The complete history of hosiery

Jenessa Williams

This classic staple fashion item that sometimes has a little added flair, dates much further back than we might have thought

As with most fashion items, the very early iterations of hosiery can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. In the discovery of a 500AD tomb, a pair of woven ladies socks were found in the possession of a rich noble, complete with detailed fitted heel and draw cord top. Even before that, dried, flattened skins were wrapped around the legs for warmth in both Europe and wider continents, later replaced with weaving of animal hair. 

In the middle ages, developing inventions of knitting machines and looms brought about early experimentations with stockings, often only accessible to the monarchy. Having developed his design, Reverend William Lee offered the first pair of stockings made from pure silk to Queen Elizabeth I and then James I, but both refused the patent. It would take until 1600 for him to bring his full machine invention to fruition, and more time still working with his assistant, John Ashton, to tweak it into wider accessibility. 

 

19th Century hosiery

At a time where even a glimpse of bare leg would cause a rush for the smelling salts, knitted stockings were a must in the Victorian era, worn by both men and women for practical activities such as horseback riding as well as everyday dress. 

As men began to swap their breeches for trousers, stockings became synonymous with a secretive type of womanhood, hidden away under long dresses. It is thought that some tights were in circulation even then, but were broadly seen as uncouth, compromising the modesty of layered petticoats. 

 

20th Century hosiery

A rebellion towards this kind of chasteness would creep in in the 20th century, particularly in America. By the 1920s, it was much more common to see women with bare legs under their flapper dresses, some even using their garters to store hip flasks during the prohibition. 

In 1937, a new type of stocking was produced to test the strength and usefulness of nylon, a new man-made fibre developed entirely in a laboratory. 

Less inclined to snagging than silk and finer than cotton or wool, nylon gave a smooth, luxurious feel that could be worn and worn again, and were a quick hit. When stockings were put on sale to the public in May 1940, company developer DuPont sold an estimated four million pairs in four days, putting pay to the importation of Japanese silks. 

These first experimental stockings now hang in the National Museum of American History, a fundamental part of American economical history.  

In the 1940’s Nylon production was given over to a higher purpose. Often known as “the fibre that won the war”, nylon was used to make everything from parachutes to hammocks, shoelaces to tow ropes, with women only really being able to procure stockings nylon through the black market. 

With new legwear out of stock, women saw out the war by painting seams down the back of their legs to create the illusion of hosiery. In the 1950s, DuPont made another game-changing invention—lycra. Stockings could now stretch to fit a woman’s body, and so users could get much longer wear out of the same pair even if their weight fluctuated, and could also be dyed and dried much more easily. 

By attaching these popular lycra stockings to panties in an all-in-one garment, this new proclivity for tights allowed women to do away with their garter belts and girdles, accommodating with the shortening hemlines of the era.  As Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton donned miniskirts with shiny, leg-lengthening tights, so did hoards of teenagers, heralding a new age of proper delineation between the way young and older women dressed. 

With Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin’s experimentations, new colours and patterns of tights boomed, giving an air of youthful frivolity that still comes to mind today. By the 1970s, sales of tights had overtaken that of stockings entirely.

 

21st Century hosiery

Though tights had endured nearly 30 years of popularity, enthusiasm wobbled a little in the mid 90s as androgynous fashions became more popular, consigning them to formal or office looks. With bare legs becoming a less controversial everyday option, stockings became more popular in the area of lingerie and shapewear, smoothing out the stomach, buttocks and thighs to create a lithe silhouette. 

With the rising interest in dolly shoes and 80’s retro aesthetic, footless tights, leggings and jeggings briefly came into fashion in the mid 2000s amongst all age groups, and still feature now as an easy, comfortable alternative to stiffer trousers or bulkier sweatpants. 

For a garment so practical, it is unlikely that tights will ever completely go out of fashion. As a Spring transitional piece, sheer coloured and patterned tights have been big news on the catwalks this season, the more outlandish the better. 

With many of us resorting exclusively to baggy loungewear in the pandemic, it is acutely possible that tights will thrive again as life heads back towards normal—a fun way to inject a pop of colour or merely make the wearer feel more put together, encouraging a certain poise. Until then, we’ll just be grateful for the option—come rain or snow, there is serious comfort to be found in that extra lycra layer.  

Read more: The history of high heels

Read more: The sweater vest trend


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter