The History of Hosiery

February 26, 2020 4 min read

Hosiery has been around in one form or another since the invention of clothing, first appearing as thin animal skins wrapped around the legs for warmth in prehistoric times. Even hosiery as we know it today, the knitted stuff, has existed for over one and a half millennia.

In that time, it has undergone numerous changes, not least of which is going from mainly menswear to mainly womenswear. Here is a+ fascinating walk through the key dates in the evolution of hosiery:

Earliest surviving socks, from Egypt
Earliest surviving socks, from Egypt.Image source

200-300 AD

The earliest examples of knitted hosiery are socks, excavated in Egypt. Dating as far back as the 3rd century, they were designed with drawstring tops to keep them up, and a separate big toe section to make them easier to wear with thong sandals.

12th century

In the latter half of the Middle Ages, men began to wear split-front tunics over ‘hose’. Picture two full-leg stockings, attached to a hidden belt to hold them place. Of course, these were not the sheer stockings we love today. This legwear was initially made from woven fabric, cut on the bias for a snug fit, and then later knitted from opaque yarn such as wool.

Men’s 13th century hose, showing the two separate legs on the left
Men’s 13th century hose, showing the two separate legs on the left

15th century

Towards the end of the 15th century, it became fashionable to wear hose embroidered or dyed in bold colours – sometimes even a different colour for each leg!

16th century

A lot happened to hosiery in the 16th century. Full-leg hose was replaced with breeches (a type of shorts) for the upper leg, and stockings for the lower leg. Elastic was still far off, so the stockings were held up with garters or ribbons tied around the tops.

As long hose transitioned into shorter stockings, it also gradually became a unisex garment. For women however, hosiery was very much an undergarment, not meant to be seen. Queen Elizabeth I received a pair of stockings knit from silk in 1560, and liked them so much, she wore the same hosiery style for the rest of her life!

In 1589, Reverend William Lee invented a machine to knit stockings called a stocking frame. The queen refused to grant a patent, wanting to protect the livelihoods of the many hand-knit stockings makers. It didn’t make a difference – the machine was far more efficient, and quickly became the standard way to knit hosiery.

Aristocratic men’s fashion in 1623
Aristocratic men’s fashion in 1623

19th century

Moving ahead to the 19th century, this is when trousers replaced stockings and breeches for men, and hosiery became a female-only thing.

In 1803, the first women’s pantyhose were introduced (men’s tights had been invented centuries earlier), but did not catch on. The manufacturer meant for them to replace the layers of petticoats women of the time wore below their skirts, but this ‘free’ and ‘loose’ way of dressing was deemed improper – lewd, even.

By 1860, stockings production had begun on an industrial scale. In 1892, rayon was invented, a cheaper alternative to silk. Prices dropped, and stockings became a standard part of womenswear instead of being reserved for the wealthy. Garter clips began to be added to corsets, reducing the need for leg garters.

Early stockings were shorter than modern ones. From 1922
Early stockings were shorter than modern ones, typically just above the knee. From 1922

Pre-WWII

In the first half of the 20th century, the hosiery industry exploded. Hemlines began to rise, meaning that stockings were both a necessary skin covering and a must-have fashion accessory. For the first time in womenswear, hosiery was very visible.

In 1939, a majorturning point in the story of hosiery happened: US company DuPont invented nylon! This quickly caught on as the primary stockings fibre, being both cheap and durable. It also helped that between 1937 and 1941, the US first boycotted and then outright blocked the import of Japanese products, which included silk.

During WWII

During the war, the US military required nylon for parachutes, and nylon hosiery production temporarily stopped. But women had already fallen in love with sheer nylons. In fact, many took to using ‘liquid stockings’ leg makeup and drawing seams up the backs of their legs to give the illusion of wearing them! Meanwhile, actual stockings were selling on the black market for a small fortune, or being stolen during home burglaries.

Inspecting a nylon stocking in 1954
Inspecting a nylon stocking in 1954.Image source

Post-WWII

Given the craze for nylon stockings, it’s unsurprising that once the war was over and production restarted, women were desperate to get some. But demand outstripped supply. What followed were the 1946 nylon riots, where customers battled to grab a pair. On the first day that nylon stockings were available again, Macy’s sold out of all 50,000 pairs in just 6 hours!

During the 1940s and 1950s, stockings remained very popular, glamorized by pin-up art. Seamless stockings were introduced in the 1940s, but didn’t start outselling seams for another couple of decades. And in 1958, DuPont invented another fibre, Lycra, that led to stretch hosiery.

In the 60s, hemlines got higher still, and women’s pantyhose was ‘invented’ again to avoid visible stocking tops. Pretty Polly also introduced the first ever pair of hold-ups in 1967.

Gabriella Axel pantyhose
Gabriella Axel pantyhose

Modern day

Pantyhose remains the most popular style of hosiery today, thanks to its ease of wear, although stockings are far from being a thing of the past. Today, we have more hosiery options than ever, and even men’s hosiery is making a comeback. Whatever you want, be it stockings or pantyhose, seamed or unseamed, sheer or opaque, the choice is yours.

This truly is the best time in hosiery history!


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