The Pantyhose Revolution and Supermarket Stockings
Further reading: I am indebted to this excellent article about the history of L’Eggs and pantyhose in general by Jake Rossen at Mentalfloss. For the story of how pantyhose were invented, see this article in Smithsonian.
Pantyhose (sheer, stretch tights) were available in 1959, but not in all markets, and not in all sizes. There wasn’t much demand for them, because skirt hems were still mid-calf in the late fifties, so the thick stocking tops and garters we wore were not likely to show.
Also, really stretchy stockings didn’t exist yet.
Opaque tights were available before 1959, but for most women of my generation (and those before) wearing sheer stockings with seams up the back marked the beginning of adulthood. In 1958, I was in eighth grade, and “dress up” clothing suddenly included seamed stockings (held up by a garter belt) and shoes with “high” heels.
If you were born in the 1960s or later, you may not believe how hard it was to buy stockings in the 1950s (and earlier.)
1) Most stores were not open on Sundays. In a country where most citizens were nominally Christian, Sunday was the official Sabbath, and most businesses (except for essential services like hospitals) did not buy or sell products or require employees to work on the Sabbath. Buying or selling on the Sabbath was generally against the law. Saturday had been the “market” day for centuries; weekdays were also shopping days, but not as they are now because….
2) Even in big cities, stores were not open after 5:30 or 6 p.m. “Designated shopping nite” was a very Big Deal in my childhood circa 1950 when all the major department and clothing stores in downtown San Francisco agreed to stay open until 8 p.m. — every Thursday night. (That’s right, they were open late once a week.)
Working women might have a chance to shop during their lunch break, if they worked near the stores. But a run in your last pair of stockings was a small crisis: When and where could you buy new ones?
“It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.” — Jake Rossen
When grocery stores and supermarkets began staying open at night, and they began to sell hosiery, the lives of working women took a turn for the better. This was mostly possible because improved technology gave us really stretchy stockings and tights.
Improved stretch meant that stores no longer had to carry stockings in eighteen sizes.
Companies like Hanes made L’Eggs pantyhose specifically packaged to be sold in supermarkets. The improved stretch meant you no longer needed to sell stockings in seven sizes and four lengths. Basic L’Eggs came in just four sizes, but they fit a really big range of heights and weights. Stores were happy that a display of the full range of L’Eggs colors and sizes took up less shelf space than a display of canned olives or jelly. And working women like me could pick them up any night on the way home from work! No more Saturday trips to a department store. No more panicky mornings when I got a run in my last pair of hose.
Cotton Crotch Introduced
One problem: women who adopted the new stretch-nylon pantyhose soon began advising their friends that the nylon did not let moisture evaporate as silk or cotton underwear did. We advised each other to wear cotton briefs under nylon pantyhose to avoid unpleasant rashes and worse. Soon the manufacturers figured it out, and began making pantyhose with “cotton crotch” proudly specified on the package labels.
Thigh Bulge and Garter Bumps Eliminated
Pantyhose did eliminate a problem for women whose legs were not slim and muscular: with the old stocking suspended from one garter in front and one in back, the stocking top would sag, leaving an unpleasant bulge of flesh at the top.
This model has lovely legs, but you can see how the stocking top is curving downward at the inside of the thigh. For women who didn’t have slim, firm thighs, the flesh bulged out over the stocking tops. In hot weather the bulges rubbed together, which was especially unpleasant.
Also, the garters themselves had a rubbery part that went inside the stocking, and a metal part that went outside the stocking.
When you sat, the metal dug into your leg at the back, and the rubber part created a bump in front that was visible through light-weight dress fabrics.
With pantyhose: Bliss! — no more garter belts or panty-girdles. And no bulges.