Monday, 12 July 2010
Ah, winter has finally arrived, and I can dig out my stockings and suspenders (garter belts for you Americans). I had my stocking revelation last winter, and I've never looked back. For years I struggled with the awful "webbed crotch" of tights and pantyhose, where they start sliding down, and one has to surreptitiously yank them up without looking like one is adjusting one's underwear . Even when I bought Talls (and I'm a very average height, 5'5"), I would have to cut the feet off so the legs would be long enough.
With my adoption of the Vintage Look, came the idea of stockings. At first they seemed so exotic and confusing. Where was I meant to get them from? How did I stop my suspender belt from falling down? And how did anyone manage to keep their seams straight?
Firstly a little bit of history. Nylon stockings didn't come onto the market until 1939. In the 20s and 30s, stockings were made of silk, or its cheaper alternative, rayon. Nylon was invented by DuPont in the US, and nylon stockings quickly became the most popular choice, presumably because they were cheaper than silk, and finer than rayon (which also takes quite a while to dry once washed). Above you can see the crowd in a department store in the US of women waiting to buy the first nylon stockings. 72,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone!
Unfortunately, WWII broke out, and governments commandeered supplies of nylon for the war effort, to make parachutes and tents. If was considered completely unladylike to go out without stockings, so the ingenious (though slightly bizarre) solution was to paint one's legs with some sort of makeup to simulate stockings, and then draw a seam up the back with an eyeliner pencil.
After the war, stockings were once again in production, although demand for them was so great, that manufacturers couldn't meet the demand. In Pittsburg in 1945, 40,000 women queued up to try and get one of the 13,000 pairs of stockings on sale, and fighting broke out. Stockings were very popular throughout the 1950s, and they were available in a multitude of different colours and shades, with or without seams. As skirts became shorter in the 60s, pantyhose were invented, and stockings became rather old-fashioned.
My mother, who is in her sixties, remembers wearing stockings and suspenders, and in the cold English winter they also wore woolen hot-pants called Passion Killers (!) to stop the tops of their thighs getting cold. She said it was a relief when tights were invented. My father said girls in Hungary were always asking if they could borrow a 2 fillér coin (the smallest coin in circulation) to stick through the loop of their suspender clasp when the rubber part broke.
The most 'vintage' looking stocking is of course the fully-fashioned seamed stocking. Fully-fashioned (or FF) means that they are made flat in one piece, then sewn up the back, hence the distinctive seam and keyhole. Made from 100% nylon, they have very little stretch in them, and are also shaped like a human leg, with a distinct foot, calf and thigh. FF stockings are sized by foot size, but it's not your shoe size, it's the length of your foot in inches (how sensible!). You can just measure your inside forearm from wrist to elbow, because thanks to Pretty Woman, we all know that your forearm and foot are the same length.
Fully fashioned stockings also have reinforced soles and heels, which come in several different shapes, as illustrated above. The choice of heel is a matter of personal preference, although I believe that the Manhattan heel was reserved for evening wear, being rather fancy.
The Worker-Dandyist International has a nice post on the wear and care of FF stockings, including an explanation of denier and gauge, and how to wash them. I usually just wash them in cold water with a bit of wool wash, swoosh them around a bit, rinse in cold water, blot on a towel and hang up to dry (don't use pegs, they tend to snag).
This is a selection of the brand new FF stockings (seamed and unseamed) I have found in second hand shops, still in their boxes and packaging, and never worn. You do have to hunt around a bit, and it's worth going to the sort of shops that specialise in vintage clothing. There are some deadstock stockings on eBay, but they tend to be quite expensive, and you have to hope that some will come up in your size.
What Katy Did has FF seamed stockings made on original vintage machinery in France, which come in three colours, and either point or cuban heels (point heels are on the 'luxury' stockings, and cost an arm and a leg). They also have thicker rayon and nylon seamed stockings that are from a company that supplies the film and television industry, and are similar to those worn in the 1940s.
For serious choice in stockings, Stockings HQ seems like a good place to go, although I haven't bought anything from them yet. They have a large range of FF and stretch seamed stockings, a wide range of prices, and lots of different colours, including baby pink with black seams and black with red seams! They carry the top three brands in stockings, Eleganti, Gio and Cervin. There are stockings from France and England that are made on vintage machinery, as well as cheaper stretch nylon stockings that look like vintage ones (they have seams and reinforced heels) but are stretchy. They also have XXXL stockings for the more generous figure.
It really does help to invest in a decent suspender belt if you are going to wear stockings more than occasionally. The tarting-round-the-bedroom types which are for sale in most lingerie shops are not meant for daily wear. They sit too low on the hips to stay up properly, and the straps are too thin and can't be shortened enough. What one really needs is a suspender belt that sits on the waist, preferably with six straps if you are going to wear seamed stockings (more straps keep the stockings from sliding around the leg and keep the seam straight).
I love my Van Doren suspender belts from Kiss Me Deadly. They are made from a silky, stretchy fabric which is incredibly comfortable to wear, and have six fairly broad straps with lovely silver-tone metal hardware. I wore my black one all last winter, three or four times a week, and it still looks new.
I find that because they don't stretch, fully-fashioned stockings seem to last longer and be more resistant to runs than modern stockingsem, if you treat them with care. In the 40s and 50s, stockings were quite expensive, about $25 a pair, so women would have looked after them a lot better than we do with modern pantyhose. That said, it does take a little time to get used to wearing them. Some days I just can't be bothered with seamed stockings because I have to keep checking that the seam is straight, so I wear seamless ones, or modern stretch nylon stockings. Wearing stockings should be fun, not a chore.
I'll leave you with this charming little list that I found when I opened a packet of vintage Schiaparelli stockings the other day!