December 14, 2012
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
– A Visit From Saint Nicholas
As far back as 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore (or possibly Henry Livingston Jr.) wrote “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” stockings were hung near the fireplace, awaiting a visit from Santa Claus. At the end of the poem, St. Nick “fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”
Stockings have been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for centuries (except, briefly, in the mid-1800s, when the New York Times wrote that Christmas trees almost completely supplanted them as the tradition of choice).
The most popular legend about why stockings are hung at Christmas goes something like this: A recently widowed man and father of three girls was having a tough time making ends meet. Even though his daughters were beautiful, he worried that their impoverished status would make it impossible for them to marry.
St. Nicholas was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight. He wanted to help but knew the man would refuse any kind of charity directly. Instead, one night, he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and filled the girls’ recently laundered stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire, with gold coins. And then he disappeared.
The girls awoke in the morning, overjoyed upon discovering the bounty. Because of St. Nick’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed and their father could rest easy that they wouldn’t fall into lonely despair. Whew! While obviously far-fetched, this tale of unknown origin and date is most widely referenced when it comes to the history of the Christmas stocking.
For some, the ritual has translated into hanging a nondescript sock (the bigger, the better, of course) pulled from Dad’s drawer.
For others, it has meant a personalized, decorated, maybe even handmade, foot-shaped bag hung year after year.
And sometimes, it means not hanging the stocking by a fireplace at all!
Whichever stocking set-up you prefer, there’s one more related factoid that’ll impress guests during your holiday party. Oranges tend to wind up in Christmas stockings, right? Ever wonder why? Some say it’s from a time when fresh fruit was more difficult to come by and finding an orange in your stocking was a huge treat. But a different version of that beautiful-daughters-distraught-father legend swaps the gold coins left by St. Nick with three gold balls left in each stocking. Understandably, the solid gold balls tradition isn’t so easy to replicate; that’s why their citrus look-alikes have found their way into stockings alongside tchotchkes and baubles, but hopefully not coal!
If you celebrate Christmas, what’s your stocking of choice? A tube sock, a silk stocking, the traditional red and white variety, or something else completely?
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
October 12, 2012
It’s time to bring back rolled stockings. This isn’t attributable to scientific research or trend-spotting. It’s that in compiling Threaded’s Stocking Series (read Parts 1, 2, and 3), this was one trend I could imagine incorporating into what I wear today (as opposed to, say, paint-on stockings). Grimace if you like, but I’m imagining navy stockings rolled just below the knee, clog sandals, a knee-length, high-waisted pinstriped skirt and a vintage 1980s paisley blouse (with the shoulder pads intact, of course).
The rolled stocking, complete with roll garter, had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. It was sandwiched between a period when women wore corsets with garters used to hold up stockings and a time when women’s undergarments included less bulky, but still cumbersome garter belts, also with attached garters.So how’d it work? You’d slip on your stocking, slide the garter roll up your leg to the edge of the stocking (mid-thigh, usually) and fold the stocking edge over the garter, rolling it down your leg until it was just where you wanted it (generally below the knee).
This wasn’t some passing fad like winter of ’71 hot pants craze. In fact, a Paramount silent film from 1927 starring Louise Brooks was even named after the phenomenon: Rolled Stockings!
Keep in mind that during the peak season of garter rolls, stockings weren’t what they are today. Made from silk, they didn’t stretch (as nylon hose weren’t introduced until 1939), they came as a pair, and they needed to be held up on your leg – somehow.
So roll garters provided a real utility, safeguarding women from clothing malfunctions like finding your stockings gathered at your ankles. But rolling your stockings over a garter was also about making a fashion statement (the equivalent of ’80s legwarmers?). In the 1920s – as corsets were worn less frequently, dresses became looser, hemlines rose, and flappers rebelled against preconceived notions of female etiquette – many women embraced the new roll garter, forgoing subtlety and increasing the chances that the roll – and a little leg! – might be seen. (Heard the one about the schoolteacher who was fired for a stocking roll dress code violation?). To draw attention to this risqué business, stockings were often rolled beneath the knee and padded garters were patented to increase the girth of the roll.
Something about the slouchy, more relaxed look of these rolled stockings is reflected in the women’s faces in the photos I found during my research. Dress silhouettes had been pretty rigid until that time, enforced by restrictive undergarments. From their satisfied expressions, and without any concrete evidence to back me up, wearing rolled stocking back then must’ve been akin to the liberating, punk rock feeling of, I don’t know, wearing ripped fishnets today?
That being said, I haven’t attempted the rollover garter technique (turns out they still sell them !) so I could be dead wrong. Maybe it’d feel as restrictive as wearing 100 elastic bands around my calf. Hopefully, the women in these photos aren’t just grinning and bearing it.
Any Threaded readers out there who’ve rolled their hose and want to share their own memories?
September 18, 2012
“Just see, father, how this stocking is ruined, and I’ve only worn it once. I though it was because Jane had rubbed it too hard, but Mother says it’s all the fault of the soap that Jane used. And she wants you to be sure and order a box of Ivory Soap to-day.”
The story of stockings began before the nylon version captivated American women. Leading up to the craze for the synthetic stretchy material, silk stockings had their moment from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. As hemlines rose and legs were exposed, silk stockings became an essential part of many women’s wardrobes. As I mentioned in Part 1 of Threaded’s Stocking Series, women, on average, purchased eight pairs per year. By the 1930s, in fact, Japanese silk producers were earning $70 million annually, mostly from stocking production. But the non-stretchy silk product was expensive, deteriorated quickly and ran easily. So before nylon was invented (and women went so far as to paint stocking onto their legs when there was a wartime shortage), techniques thought to elongate the lifespan of silk hose were embraced.
One such technique was washing stockings with Ivory soap. In the ads that follow, ranging from 1891-1939, Ivory flakes save the day – year after year—with their 99 44/100% pure suds. Part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Ivory Project is a massive collection of 1,600 advertisements and related ephemera from 1838 to 1998 that represent a sample of Ivory’s print advertising:
Dating from the very origins of modern American advertising, the advertisements shown here illustrate the wide range of marketing strategies and techniques employed by the producers of American consumer goods. They also illustrate changing technologies in printing (for example, the introduction of chromolithography and photography) and the emergence of national print media, especially magazines, at the end of the nineteenth century.
Those changing approaches and technologies are apparent in the four-decade span of ads that follow. What’s consistent, though, is Ivory confidently touting itself as the game-changing soap to rescue your silk hose.
“If it will not, you can depend upon it that Ivory Soap will not. This rule holds good in the case of colored goods of all kinds, woolens, dress fabrics, curtains—all the better-than-ordinary things that require more-than-ordinary care in laundering. Take stockings, for example. It makes no difference whether they are lace, listle, linen, silk, or wool, they will look better, last longer, and feel more comfortable if washed with Ivory Soap and lukewarm water than if cleaned in any other way. And the reason is simply this: Ivory Soap Is Pure Soap . . . And Nothing Else.
Kept unbroken and lovely by the purity that is in Ivory Soap Flakes. Fifteen years ago in Paris, France, a Kentucky man purchased the pair of delicate, hand-embroidered silk lace stockings shown in the photograph as a gift for his wife. During the years that followed she wore them occasionally, dipping them into Ivory Soap suds after each wearing to rid them of the perspiration which always, though perhaps unnoticeably, clings to a stocking which has been worn and which rots the silk if permitted to dry in it…
Use on your own dainty things the soap which salespeople in the finest stores approve . . . pure white Ivory.
The famous New York store which actually sold stockings of cobwebby handmade lace at $500 a pair said, ‘We can recommend Ivory with confidence because we know it is pure.’
‘Moses in the Bulrushes,’ says Sally Gibson. ‘No, pardon me, it’s June in the forest of stockings.’
Air Line Stewardesses get amazing wear from sheer silk stockings washed daily with Ivory Flakes. ‘I’m all up in the air about this wonderful discovery—how to save money on stockings…,’ Betty Ansena, United Air Lines Stewardess.
Dizzy: Dolly, I had to. This week two pairs of stockings just went p-f-f-t!!
Dolly: No wonder the way you let them pile up for Bridget to wash with that strong soap. I wish there was a law to make you use Ivory Flakes!
Police officer: You said it! My wife tells me it sure does the trick.
September 10, 2012
So it’s Saturday night in 1941, and you want to wear stockings with your cocktail dress, but the new wonder material nylon has been rationed for the war effort and has disappeared from department store shelves. What do you do in such times of patriotic privation? You get resourceful, and cover your legs with a layer of nude-colored makeup, and line the back of each leg with a trompe l’oeil seam.
Last week, in the first post from the Stocking Series, we heard about the huge reception of nylon hosiery. On May 16, 1940, officially called “Nylon Day,” four million pairs of nylons landed in stores and sold out within two days! But only a year later, the revolutionary product became scarce when the World War II economy directed all nylon into manufacturing parachutes, rope and netting.
As duty prevailed, a new fashion arose from the nylon ration. Liquid stockings, it was called. A foundation for your legs, applied carefully and evenly for the illusion of hose. Advanced users got even more realistic by using black eyeliner pencils to draw the “seam.”
Having trouble with your seam? No problem! This contraption, made from a screwdriver handle, bicycle leg clip and an ordinary eyebrow pencil would do the trick!
For those women overwhelmed by options— Ann Barton’s Leg Make-up, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Stocking Lotion, Patrick’s Leg Art, Leg Charm from Cosmetic House, Helena Rubinstein’s Leg Stick and Max Factor’s Pan-Cake Make-up, for starters—or unsure about application techniques, a leg makeup bar at their local department store could provide some guidance for beautifying their gams.
September 4, 2012
Women want men, career, money, children, friends, luxury, comfort, independence, freedom, respect, love and cheap stockings that don’t run.
Nylon stockings made their debut in my hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, on October 24, 1939. That’s because Wallace Hume Carothers, the chemist who invented the synthetic material in 1935, worked for the DuPont company, which is headquartered there. In fact, the first test sale to DuPont employees’ wives took place at the company’s experimental station, just up the street from my childhood home. Not long before the 4,000 pairs of stockings sold out—in only three hours!—DuPont had had women modeling nylon hosiery at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, touting nylon as a synthetic fabric made of “carbon, water and air.” A prototype of that initial run (get it?) can be found in the Smithsonian’s collection.
From the moment DuPont realized what kind of stretchy, durable, washable, dryable revolution it had synthesized, the company channeled its invention to women’s hosiery, a huge potential market. Hemlines were rising throughout the 1930s, and stockings, made at that time from silk or rayon, had become an essential component to a woman’s wardrobe, even though they were delicate and prone to runs. (The delicacy didn’t hurt the bottom line; women purchased an average of eight pairs of stockings per year during that decade.) Then came DuPont’s wonder fabric; the word “nylon,” as the lore goes, originated from the attempted coinage “nuron,”—”no run” spelled backward. Trademark issues caused DuPont to adapt the word to “nilon,” and then finally to “nylon” to remove any pronunciation ambiguity.
DuPont’s initial sales success in Wilmington was just the beginning of the nylon stocking craze. On May 16, 1940, officially known as “Nylon Day,” four million pairs of brown nylons landed on department store shelves throughout the United States at about $1.15 per pair. They sold out within two days. Silk stockings—which didn’t stretch, were challenging to clean, and ripped easily, but had been standard—were quickly supplanted.
That is, until the war came around. As quickly as nylon stockings found their way into department stores and boutiques, providing women with inexpensive, longer-lasting hosiery options, they disappeared. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered World War II, the material that had its beginnings briefly as toothbrush bristles (prior to entering the women’s hosiery market) was severely rationed and channeled into war efforts. Nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting and hammocks, aiding in the U.S.’s national defense. Because American women had seen the future and it had them wearing nylons, they had to be inventive to meet their leg-beautifying needs (Paint-on stockings, anyone? More on that soon.) or turn to the black market (a “diverted” nylon shipment earned one sly entrepreneur $100,000).
When the war was over and rations were eased, nylon stockings returned to stores and sold quickly. In 1945, “nylon riots” ensued around the country when hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of women, queued up to try to snag a pair. The situation got out of hand in Pittsburgh when 40,000 people lined up for over a mile vying for 13,000 pairs.
But Carothers, nylon’s creator, didn’t get to see the mania around his invention. After great scientific success (he also invented neoprene and the first synthetic musk), he committed suicide in 1936 after battling depression for years. And his death, alongside some bad press from the Washington News claiming that nylon could be made from cadaverine, a substance formed during putrefaction in dead bodies, put a morbid slant on the synthetic material.
Nylon’s bad rep was short-lived. After it was lauded for winning the war and changing the future of American women’s gams, the demand for nylon only continued to increase as DuPont shrewdly promoted the product. In one article, Joseph Lebovsky, a chemical engineer working at DuPont’s nylon lab (and, in keeping with tiny Delaware’s inevitable connections, a good friend of my grandparents), recounted how throughout the 1940s, demand remained so high that no matter how established the company, DuPont “had to make sure customers who wanted nylon had the money to pay [in advance] for it. . . . Even Burlington Mills would send a check for $100,000 to fill an order. . . . Everybody wanted nylon.”
After nylon came other easy-care DuPont synthetics (Dacron, Orlon, Bri-Nylon, Tricel), popularized by the company’s business savvy. The company realized, quite wisely, that to win over the textile market, and consumers in general, it had to appeal to high-end fashion designers, and in particular, Parisian couturiers. With its fabric development department, the company courted designers to produce clothing using its inventions. By 1955, DuPont landed a major victory when 14 synthetic fabrics, including quite a few of DuPont’s, were used in gowns from Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. DuPont even hired fashion photographer Horst P. Horst to document the runway fashions and circulated those images in press releases.
As you might expect, synthetic fabrics were key ingredients in the space age fashion trend, mentioned last week in Threaded. But sartorially speaking, they fizzled out. By the late ’60s, the fabrics disappeared from the runways. But they were embraced by the mainstream, at least for a while. Then their artificial, shiny look began to appear tacky (gotta love a red polyester butterfly-collared shirt…) as people returned to wearing natural fabric.
Today we may see (or feel) less nylon in our clothes, but its presence, mostly in the form of plastic, is established in our kitchens, bathrooms and offices. And while Phyllis Diller’s legacy lives on as nylon remains an essential ingredient for our reasonably priced stockings, tights, and knee-highs today, when it comes to the flesh-toned pantyhose business, it has taken a tumble in the past couple decades as women are more likely to go bare-legged. But I can only hope that DuPont is hard at work creating the next revolutionary material to make them less disposable and more earth-friendly.