A lot of the time, we think of fetishes as primal things, deeply rooted in the human subconscious. And that goes double for the stocking fetish. After all, even those of us who don't share the specific compulsion seem to agree that stockings are sexy. It seems to be one of those things that's pretty widespread.
But, in fact, it's of relatively recent vintage. Stockings were a normal part of everyday wear, of course, but women's stockings were seldom on display until the 20th century. Hemlines were usually low to the ground, and if you saw a woman's stockings it had a sexual connotation, at least insofar as seeing someone in their underwear usually does. But stockings really came into their own as a fashion item in the 1920s, when fashionable women began wearing skirts that ended above the knee. The stereotype of the flapper with the flask in her garter doesn't describe most women of the 1920s, but it was in the media enough to enter a culture's imagination.
Consider the pulp magazines and novels of the 1930s and later: the exposed stocking is a universal symbol of sexual vulnerability. It's only one of the ways in which art and the media made the image of stockinged legs ubiquitous.
Most women of the era wore cotton or wool stockings for warmth, but the stylish, short-skirted look required silk (well, excluding a fad for rolled cotton stockings that flourished in the early 1920s). Silk stockings were pricey, though, not to mention fragile and inflexible. Rayon was less expensive, but the market was still primed for a synthetic substitute. That substitute appeared in the late 1930s with the introduction of nylon by chemical giant DuPont.
The synthetic fibre was originally used for fishing lines, toothbrushes and other products, but stockings soon followed. Even though nylon stockings sold at the same price as silk – $1.25 a pair, which was about the same as a sweatshirt or bra – their durability and stretchiness made them very attractive. When they hit the market in late 1939 and early 1940, hundreds of thousands of pairs were sold in a single day (the official launch, after some trial runs in 1939, was on May 15, 1940, which is why May 15 is Nylon Stockings Day).
But the world's love affair with nylon was about to become a long-distance one. During the Second World War, military parachutes and other equipment were made of imported silk. But fighting in the Pacific made it hard to import the quantity of silk needed for the war effort. DuPont's nylon production was reallocated to the war effort, and nylon stockings went off the market in most places. Used stockings were even collected to be recycled as powder bags for heavy naval guns. What had once been the common woman's alternative to silk suddenly became a luxury item. Songwriters George Marion, Jr and Fats Waller , even addressed the crisis in When the Nylons Bloom Again, a wistful number that imagines the delights of a post-war world in which women can once again greet their own friends.
This shortage was particularly the case in the UK, where rationing was stricter than in America and where the war had already been going for nearly a year when nylon stockings first hit the market. American soldiers stationed in Britain brought nylon or even silk stockings with them, although it doesn't seem like the first think you'd pack heading into combat. Military applications notwithstanding, a pair of nylons was a smart investment. An American GI who could offer a British girl a gift of nylon stockings could make himself very appealing, which may do something to explain the association of nylons with sexiness.
As all things, the war came to an end. In August 1945, as Japan surrendered, DuPont announced that nylon stockings would go back into production. Unfortunately, the manufacturer underestimated the number of pairs they would be able to produce before the re-release date. In American cities, tens of thousands of women queued to get their hands on stockings, only to find that there weren't enough to go around. Although reports of the so-called “Nylon Riots” are sometimes exaggerated, we do know that the long lines of disappointed buyers became rowdy. In Pittsburgh, 40,000 women lined up to find fewer than half that number of pairs available. Competition for the stockings that were on sale degenerated into an outright brawl.
Eventually, of course, production returned to and even exceeded, pre-war levels. Nylon stockings became a standard part of women's dress, at least until the prevalence of tights and changing fashions turned them into more of a fetish item than an item of daily (or at least weekend-ly) wear. But it may be their period of ubiquity that turned them into such a kink standby. They were so accessible that they essentially became a symbol of femininity and a potent turn-on for people who wanted to feel feminine. For people who felt awed and intimidated by femininity, and everyone in between.
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