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From the runway, to the office, and now stored away in women’s dresser draws, pantyhose have gone through several life cycles. (Reg Charity / Corbis)

50 Years of Pantyhose

Love them or hate them, the once-ubiquitous women’s accessory was a revolutionary invention that helped transform women’s fashion

smithsonian.com

By the 1970s and 1980s, pantyhose were a staple in every teen and woman’s wardrobe. As more women headed into the workplace, sales of pantyhose only grew. In return, hosiery manufacturers continued to market new colors, textures, sizes and technology. “The silkiest ever,” teased one Hanes advertisement. “No one knows I’m wearing support pantyhose,” declared another.

Those glory days came to an end in the 1990s, a shift that Hosiery Association President Sally Kay attributes to a more relaxed work environment. “You saw the fashion pendulum swing more towards the casual,” she says. The industry witnessed a decline in pantyhose sales, and an increase in other products, such as tights and—with the rise of pants in the workplace—trouser socks.

Today, many women no longer feel pressured to don hosiery at all. First Lady Michelle Obama, considered a fashion trendsetter, has placed the garment in the retired pile. “I stopped wearing pantyhose a long time ago because it was painful. Put ‘em on, rip ‘em—it’s inconvenient,” she said on talk show, The View, last year. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is also not a fan. “It doesn’t look good for pantyhose,” she says, “The long term trend is for people to dress more and more casually.”

Though numbers are down, with 1.4 billion pairs of pantyhose sold in 2008, it doesn’t appear that pantyhose will go extinct anytime soon. For women in more conservative work environments, pantyhose are still a must. Some others still prefer the more traditional option. “Today’s consumer envisions hosiery as more of an accessory,” Kay explains.

Although Allen Gant Jr. doesn’t distribute pantyhose through Glen Raven Mills, his father’s legacy remains. “I don’t think he had any idea pantyhose would change fashion the way it did,” Gant Jr. says. From the runway, to the office, and now stored away in women’s dresser drawers, the garment has gone through several life cycles. But that’s the order of things in the industry. As designer Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled dresser drawers.

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