The History of Hosiery by ELLE UK LTD.

The History of Hosiery 

Nylons and tights weren’t invented until the 20th century but their origins can be traced back many centuries. Ancient Greek slaves used to wear a form of hosiery, the Romans wore a short sock (or soccus) around the home and cotton or silk socks were worn in China and Japan for hundreds of years.  

The early development of hosiery in the UK was closely linked to men’s fashions at court, where short doublets replaced long robes in Tudor times. In Henry VIII’s reign, doublets were worn with fine knitted silk stockings (known as hose) imported from Spain, held up by garters just above the knee. By the time Elizabeth I took to the throne, the knowledge of how to knit stockings by hand had spread into many parts of England and become an important industry. 

The first knitting machine

An English clergyman, William Lee of Nottinghamshire, invented the first knitting machine in 1589. Apparently Queen Elizabeth was none too impressed with William’s first knitting frame, which produced a long piece of woollen fabric that was then sewn together to create a rather coarse, seamed stocking. He went on to refine his invention until it was capable of knitting a finer gauge fabric for the gentlemen of the day. 

Men continued to wear fine silk stockings until the end of the 18th century, when long trousers became fashionable, with socks underneath. It wasn’t until Victorian values started to relax a little that fashionable hosiery for women began to be seen.

A glimpse of stocking…

“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
Now heaven knows, 
Anything Goes!”

When Cole Porter’s hit musical ‘Anything Goes’ made its Broadway debut in 1934, women’s fashions were indeed changing. Hemlines were on the up, it was becoming socially acceptable for ladies to show their legs and the sale of fashion stockings rose dramatically as new, synthetic fibres replaced cotton and costly silk.

In 1911-1912, a new yarn called rayon or artificial silk had been invented. Although much cheaper than real silk, it was prone to sagging and an alternative was needed. One of the first women in stand-up comedy, Phyllis Dillon said, “Women want men, career, money, children, friends, luxury, comfort, independence, freedom, respect, love and cheap stockings that don’t run”.

The Nylon revolution!

Phyllis’ wish for cheap, good quality stockings was granted in the 1930’s with the invention of a revolutionary synthetic fibre known rather unromantically as ‘Polymer 6.6’. Declared ‘as strong as steel, as fine as spiders web’ by its inventors Du Pont, this miraculous, wrinkle-free, inexpensive fibre created something of a frenzy when it premiered at the New York World Fair in 1939. It also acquired the more user-friendly name of ‘nylon’, the NY from New York providing the first two letters.

Nylon stockings hit the streets of America on 15th May 1940 and millions of women rushed out to buy them. 4 million pairs were sold in the US in the first year alone! Nearly 2 years later nylon stockings suddenly disappeared as the US entered World War II. The War Production Board took over stocks of nylon and silk to make essential supplies such as parachutes, ropes and tyres. Nylon stockings that had been selling for $1.25 now fetched $10 a pair on the Black Market, forcing fashion-conscious girls to stain their legs brown and draw seams up the back to emulate the real thing. American G.I.’s who were lucky enough to have supplies of nylon stockings were very popular with the British ladies!

When the war ended in 1945, demand for nylon stockings soared once again. These were ‘fully fashioned’ stockings, knitted flat with the 2 sides sewn together by hand to create a fine seam up the back. Because nylon has no stretch they were available in a wide range of half sizes, fashioned to the shape of the leg for a perfect fit.

The advent of Lycra

In 1959 the hosiery industry entered a new era when Du Pont invented strong, ultra-stretchy Lycra. Now women had the beautifully fitting, comfortable stockings they wanted – no more baggy ankles or knees. Fully fashioned stockings started to disappear and so too did seams as manufacturers moved away from flat knitting to circular or tube knitting, eliminating the need for the back seam.

The swinging 60’s

The mid 1960’s witnessed another hosiery revolution, sparked off by the arrival of the mini-skirt. It was difficult to avoid a glimpse of stocking tops under such a short skirt so tights – or pantyhose as they were known – were the practical solution! With their attractive patterns, bold colours and fancy finishes, tights rapidly gained 70% of the market and for a time, nylon stockings practically disappeared.

Disco Dollies by Philip Townsend

Modern hosiery

Today, stockings are once again making the fashion headlines as hosiery manufacturers team up with cutting-edge designers to create a wonderful range of new designs and styles. Classic seamed stockings are back on the market – the finishing touch to a beautiful vintage outfit and a ‘must’ for every hosiery drawer. 

Tights too are more than just an accessory but a fashion statement in their own right. If you’re looking for affordable ways to update your wardrobe, simply add a few pairs of fashion tights for an instant make-over! Featuring elaborate designs, jewel-bright colours, cool prints and even ‘trompe l’oeil’ illusory suspender belts and lace insets – Cole Porter would be amazed to see to what extent ‘anything goes’ in hosiery!


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