A History of Underwear: Part 1
As we gear up to launch some new products, we take a look back at the history of hosiery to see just how far we’ve come.
You know our 5K spiral yarn we’re always talking about? We’re obsessed with improving the quality of our double-covered elastane-polyester blend because this is where innovation starts: with polymer physics. And, we know we’re on to something because this is precisely where 21st century hosiery started.
800 – 701 BC
In Ancient Roman times, women and men alike wore knee-high socks, albeit for practical rather than aesthetic purposes. Just like the people of many other ancient European civilisations, Roman women wore socks to keep warm in the draughty interiors.
Marie Antoinette, a pioneer of avant-garde fashion, popularised socks as a sensual undergarment in the 18th century. Although hidden away under the comparatively dull and conservative clothing of the time, these socks provided secret pleasure for women wanting to indulge in luxurious garments.
In the Thirties, hemlines started to rise and fine stockings made of silk or rayon became an essential article of underwear for women. And, they provided an opportunity to test new technical innovations in hosiery.
It was Wallace Carothers PH – an American chemist and inventor – who was responsible for the creation of nylon, the first fibre produced entirely in a laboratory.
Praised for its combination of strength and sheerness, it was presented to the world at the 1939 World’s Fair in the form of women’s stockings, and went on sale to the public a year later. Women now had a robust alternative to silk stockings which, despite being luxurious in feel, were much more prone to laddering.
The first pair of experimental nylon stockings made by Union Hosery Co. in 1937
The 50s saw the birth of tights, the second 20th-century invention to drastically improve women’s legwear.
In 1953, Allen Gant Sr., who oversaw the textile company Glen Raven Mills, was inspired by the complaints of his wife, who suggested designing a pair of knickers with stockings attached. He created ‘Panti-Legs’, the world’s first commercial pair of tights, which hit stores in 1959. For the first time in almost half a century, women no longer had to wear a girdle or slip on a garter belt to hold up their nylons.
Having banished their stockings to the past, and with the arrival of the mini skirt, sixties women increasingly looked to exploit the freedom of expression afforded by tights.
Different colours and textures allowed women to express their individual styles – think Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, both cultural icons of the era.
Twiggy, the decade’s style icon, covered her famous limbs in all colours of the tights spectrum
With no serious innovation to speak of in the hosiery category since the discovery of nylon half a decade before, tights had almost entirely lost their appeal by the 90s. Looking for comfort and freedom above anything else, women would more often than not choose to go bare legged.
We’ve revolutionised tights. And now, we’re moving on to more legwear.