Nov 29, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
A Trip Through Vintage Stockingland
Darling vintage mavens, who out there in interwebs land still wear tights or pantyhose? No one? Maybe if forced? I admit, rather sheepishly; I do almost daily. Never one able to embrace the bare leg look. Even when I was younger and had better legs. I just feel exposed or naked. Somehow not completely (or properly) dressed. Gave it a go several years ago, didn’t take. Weird, right? Too many years in corporate America? Too modest? Not trendy enough? Old? All of the above?
With that said, I love a good pair of textured tights. Polka dots, geometrics or herringbone – black, pink, purple. Paired with a favorite dress from my vintage collection, or adding a bit of character to a basic cardi, blouse and pencil skirt – tights are one of my go-to fashion accessories.
In fact, we all have our thing – festive tights and vintage are mine. Back when I could still wear heels (bunions and a year on my feet selling wine put the kibosh on my heel addiction) I was also known for my gorgeous shoes and heeled boots. Presently, I just go for comfortable and funky with the shoes. But still with the tights and vintage – especially now that some of my pieces fit – several more pounds to go and I should be cooking with gas!
My staple, funky leg wear is getting tougher to find. Amazon is a decent outlet, Zappos and other discount designer sites are OK. But many of the brands are massively expensive – $65 (or more) for a pair of tights. I’ve bitten that bullet a couple times (I will note – these uber- expensive brands last forever)! So, it all evens out in the hand-wash, I suppose. OK. Enough about my tight obsession.
So, women aren’t wearing hose much in the 21st century. But we used to! Back in the day, no lady would be seen in public bare legged. It simply wasn’t done, bathing attire through the 1920’s included stockings and lace up shoes!
Before I started doing a bit of digging, I pictured back-in-the-day stockings as being pretty basic. When I talked with my amazing momma about stockings, she mentioned basic black lisle – maybe some brown or cream. Silk? Of course. Seamed? Naturally. Now, we know men made a statement with clocked stockings back in Edwardian times, but what about the ladies? Oh yes, we did! Women wore beautiful stockings. In a myriad of colors and patterns. All the way back to the way, way back. Some were even hand painted. Can you imagine?
Marvelous! For our purposes, let’s just take a look at one of my favorite periods of history – the Jazz Age. Hemlines were up! Corsets were not as much of a thing and a lady’s hosiery was much more visible. Let’s look at how our great-grandmothers and grandmothers wore stockings back before the Crash, shall we?
Shocking Stockings | Vintage Leg Wear
The 20’s positively roared. Women won the vote. Couture was heavenly. The ridiculousness of Prohibition was in full swing and we sported scandalous hemlines – all the way up to an inch or so below the knee. Shocking! Running amok.
So what about stockings? Well, they were silk or rayon chiffon and very dear. A pair of good stockings could cost upwards of $5.00 a pair, around $65 in today’s market. Sheer was good. Colorful was good. Patterns were good. I mean, everyone saw them! Our stockings needed to make a statement – represent our personality and give our gorgeous ensembles that extra oomph. And they most certainly did!
While browsing my favorite time-sucking app Pinterest, I noted some fabulous examples from Edwardian times and most especially from the 1920’s – those flappers really were creative!
There were several different types of seam/heel details you could choose. Patterns began to be a thing. Picking colors that matched or complimented your dress and shoes put that finishing touch on the total package. So polished and personal. Of course black was most popular, but I found some examples in nude, purple, yellow and pink. So pretty and feminine.
We were daring, but stayed ladylike. Surely shocking to the old guard! What really caught my imagination were the hand painted stockings. Famous (and not so famous) artists would paint a lady’s stockings- so cool! Various designs and even portraits.
Portraits, you say? Yep. Not unlike getting a tattoo of your latest love or celebrity crush! Never a good idea IMHO, the tattoo that is, love me some Sam Elliott, but a permanent something or the other? Um, no. Again, nothing is new. Women could have the picture of their latest love interest painted on their stockings. Can you imagine? One nice thing, once you kicked said crush to the curb, you weren’t stuck with them on your person for life. You could just toss the offending stockings in the trash bin. Done and done. Easy peasy mac and cheesy.
Check out the picture I included of a lady getting her stockings hand painted. Let’s hope she didn’t chuck those in the dust bin, just sayin’.
Of course, good old cotton and/or lisle stockings were still worn for day to day work wear – one wouldn’t want to risk ruining your good pair of silk stockings doing a mountain of laundry or using your new Hoover to clean up the parlor, right? They were definitely not sexy, but got the job done. You could dash out to pick up corn flakes and remain properly dressed. Not a bare leg to be seen.
So, this is all fine and good, we love these stockings and the ladies who sported them. But how did they stay up without Lycra and a good control top?
Shocking Stockings | Clip and Roll
Those wacky flappers (and some non-flapper-esque ladies, too) liked to roll their stockings – they used horrifying elastics to keep their stockings up. How they avoided Deep Vein Thrombosis or nasty, painful varicose veins is beyond me, it made my legs ache just looking at the thick, tight garters used for the roll.
You would pull your stockings up as far as they would go, typically mid-thigh or so, then slide the stretchy garter up to the top and roll those babies down to just above or below the knee – depending on how wild you were! We won’t even mention rouging one’s knees… Scandalized!
Of course, my darling grandmother used to do this (sans the rouge) and she was the least wild woman on the face of the Earth. At least, as far as I knew… Can you imagine how tight that would be? We complain about pantyhose – how the roll didn’t feel like a tourniquet is beyond me, the ultimate pain for beauty deal.
A little like wearing knee highs with your skirt. Really NOT a good look. Really. Not. But, this was a thing and a lot of women did it.
If you weren’t inclined to cut off your circulation with the roll, you wore a garter belt. In fact, up until the early 1960’s and beyond, garter belts were a staple in everyone’s lingerie drawer.
Check out the example from the mid-20s I found – isn’t it gorgeous? Wouldn’t you love to wear something so lovely?Maybe, maybe not.
A little bit of girdle, a little bit of corset (yes, even in the 20’s women still wore elastic corsets to get the popular boyish shape, they even bound their bosom) and a lot of holding up stockings. Did it work? Well, yes and no. Stockings had no stretch to them. They were simply shaped silk tubes. Your hosiery would slip down all day long and trips to the ladies’ lounge were necessary to pull them back up and re-clip them to the belt. Sigh. Baggy ankles are never a good look. They had to be washed and reshaped. Double sigh.
It all seems pretty high maintenance. Of course, all these bands and belts made it easier to sneak illegal hooch into the spring fling, right?
Stockings with some stretch didn’t become popular until around WW2, with the advent of nylon. I remember owning a couple pair of non-Lycra tights many years ago, they bagged easily – plus I found them a bit itchy. They were soon relegated to the trash pile – gorgeous sheer ballet pink, but more trouble than they were worth.
Could the tight band garters be the reason vintage shoes looked so uncomfortable?
Sidebar: is it just me or does it look like women scrunched their feet into long, narrow shoes? I mean, some of them look downright painful! The top of the foot seems to be puffing out around the vamp of the shoe. How was this a good thing? Shoes from this period are beautiful – gorgeous details – t-bars and Mary Janes, so cool! So tight looking. You decide.
Shocking Stockings | Back to the Future
Patterned and colorful stockings have coasted on and off the runways. Wild colors and bold prints were it in the 1960’s. More sedate patterns and colors were the thing in the 1980’s – remember wearing white hose/tights with about everything? Metallics always seem to make an appearance. Bling’ed out hose frequently show up in collections by Dior and others. So beautiful! So expensive!
Still a great way to express oneself. Buff up a stale ensemble – and as lovers of all things vintage, a cool way to show some vintage love when you’re dressed in your corporate uniform, yes some of us still do this… Though hard to find and harder to pay for, wild stockings will always be around – on the street and on the runways. At least, I hope they will!
To our darling readers: Do you still wear hosiery? If yes, do you go for patterns and colors or simple sheer nude? How do you use it to style your vintage finds?
The writer would like to thank: vintage.es, fashionencylcopedia.com, jacobinmag.com, twistcollective.com, Wikipedia.com, her fabulous momma, Alice Dial. And those who post their images freely on the internet.