May 29, 2009

Part II: HOSIERY FAMINE by Kate Jacobs

Welcome back to our look at the fascinating history of nylon hosiery!

If you're just joining us, please read Part I, in which we cover the advent of "synthetic silk," its benefits and promises, and women's insatiable demand for it. So great was nylon's popularity that a year after its introduction, Du Pont was still trying to catch up with demand. And with WWII approaching, nylon was about to become even more difficult to procure.

It was the early 1940s, and as international tension mounted, the U.S. government froze Japanese silk imports. Hosiery-iIndustry executives estimated that the nation's legwear mills contained enough silk to produce only seven more months' worth of stockings. This meant that increased nylon output was essential if the bare legs of American women were to remain acceptably covered. Du Pont constructed a second plant to produce sufficient amounts of nylon, and those in the hosiery business urged women not to panic. "There is no reason to go stockingless in this country," promised Henry Leader, president of Branch 1, American Federation of Hosiery Workers. "We have enough materials to produce enough hosiery for everybody." Gustave Ketterer, chairwoman of the Consumers Advisory Board of the Chamber of Commerce, predicted that women would find the means to avoid a stockingless fad, for esthetic reasons if nothing else. "There is nothing attractive about bare legs," she said. "And American women are very particular about their looks."

But the situation only worsened. It turned out that nylon was a
wonderful material with which to make parachutes, and saving the lives
of valiant soldiers jumping out of planes took precedent over fashion.
In January of 1942, civilian use of nylon was reduced by 20 percent so
that all resources could be dedicated to chutes. The following month,
DuPont made a harrowing announcement: nylon for commercial use would
be available only on a spot basis. Women even began experiencing
social pressure to give up the nylon hose that they already had when
stockings were named an official war salvage item. Pennsylvania was
especially gung-ho in the hose-collecting effort. In a nationwide
contest to contribute hosiery, the state came in first, donating
280,854 pounds.

This was a fashion crisis. But American women, never ones to back down
from a challenge, got creative. If they couldn't find hose, by golly,
they'd paint them on. Liquid hose became a fad. The Philadelphia
Evening Bulletin reported on the trend. In order to "avoid the
unfortunate results which are daily appearing in the form of blotched,
bespattered legs and frayed dispositions," an article read, "many
shops are offering a new kind of service, the 'demonstration' leg
make-up … With a little instruction the user can learn to paint on
smooth, flattering stockings." Lord & Taylor introduced the "Golden
Calf" room, where Helena Rubenstein herself taught leg art and
foot-relaxation exercises. And women who lived through this traumatic
time still pass down tales of painting faux seams with eyeliner up the
back of their legs.

Makeup was a quick fix, but ladies hungered for the real thing. The
black market was big business during the war, and nylons were known to
sell for upwards of $10 a pair. Federal agents raided warehouses,
seizing thousands of illegally produced pairs. Even as V-E Day
approached, the press warned that the end of war wouldn't mean a quick
return of legal nylon hose. A 135-day wait was expected, and the
National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers planned for a modest and
orderly reentry into the market in order to avoid chaos. The first
post-war stockings came off the looms at Gotham Silk Hosiery Co.'s
mill on September 13, 1945. Two days later a press release was issued
promising that nylons in "fair quantity" would be on store counters by
January of the following year. Finally, women could breathe deeply,
knowing that they had come out the other side of this nightmare with
their legs and dignity intact.