Pantyhose historyBelieve it not, pantyhose - as we know them today - are barely 50 years old. The first ever pair got off the production line in 1959, at Glen Raven Mills. In order to make our panty hose retrospective as complete as possible though, we need to go back all the way to 1938, when a crucial event, one that would later make waist-to-toe nylons possible, took place at the New York Herald Tribune's 8th Annual Forum on Current Problems, on October 27th. The event was an announcement, coming from Charles Stine, vice president of E.I. du Pont de Nemours Inc., regarding the invention of a new fiber, the world's first synthetic fiber, called nylon. Nylon has never been registered as a trademark, and it wasn't because of negligence on the part of DuPont.
The company simply decided to let the word be absorbed into everyday vocabulary. The advent of the nylon stockings took women's fashion by storm. Following the 1938 announcement of the invention, production was already in full swing by 1940. Propelled forth by the huge public success (women were quite literally lining up in front of hosiery shops), in the first few days alone 4 million pairs of nylons were sold.
World War II hit the hosiery industry dead on too. Nylon production ceased as factories were converted to better aid the war effort. During the years while the war raged, the need for nylons became an acute one. Women resorted to all sorts of outlandish ideas to give the impression that they were wearing stockings (like decorating the backs of their legs with an eyeliner-seam in order to create the impression that they were wearing nylons). Following the end of the war, the endless lines reappeared in front of the hosiery shops. Production only normalized by 1948. The nylon-crazed public would have to wait 11 more years for another true nylon-related innovation to come by though.
That innovation was the panty-hose. The person widely credited with the invention was Allen Gant Sr., but if we are to dig deeper, there's more to that story. Apparently, all Mr. Gant did was to follow through on his wife's suggestion, so technically speaking, it was Ethel Boon Gant who first thought of the design of the panti-legs, the predecessor of the modern tights. Even back in those days, despite the popularity of nylons, there was no denying that garters and stockings made a rather cumbersome combination. Due to the fact that by 1953 nylons have pretty much become a must for every proper lady, going out always meant squeezing into garters. There was no other way to hold the stockings up. What Ethel Gant basically did was to stitch some stockings to a pair of panties, thus getting rid of the garter-part. She then handed the crude ensemble to her husband, telling him to come up with a viable design for the solution. Sure enough, with help from J.O. Austin, Arthur Rogers and Irvin Combs, that's exactly what Mr. Gant did. This is how the Panti-Legs came to existence. Commercial production was already in full swing in 1959 and the Panti-legs became available in stores too. Despite the obvious advantages presented by the new design, the garment didn't enjoy outstanding popularity until the mid 60s when the mini-skirt burst onto the fashion-scene. Given the fact that stockings were simply not long enough to keep up with the requirements instated by the mini-skirt, panty hose surfaced as the only reasonable alternative. The rest - as they say - is history. Another important driving force behind the newfound popularity of nylons in the 60s was the invention of spandex. Early nylons and panti-legs had virtually no stretch, and because of that, one had to be extremely careful about picking the right size. Obviously, the issue presented comfort-problems as well. Spandex came to the rescue, endowing the nylon fiber with the ability to stretch and the material made from it to perfectly mold onto the wearer's lower body. Other improvements were made too. Julie Newmar, an actress known for portraying Catwoman in the 1966 Batman series, is credited with having invented the "derriere-shaping" pantyhose. Newmar's improvement consisted in an elastic band connecting the crotch of the tights rearward with the waist-band in order to better define and accentuate the wearer's buttocks. Come to think of it, the modern T-band design on some hosiery may well be a spin-off of Newmar's buttock-shaping improvement.
Through the 80s and 90s, pantyhose became an integral part of every teen girl's and woman's wardrobe. The tights craze apparently peaked in the 90s after which sales began to gradually decline. Although still viewed as the very definition of ladies' business wear, pantyhose are no longer on top of most women's wish-lists when it comes to fashion. Despite the fact that ever newer, improved and better looking pantyhose styles emerge all the time, the heydays seem to be long gone. What are the driving forces that still propel factories to push waist-to-toe nylon production and to continue to innovate? Apparently, panty hose are still extremely popular in some parts of the world, and there's a flourishing online industry that sprung up around the waist-to-toe nylons. The drop in popularity shouldn't be viewed as sign of an imminent demise either. Even though many high profile wearers (like Michelle Obama) have been known to bash pantyhose, no fewer than 1.4 billion pairs of nylon wonders were sold in 2008 alone. Clothes shops and hypermarkets all over the world still carry a larger than ever selection of panty-hose and nylon hosiery, not to mention the specialty shops which seem to spring up in every shopping center or just about anywhere where potential buyers congregate. If we are to discuss modern panti-legs in relation to celebrities, we also need to note Beyonce Knowles' and Lady Gaga's obvious love for the garment.
Fashion goes around in cycles, and though experts say that there is a general tendency towards less and less formal dressing - which may hurt the long term prospects of panty hose - it may yet re-surface as a mainstream clothing item, maybe not as part of a formal current.