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When we talk about “stockings” as opposed to “socks”, we mean the high-nylon content styles that more often than not have to be held up with a garter belt. Though most are sheer some, like the Lycra Cuban Heeled Two Tone Stockings (shown on the far right), are semi-opaque.
On top: Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings. Beneath, from left to right: Lycra Cuban Heel Stockings, Cuban Heel Thigh Highs, Lycra Sheer Cubans with Lace Up Tops, Lycra Cuban Heeled Two Tone Stockings.
Flattering, fancy and just the thing to finish off a dressy outfit, nylons have a fascinating history. Though our focus here at Sock Dreams is on socks, we do carry and love stockings. And we’re also big nerds who love to share history and facts. Today I’ll share a quick overview of the history of nylons, with some helpful facts for folks interested in rocking these classic and classy stockings. If you want more info, there are great, in-depth, histories of stockings all over the place. I’m super partial to the Smithsonian’s Stocking Series.
Nylon stockings were introduced at the 1939 world’s fair by Dupont, who have a great little timeline with some awesome pictures from 1939. They decided against registering “nylon” as a trademark, so that the word would become synonymous with stockings. Early stockings had back seams and when folks had to give up their nylon stockings for the war effort, they reproduced that backseam with leg makeup (great article at GlamourDaze about it!), creating the illusion that nylons were still covering their legs. I love this picture we have on our Pinterest from the Library of Congress image archives, showing a barrel of nylons on their way to becoming parachutes and cords.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection. “Here’s where your parachute came from.“
It’s because of this temporary lack of nylon that we have the wide range of cotton stockings and tights we see today. But that’s a story for another day! We’re still talking about nylons. Join us after the jump for comparisons of new nylon stockings to actual mid-century pairs and some helpful tips about these fantastic, feminine stockings.
The original backseamed stockings were fully fashioned, like the Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings. A fully fashioned stocking is leg-shaped, allowing for a better fit across the curves of a leg when the fabric isn’t very stretchy. You can see the difference between the Ultra Sheer Retros and Lycra Cuban Heels, which augment their fiber blend with spandex. Neither of these stockings has been worn, but one is practically shaped like a leg already, going in a bit at the ankle to keep things sleek! And they’re much longer, since they don’t have it in them to stretch up.
But why? Well, the original nylon stockings didn’t have stretch. Like the Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings, they liked to wrinkle at the ankle and bag at the knees, relying on the springiness of knit and mesh to properly shape to your leg. Even the Two Tone Red Cuban Heel Stockings have a leg shape straight out of the package, and they are 15% spandex! Starting out shaped like a leg helps a stocking live a better-fitting life.
Our tip for keeping the bagginess away is to touch them up by dipping your hands in warm water and rubbing them up your legs, starting at the ankle, for a better fit. The water rejuvenates the fibers and helps sproing them back into shape. In the additional images for this style, you can see how the stockings look at the ankle and the knee when they get stretched out.
By the mid-sixties, more and more innovations to nylon were bringing stretchier, better fitting stockings that are the precursors to the nylon/spandex blends most stockings are today. Just how do today’s nylon stockings match up to those of yesteryear? Here’s some pretty old package pictures and comparisons to feast your eyes on!
First, let’s look at some old styles. You can’t find these any more, but sharp eyes can often find old stockings in thrift shops. This pair is 100% nylon “run-resist” seamless. The cheap packaging and basic foot (the toe and heel are barely reinforced) means this pair was probably a cheaper, everyday style. How fun is that purple bag, though?
Now this pair is also 100% nylon, but they feel fabulous, like silky clouds. The hard box and excess of tissue paper lets you know these were nice stockings to save up for.
When looking at these fabulous old examples of nylon loveliness, I realised that the Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings were the perfect in-between for these mid-century stockings. Not as rough as one pair, not quite as fantastically fine as the other. And, like those old stockings, they rely on shape more than stretch, they’re as light as a feather and very delicate (I was super worried I’d snag any of these three styles while shooting them!).
Here’s a close up detail of the texture of these stockings. The cheap pair are on the left, the Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings in the middle, with the fancy-pants stockings on the right. Texture-wise, the Ultra Sheer Retro Backseam Stockings have a similar delicacy to the more expensive pair, with a fine texture that helps them blend against your legs.
Other sheer stockings we carry aren’t quite as fine. Stockings like these do require a careful hand in wearing them, because they’re so delicate. But, here’s a fun tip: if you want our finest, sheerest nylon styles, use this search term “These are very sheer and delicate.” Our caution is your code to finding the finest!
If you love old stocking styles, definitely check out our “Socks Through Time” board on our Pinterest! There are some fabulous styles on there that make me want to break out the time machine! And I’m not done talking nylons yet, we’ll have some tips and tricks for you later this month!
3 soxy thoughts:
Thank you for this post Brenna! I love anything vintage and finding out about the history of products we take for granted – like stockings! I remember my Grandma saying that she used to draw a line up the back of her leg when she couldn’t get stockings during the war. That was here in Australia so I guess stockings were in short supply everywhere. Thanks again for the interesting post. X
@Christy, Aw yay and thank you! The book I learned to sew from had a nice little section on leg makeup, too! Textile history is fascinating, and I highly recommend it as a fun rabbit hole to fall down when browsing the ‘net!
Leg makeup is super fun to apply! I’m a makeup artist so I love anything to do with makeup. Lots of the camouflage makeup that I use now to cover beards and tattoos and anything else that needs covering was invented during the world wars for soldiers who had scars/skin damage from their service. There is a great book called ‘Compacts and Cosmetics’ by Madeleine Marsh which is about the history of makeup. The author is English so mostly UK history but super interesting. Nothing to do with socks but still cool!