Origin of the Trend: Tights

Pantyhose. Leggings. Knee-highs. Stockings. Hose. Legwear. Hosiery. Nylons. Tights. The staple accessory comes in many forms–varying in thickness, length, material and design–with roots in multiple centuries, reflecting the changes in science and sex. As the Industrial Age revolutionized the hosiery industry, women became increasingly comfortable with putting their legs on display.

Originally, legwear was created as a cover-up. For men. In the Middle Ages (beginning in the fifth century). Calves were wrapped in cloth–or hide, because those Europeans loved hunting before animal activism was trendy–and then with thinner strips of cloth for extra security, according to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. These early tights, known as “hose,” were paired with those poofy pants/shorts known as “breeches” and included feet-coverings starting in the 12th century. The wrappings were eventually extended to the hips when breeches shortened, as Europe was obviously going through a phase similar to that of the 1980s. Around 1490, breeches and hose were made as one article of clothing. These fancy, tight pants (Are male skinny jeans a throwback to the origin of tights?) were often colorful, embroidered and made of luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet; sometimes, according to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “each leg was in a contrasting color.”

The separation of the breeches from the tights produced shorts and stockings, the latter of which women snatched. Queen Elizabeth I popularized silk stockings, according to How Products Are Made, when she refused, fashion-veto style, to cover her legs in any other material: “In 1589, when the Reverend William Lee attempted to patent the first knitting machine, Queen Elizabeth denied his request because, she contended, the coarse stockings produced by Lee’s machine were inferior to the silk hose she had shipped from Spain.” Divas are trendsetters.

Lee was never allowed to make knitted stockings, because their wasn’t really a big emphasis on freedom in the late 16th century, but his brother (later) did. Thus the Lee sewing machine was born, which inspired the production of machine-knit stockings around 1864. These were better than those silky things that didn’t bend so well with your knees, because, according to How Products Are Made, they were made withe “a welt, or thick strip to which women could attach garters” and, “to accommodate the feet and ankles, the stocking fabric was thinned at the bottom, although the fabric at the heel remained thick, for cushioning purposes.” The pieces of fabric were then manually shaped and finished with a back-of-the-leg seam.

The seam is an integral part to tights history. Holding the piece of fabric together, it was an indicator that the woman wearing the accessory was not a slut, because her legs were covered. And by “covered,” I mean there was some sheer fabric accentuating them. And by “them,” I mean the portion of her legs that was visible, which was small.

Following the evolution of tights from knit stockings to nylons, named for the fabric which was invented in 1939, according to The Austin American-Statesman, and lasted through multiple wears, WWII happened. This was shitty for the stocking industry, because parachuters and whatnot stole America’s nylon. This led to “women paint[ing] seams on the back of their legs instead so it appeared as if they were wearing stockings,” according toGlamourDaze.BlogSpot.com, because again, they didn’t want to look like sluts.

Seams didn’t disappear until nylons were “made on circular machines that knitted tubes of fabric to which separate foot and toe pieces were subsequently attached,” according to How Products Are Made. The stockings were sheer, light and very fine, according to Fashion-Era.com, and “slow to take off in the 1950s.” Their eventual popularity indicated female comfortability with showing skin, aka looking slightly sluttier than before. (Note: I use the term “slutty” not in a misogynist way, but in a colloquial way. Girl power.) Some people in the ’50s, however, disagreed with the increasingly sexualized outfit choices of women: two men wrote to the St. Joseph News-Pressin 1959, “We feel that most girls have more respect for their sex than to wear tights. A girl who doesn’t, needs a boy friend to stay out of trouble.” There are so many issues of sexism in this that I can’t even handle it, so I’m going to move on.

The 1960s saw the birth of tights as we know them, providing coverage to the waist. Known as “pantyhose,” according to Fashion-Era.com, they typically accompanied short hemlines. Edie Sedgwick loved this ballerina-inspired look. Emilio Pucci’s 1965 fall collection included medieval-inspired “page boy tunics, short to medium short, over matching print tights” (The Montreal Gazette). By 1966, thigh-high stockings were out of style, according to Washington’s The Spokesman-Review reporting from Los Angeles: ”Skirts have gone about as high as they ought to go, in the opinion of fashion historian James Laver. They have gone so high, in fact, that he is coming to believe women are abandoning the whole idea of skirts and stockings in favor of tunics and tights.” Tights of the late 1960s were patterned with flowers and had names like “Crazy Daisy,” according to Alabama’sGadsden Times (the article I’m referencing is adorned with asterisks that look like flowers, by the way), true to hippie culture. I almost don’t want to believe this, because it’s so cliché. Who knew the flower-power craze was real?

As the ’60s ended, tights got fancier and less annoyingly stereotypical. Andre Laug’s spring/summer 1969 collection, shown in Rome, featured “jeweled tights, one pair covered with gold sequins and the other covered with strands of crystal” (St. Petersburg Times). The 1970s saw the rise of textured and adorned tights; this reminds me of bebaroque’s spring/summer 2011 tights that are so prettily detailed that I want to sleep in a pile of them like a princess.

Tights in the following decade were flashy. The showing of the fall 1981 collection by Hot Sox, a New York hosiery retailer founded in 1969, included a ” finale, which featured dancers, in black leotards and brightly colored tights by Geoffrey Beene, doing a takeoff on the Rockette’s famous high kicks” (The Dispatch). The ’80s had begun. According to the Ottowa Citizen, in 1983, “truly daring souls can wear carrot-stick tights, and on top of them, wiggle into kelly-green knee-highs, and on top of that slip on posey-pretty anklets,” which makes color blocking sound fun/makes every outfit I’ve seen in Boston sound drab.

The end of the ’80s saw the creation of “thights,” a phrase trademarked by Hue that references thigh-high tights. Using elastic to stay up without the help of garters, the tights allowed for “a few inches of flesh gaping between hem and hose,” according to Georgia’s Waycross Journal-Herald. The president of Hot Sox noted that the sexy style would not be appropriate for everyone; thights, he essentially said, were for the courageous youth–not the moms who’re afraid of rising trends and their increasingly sexy kids. I mean, twelve-year-olds weren’t being sold thights, but maybe fourteen-year-olds were. The accessory was sold in bold and pastel colors, patterns and lace-topped versions, so women could have a pair of thights for every occasion.

Non-neutral tights were completely acceptable by the ’90s, according to a December 1993 issue of The Spokesman-Review. Even in the office, women were encouraged to wear patterned and colored tights, completing their outfits with the nylon accessory. Hot Sox, Liz Claiborne and Donna Karan/DKNY officials agreed that although black tights were top-sellers, colors–such as “hunter green, more dark brown than usual, and plum” for the fall Hot Sox line–were never avoided by customers.

Tights have been a steady fashion staple since the ’90s. In the past decade, footless tights, detailed with zippers, studs and faux-pockets, have been embraced; designers continue to incorporate, however, the footed option. Really, the past ten years has been a deluge of outfits accessorized by tights and leggings. This spring, wear crochet or lace or some-other-type-of-material-with-holes tights, enhance all-white outfits with white thights and color-block with the advice of the ’80s.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on July 13, 2011.

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