randolph

We see Alexander Hamilton every time we take out a ten dollar bill. Our first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton believed in a strong central government led by the executive branch, established the national debt as a means of developing international credit, and built the Bank of the United States. Alone among the Founding Fathers,… Continue Reading

SUMMER READS: TWO NOVELS BY SUJATA MASSEY

Good historical fiction takes the reader into an authentic world where the story is presented against the backdrop of actual customs and material culture, for example, food as it is eaten and prepared or family customs such as purdah, the seclusion of women within the household. When there’s also a mystery involved, it becomes more… Continue Reading

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