As if crippling the transport system by rationing gasoline wasn’t enough, the United States donned its fun police cap and took away women’s stockings to fuel the war effort. Though in all seriousness, it wasn’t because the country’s army decided to defeat its enemies by embarrassing them with their lack of fashionable undergarments, but it was the durability of the synthetic material itself that proved useful in a number of ways. From parachutes, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, laces, tire cords and many others, this essential synthetic material played a surprisingly huge role in directly leading the allies to victory.
This incredible plastic was invented in 1935 by Wallace Hume Carothers who worked for DuPont company. Unlike silk and rayon that were predominantly used in stockings at the time, nylon was comfortable, stretchy, easily washable and durable. For women, this material was a godsend. You see, in the 1930’s hemlines were all the rage, and no matter what, stockings were supposedly the most crucial part of a woman’s wardrobe.
Multiple records from that decade concluded that, on average, a woman bought 8 pairs of stockings per year. Though some of the bloated statistics might be attributed to the fragility of rayon-made stockings of that era; which weren’t so durable and likely forced women to buy more in order to compensate. Seeing the size and scope of this market, it was only logical that DuPont would want to bring its revolutionary new material into the wardrobe of every woman; and so it did.
After battling years of negative publicity about the origins of nylon, and the subsequent events following Carothers’ suicide, DuPont finally managed to bring nylon stockings to the mass market by 15th May 1940. Priced at $1.15 a pair, all 4 million units sold out within 2 days. But the excitement for women, however, was short-lived.
Soon came the war. And with it, came crippling effects of inadequate resources due to disconnected international trade relations. Very soon, many essential resources were rationed and channeled directly into the war. Silk was one of the first to be rationed in order to be used in parachutes for the military. The reason behind the sanction was that Japan was the sole supplier of silk to the United States, and after Pearl Harbor, relationships between the two countries were less than ideal. At the break of the news for rationing silk-made stockings, women rushed to the stores to stock up, as it were.
This frenzy forced many retailers to put restrictions on purchases of silk stockings, and also rose the price of nylon stockings to about $10 a pair. But eventually, nylon stockings also met the same fate by February 11th, 1942. The Office of Price Administration (subsequently known as the War Production Board) took control of DuPont’s resources and chemicals and channeled them exclusively to producing materials for war.
But even the war and all the rationing didn’t stop women from clinging on to their sense of fashion. Following the disappearance of silk and nylon stockings from the market, women turned to somewhat creative and downright absurd ways to maintain the beauty of their legs that only a stocking could provide. Most notable of the new trends was the literal painting of stockings on one’s legs.
That’s right. Using common makeup items, women used to accurately spread the shine on their legs to sell the look of a real stocking. The process was painstaking and usually required the help of another person in order to draw the seams of the stocking on the back of the leg. The downside of this method was that, in order to prolong its effects, women had to abstain from bathing for a couple of days, and take special care when folding their legs, as that movement could potentially smear the painting.
Eager to capitalize on this opportunity, leg creams and lotions soon flooded the market; specifically designed and sold to provide that unmistakable shine of stocking. The demand for these products quickly soared to the point where actual TVCs were being made to promote them. Women who struggled to properly apply these products could reach out to local department stores and ask for professional assistance. The store clerks could even advise them on how to apply the notoriously difficult seam on the back of their legs.
Some genius even capitalized on this opportunity as well and designed a clever contraption that housed an eyeliner in the center. This device could essentially ‘claw’ on the contour of your leg and use that as support to help you effortlessly apply the seam in one simple stroke.
When the war ended and the rationing stopped, nylon stockings soon started becoming available. However this time, the pressure to serve the demand was insurmountable for DuPont. Riots would frequently break out in local stores as consumers and shop owners struggled to maintain composure amidst the limited supply. On extreme case was in June of 1946 in Pittsburgh where more than 40,000 people lined up for just 13,000 pairs of stockings.
It soon became apparent to DuPont that a single manufacturer can’t ever hope to serve such a large and impatient national market. The demand for stockings consistently remained high throughout the decade following the war; so much that DuPont had to lay down a stipulation to have all customers, domestic or business, pay for their order in advance.
Eventually, the sheer demand made DuPont rethink its strategy. They didn’t have the resources to ramp up production in a realistically short duration. The fear of losing customers due to limited supply was too great. The company management buckled under this pressure, and they finally decided to license the production of nylon stockings to third-party manufacturers. The rest, as they say, is history.