Friday, February 12, 2010



Eventually, technological advances made stockings more affordable for the masses and by the 1880’s  there even existed a circular machine that could manufacture a stocking in the shape of a complete tube with a closed heel and toe.

Cotton and wool were the abundant fabrics of the time.  Stockings made from silk were, of course, the most desirable fabric, but they were expensive and out of the range of most people.  So, what to do?

As early as 1855, a Swiss chemist named Georges Audemars invented the very first manufactured fiber developed from wood and cotton pulp as a kind of artificial silk.  He created this new fabric by dipping a needle into liquid mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to make threads.  Alas, this method was painfully slow and deemed too cumbersome to be practical.

In 1884, the Comte de Chardonnay, a French chemist, patented a cellulose-based fabric that became known as “Chardonnay silk”, another artificial silk.  Alas for him, it was deemed too flammable and was removed from the market.  

In 1891, "artificial silk" was said to be first successfully made from a solution of cellulose in France but  in 1894, three British inventors patented an even safer way of making this “artificial silk”,  which would eventually come to be known as viscose rayon. 

After being patented in the United States, the first American plant began production of this new fabric in 1910.  By 1912, rayon stockings were mass marketed as "artificial" silk and provided a more affordable alternative to silk hosiery.

In 1915, there was an unusual court case.  Department store B. Altman’s protested against paying customs duty for imported “clocked silk hose”, but was ruled against when the courts decided that “clocking” was the same as “embroidered silk wearing apparel” according to the Tariff act of 1913, even though the United States Court claimed:

“…we understand the merchandise to consist of silk hose…have the usual character and style of clocking-that is to say, having on either side a fancy stripe or stripes in plain or colored threads, terminating at the top in an arrowhead or similarly shaped design…there is nothing in the record tending to show that clocking is not in fact embroidery…and if the clocking on stockings constitutes embroidery, as has heretofore been held, then clocked silk stockings would be dutiable under this provision.”

The protest was overruled.

 Women’s fashion at the time became alarmingly risqué!!

Women’s arms were bared not only for evening, but also for day.  Feet, ankles and calves, formerly hidden and encased in black stockings that young women wore until the end of World War I, were suddenly on display!  Legs were often covered in beige and flesh-colored stockings visible to the knee which gave an overall more naked look than ever before.  

In 1924 this new artificial silk fiber that people were also calling “art silk” became officially known as rayon, and stockings (as well as undergarments) made of rayon became popular as an inexpensive alternative to real silk.

These new rayon stockings were often very shiny, so women powdered their legs to dull them before venturing out. 

Manufacturers named their stocking colors with such romantic names as Honey Beige, Teatime, Rose Morn, Boulevard and Spanish Brown.  Patterned stockings became the rage.  Not only were they embellished with embroidery but an article in 1920 said that it was common for women to have photos of their beaus transferred to their knees!

Between the years of 1920-1939, seamless “fully fashioned” stockings were available: stockings which were knitted flat, then sewn together with a back seam.  Unfortunately, this led to bunching and baggy ankles. 

In 1928, DuPont opened a research lab for development of artificial materials- an unusual path for a company to follow at the time.  Acclaimed Harvard professor Wallace Carothers left academia to head up the research division.  Alas, he was as troubled as he was brilliant, once claiming that he could recite all the famous chemists who had committed suicide.  As a macabre climax, in 1937 he consumed a ration of cyanide that it was said he always carried with him and killed himself.
Julian Hill was one of the group of researchers headed by the manic-depressive Carothers.  Looking for a silk substitute, Hill one day discovered that by pulling a heated rod from a mixture of coal tar, water and alcohol he could create a filament that was strong, sheer, and silk-like in appearance.   Further research led to the first synthetic fiber which came to be known first as “Polymer 6.6”.

Two years later, in 1937, DuPont patented the discovery.  In honor of the clinically depressed Carothers who committed suicide that year, DuPont decided that he- rather than Hill- should be hailed as the inventor of Polymer 6.6 as a tribute to his work.  A legend was born.

First used for fishing line and surgical sutures, DuPont’s new fiber was touted as being "as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web”, when it first announced and demonstrated nylon and nylon stockings to the American public at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

It is said that DuPont unveiled this new synthetic fabric to 3,000 women’s club members at the World’s Fair’s New York Herald Tribune’s “Forum on Current Problems” as part of  “World of Tomorrow”, the Fair’s official theme.

Though officially the name Nylon is a version of “No-Run” (the name originally tagged for this new fabric), some stories  claim that when this new synthetic fiber was first publically presented at the 1939 NY World's Fair, the NY was taken from the city's initials and the “LON” from London- thus the fiber became known as "nylon".

DuPont’s first full-scale plant was built in Delaware and began commercial production in 1939. 

Interestingly, the company chose NOT to register “nylon” as a trademark, but instead allowed it to become part of American vocabulary as a synonym for “stockings”.

The first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores on May 15, 1940 and 72,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone!

So crazed was the demand that four million were sold in the first 4 days and the Japanese silk market collapsed almost overnight.  By the end of 1940, DuPont had sold 64 million pairs of stockings and manufacturing could not keep up with the demand.

That year, nylon even appeared for the first time in movie: it was used in “The Wizard of Oz” to create the tornado that whisked Dorothy to the Emerald City!
World War II broke out.  By the end of  1941, both nylon and silk were lost to the war effort.  Nylon manufacturing was switched into tents, parachutes, ropes and tires for the military forces.

Known as the "miracle fiber", it was so critical to the war effort that drives were held to collect worn-out nylons to be recycled for military use and even what little silk was available was used to make powder sacks for the military because it left no residue inside gun barrels.

The stocking shortage led to both the popularity of women wearing folded-over cotton socks and the nutty trend of applying eyebrow pencil to the back of the leg to simulate the illusion of seams!

After the war, the craze for nylon stockings returned with a vengeance as manufacturing for the mass market resumed as demand sky rocketed.  In New York, Macy's sold out of its entire stock of 50,000 pairs of nylons in six hours.  One San Francisco store, mobbed by 10,000 shoppers, was forced to stop stocking sales in exasperation.

 In the 1940’s and 1950’s nylon stockings were “fully-fashioned”, as opposed to most modern stockings, which are “one-size”.  Fully fashioned stockings were tailored to the shape of the leg, and were seamed up the back.  The seam was an essential part of the stocking's construction, as it held it together.
The 1950’s introduced the seamless stocking. Because it appeared as if the woman was bare-legged, it was first thought to be unladylike, but soon surpassed the seamed stocking in popularity. 
In quick succession, 1959 introduced lycra, the 60’s introduced the seam-free stocking, and with the introduction of the mini skirt by designer Mary Quant in the 60’s, stockings and garter-belts gave way to the "all-in-one" pantyhose.  In 1965, Glen Raven Mills developed a seamless pantyhose version that coincided with the introduction of the miniskirt.  

Here’s a fun fact: former “Catwoman” (from the “Batman” TV series) actress Julie Newmar even patented an ultra-snug pantyhose called Nudemar: patent numbers 3,914,799 and 4,003,094 which read, in part, “Pantyhose with Shaping Band for Cheeky Derriere Relief".  They have elastic back seam that separates the buttocks.

The February 14, 1977 issue of “People” quotes her stating: “They make your derriere look like an apple instead of a ham sandwich…  It's a simple improvement.  I just gathered the back seam.  But it gives a woman the firm fanny of a 12-year-old."

..and what to do if you find that rare, early pair of royal stockings in your attic?

Well, in 2008, an elderly English woman found a pair of stockings that had been in a box in her attic for decades and had no idea how her family came to have them. They were judged to be an authentic pair of Queens Victoria’s black and white silk hose circa 1870’s and were sold at auction for $16,000.