Vintage Clothing History Guide - Stockings & Tights

woman showing legs in stockings

Elegant, sheer and comfortable tights (or pantyhose as they are known in the US) are now taken for granted, however it was only in the 1960s that "nylons" became widely available.

Stockings For Men

historic painting of men wearing stockings

For the previous 400 years stockings had ruled supreme - ever since the knitting machine was invented in 1589 by Reverend William Lee and stockings made from wool, silk and cotton appeared for the first time. These early stockings were frequently referred to as hose, from which the term hosiery was derived, and were generally worn by men.

The stockings market was revolutionised by the change of fashions in the 20th Century when it became socially acceptable for women to show their legs, and with the invention of nylon in the 1930s an affordable alternative to silk stockings became available.


Womens legs in nylon stockings

In 1935 Julian Hill, working with a team led by Wallace Carothers, discovered that by pulling a heated rod from a mixture of coal tar, water and alcohol a strong, sheer filament formed that was silk-like in appearance.

Two years later the process was patented by Dupont, and in 1939 the new synthetic fibre - Nylon - was shown at the World Trade Fair in New York; The NY from New York, providing the first two letters of the name nylon. The first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores on May 15, 1940 and over 780,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone.

In the first year, 64 million pairs were sold in the US, and nylons soon became the generic name for all hosiery products containing nylon.

However once the USA joined World War II all production of nylon went into the war effort and nylon stockings became very hard to obtain - during this time women painted seams on the back of their legs instead so it appeared as if they were wearing stockings. Many people want to achieve this look now to emulate 1940s womens fashion trends. But you don't have to draw a pencil line down your calves instead choose from our range of vintage look seamed stockings and tights.


painting black seams onto womans legs

At the time that nylon was invented only stockings existed. These traditional stockings were known as "Fully Fashioned" in that they were fashioned to the shape of the leg as nylon did not stretch. For this reason they came in a large number of sizes. These traditional stockings were knitted flat and then the two sides were joined manually by hand with a fine seam up the back.

In the late 1950s yarn manufacturers discovered that they could add stretch to nylon by crimping it under heat, then in 1959 Du Pont invented Lycra which can stretch up to seven times its original length without breaking and subsequently recover its shape. Thus dramatically improving the fit, comfort and strength of the hosiery.


women in the 1960s 60s wearing coloured tights

With the advent of the mini skirt in the 1960s an alternative to stockings was required and tights took over (within 2 years they had 70% market share). Mary Quant helped to revolutionise 1960s fashion with her bright & colourful Mod style tights. During the same period hosiery manufacturers moved away from knitting flat and instead hosiery was knitted in a tube, as a result nylons with seams virtually disappeared.

In recent years, although increasing numbers of women go bare legged, hosiery technology has developed considerably and a wide range of new products are now commonly available from body toning control top tights and thigh-highs (hold-ups) to moisturising and massaging tights.

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