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Before Pantyhose Were a Curse, They Were a Revelation

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Pantyhose are making a comeback! At least they are according to the Wall Street Journal. We might have Kate Middleton to thank for that, or women could have just gotten really tired of applying spray tan to their legs during winter.

Still, there are obviously some people who won’t be embracing the trend. Michelle Obama claimed a few years ago, "I stopped wearing pantyhose a long time ago, because it was painful and they'd always rip. And I'm 5'11", so I'm tall, nothing fits. Put 'em on, rip 'em. It's inconvenient." She’s certainly not the only woman to feel that way. Dorothy Parker preferred to go bare-legged as far back as the 1920s. She recalled a trip to a casino where they wouldn’t admit her without stockings, to which she remarked, "I went and got my stockings and came back and lost my shirt."

But while some really cool women have always preferred the bare-legged look, for most of history they were in the minority. Nylons were extremely popular basically starting from the moment they were invented in 1938. Stockings had been around for much longer, but until then they’d been made of silk. The nylon material was new and it was billed as the best thing ever. The New York Times claimed nylons were "strong as steel" and promotional campaigns that featured models playing tug of war with them illustrated their durability. Women loved it. Literally millions of pairs were sold during their first few weeks of production.

Image: Arthur Tanner/Getty

During World War II, though, nylon factories were repurposed to produce wartime necessities, which didn’t include ladies apparel. Women took to drawing lines up the back of their legs with eyebrow pencils to give the impression that they were wearing highly-prized pairs of stockings. The 1957 film Kiss Them For Me, based on the wartime play, features a scene where a group of sailors lure women up to their room by putting a sign in the hotel lobby that promises "free nylons." (There are going to be a few examples of men behaving kind of badly in this post, so hang in there). Finally, in 1948, those factories began producing nylons again. Thanks to their scarcity during the war years — or just because they’d always been great — nylons became an absolutely necessity for the well-dressed women.

In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, nylon stockings were held up either by garter belts or by a girdle. Girdles, if you've never worn one, are extremely uncomfortable — at least by today's standards (there will certainly be a vintage aficionado out there who thinks they are very comfortable, but that aficionado is wrong). They are like a crazy cage around your waist, but they were still considered a necessity in the '50s. There’s a horrifying, slut shaming scene in Anatomy of a Murder where a woman who has been raped is going to trial, and Jimmy Stewart tells her that "you’re going to wear a girdle, especially a girdle. I don’t usually complain about an attractive amount of jiggle, but you save the jiggle for your husband to look at." Here’s the scene, complete with additional pinball-playing shaming:

In 1959, the textile manufacturer Allen Gant Sr.’s wife had just become pregnant. That meant that she was having a nightmarish time getting into a girdle to hold up her stockings. She tried sewing a pair of stockings directly to her underwear. Grant liked it so much that she suggested her husband make something similar. He did, but, really, Ethel Gant should get credit for inventing pantyhose.

In 1964 Ebony magazine wrote about how the new garment "offered a solution to the garter problem" and by 1969, 624 million pairs a year were being produced (compared to only 200 million pairs in 1968). Life magazine hailed them, in 1970, as being "a sartorial spin-off from Rock Culture, Miniskirt division." That almost certainly wasn’t what Ethel Grant intended, but newer, shorter skirts made it impossible to wear garters. Or, at least, impossible to wear garters without the garters being seen, which was not a look many people were going for.

Image: Keystone/Getty

1970 was also the year that L’eggs introduced the pantyhose that were sold in an egg-shaped package, which made them stand out brilliantly on the shelves. In a paper written in 1977 entitled "An Analysis of the Language of Modern Advertising Using Pantyhose as an Example," author Alleen Pace Nilsen explains that L’eggs are cleaning up. She writes, "Each pair of pantyhose comes encased in a plastic container copied as nearly as modem technology can manage after one of nature's most perfect packages. At Easter time, these plastic egg shaped containers are especially appealing because they come in 'robin's-egg-blue, bunny-rabbit-pink, baby-chick yellow, pretty-pastel-purple and jelly-bean green.'" This seems like it shouldn’t have been that effective, but women loved it, and it inspired a slew of imitators. If you watch Mad Men you might remember a scene where the makers of Topaz pantyhose suggest that maybe they could sell pantyhose in the shape of a jewel, a suggestion which the Mad Men team collectively rolls their eyes at.

But here’s the thing — by 1970, pantyhose were probably about as good as they were going to get. The next 20 years were spent desperately trying to build in new shaping technology and making women paranoid that their pantyhose were wrinkly. There’s even an ad where a child at the zoo likens her mother’s stockings to the wrinkly legs of an elephant, which strangely incites the mother into buying new pantyhose instead of teaching that child not to say insulting things in public.

By 1991, L’eggs claimed in the New York Times that, "Sales have been hurt by panty hose's increasing durability, which means fewer purchases." Look, they were probably also hurt by the fact that women in the '90s were attempting to affect a more effortless look, which meant going around bare-legged most of the time. But then, the '90s were 20 years ago. Soon enough, pantyhose might have the charm of any other retro garment, so it’s only a matter of time before you see someone cool wearing them at an art gallery opening in Bushwick.