I was born in the late ’70s to a Scarsdale-bred baby boomer and I took my fashion cues from her. Like all little girls, I had my own style—brighter, weirder and more mothball-scented than my mother’s Escada sweaters and J.Crew cowl necks. Yet I fashioned my outfits after hers: Vintage T-shirts tucked in and bloused, lots of belts, purses slung across my chest. By my teenage years, I’d grown out of most of these habits, except for one: nylons. My mother’s generation constantly wore nylons (or “stockings,” or the waist-covering “pantyhose,” if you want to call them that, though I’d prefer you didn’t) and thus I did too. They were sheer, nude, taupe, cream, tan and powder. I cannot recall a single holiday dinner or dance when I didn’t have them on.
Nylons first went on sale in October 1939 in Wilmington, Delaware, home of their manufacturer, DuPont. Made from wool, cotton and silk, stockings had been around since before the invention of the knitting machine. But at a time when hemlines were rising yet modesty was still foremost, nylons offered a smoother, stronger and in some cases cheaper alternative to traditional hosiery. When stores stocked them nationally, 75 years ago this May, their popularity was massive. An estimated 64 million pairs were purchased in their first year on the market. Because DuPont never trademarked “nylon,” “nylons” became synonymous with “hosiery.” They were the American woman’s greatest wardrobe staple. Then, of course, nylons hit a snag. They were in short supply because the silky material was needed for the war effort (parachutes). Naturally, the paucity of nylons did what paucity always does: makes people want what they can’t have. Some of the reactions were ingenious. Younger ladies compensated for their loss by drawing seams up the backs of their legs with an eye pencil (a practice I’m amazed hasn’t seen a retro resurgence). Other reactions bordered on mania. Nylons sold on the black market for $20 a pair. Betty Grable auctioned a pair at a war bond rally for $40,000. When nylons went back into production in 1945, the newspaper headlines read like something out of the Darwin Awards: “Women Risk Life and Limb in Bitter Battle For Nylons.”
It was reminiscent of the Dutch tulip craze, when, in the 17th century, a few tulip bulbs could pay for a house on an Amsterdam canal. Today, in a city once known as New Amsterdam, I can buy a bunch of tulips for $12 at my corner bodega. In that same bodega, I can also buy a pair of cheap nylons growing dusty on some unreachable shelf.
I know I am part of the reason they’re gathering dust. I wore nylons straight through college—I had tons of them, curled in my sock drawer like oversized garlic knots—but I stopped when I hit proper adulthood. In the past decade or so, the style has been to go bare-legged or wear tights (which can be made of nylon but tend to be much thicker). “Hosiery” is no longer the most popular department in the store, if it’s a department at all.
I must confess I hope they never come back. My personal style still leans vintage, but nylons—the childhood fashion I held onto the longest—have become the only one I refuse to revisit. They disguise a woman not for the sake of intrigue but for the sake of concealment. They made practical and sociological sense 75 years ago, but now I see them as a diversionary tactic, taking attention away from a woman’s real body. By smoothing over every bump, scratch and vein, how different are they, in spirit, from the corset? In going completely bare, women are saying that they’re literally more comfortable in their skin. As we become more honest about who we are, more empowered to take ownership of our sexuality, we don’t want some false taupe landscape wrapped around our thighs.
Alternatively, with bright cotton tights or blatantly patterned stockings, we’re not trying to trick men into thinking we have different legs than we do. Women own the ruse. Of course my shins aren’t naturally fuchsia. I am not part alien.
Having said all that, I am reasonably glad that nylons were once de rigueur. They certainly have more innovation and history behind them than most of our accessories. They’ve also served us well culturally. Think of Mrs. Robinson, rolling up her thigh-highs in The Graduate. And where would Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl be without her nylons-and-sneaker look? Even my personal history with them was not for nothing. Last week, I noticed a run in my tights as I was leaving the house. Employing a trick my mother taught me before my high school prom, I dabbed clear nail polish at either end of the run to keep it from splitting farther. The nail polish worked just as well on my black tights as it used to work on my nude nylons.
Because clear always goes with everything.