Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hosed: Conservatism and the Return of Pantyhose




I love pantyhose. What’s not to love? They add a little warmth, they even out splotchy skin, they give a hint of support if you’re into that (or a lot of support if you’re into that), they keep you from sliding around in heels, and, most important, they make you look just a little more polished. I buy the cheap drugstore kind—to my chagrin I can no longer find the kind that comes in a plastic egg—but given how often I wear them, I have probably spent hundreds of dollars over my lifetime in pantyhose. I love pantyhose.

Which is why I was genuinely confused—to the point of being surprised by my own naivete on the matter, given my years working in fashion magazines—to find out that plenty of people don’t. Somehow I missed the spate of articles in 2011 on the matter, which tended to focus either on Kate Middleton’s apparent fondness for them or on the L’Eggs campaign aimed at getting the 18-to-34 set back in the control tops. (Of course, I turned 35 last year, so perhaps I overlooked the articles because I was just too old to notice that pantyhose had become unfashionable over the years, along with scrunchies and sanitary napkin belts.) Pantyhose naysayers find them dowdy, old-fashioned, stuffy, stuck in the ’80s (see the Night Court reference in this pantyhose face-off), even sexist, which, given that they’re not necessarily the most comfortable things around and have no equivalent for men, is understandable. (“Meggings” don’t count.)

But just one year after Slate pondered whether it was “too late to pull nylons back from the brink of extinction,” it seems I needn’t worry. The very same industry expert quoted in that Slate piece from November 2011 was quoted a year later in the Times, saying that with the continued popularity of the dress (and the obligatory nod to the economy, which might make women want to “dress for success,” as though that’s new), pantyhose was seeing a resurgence. Which it really is: Hosiery sales increased from $900 million to $1 billion in 2011, with sheers “definitely leading the legwear pack in terms of increases,” according to a vice president at Bare Necessities. Pantyhose is back.

Except it’s also, like, not. Reading comments on any article about pantyhose, you’d think we were talking about the Gaza strip, not flimsy tubes of nylon. Trends come and go, and people find themselves wearing things they thought unimaginable to don only months earlier (I have yet to buy a pair of skinny jeans, but I’ve tried them on, this despite being a vocal opponent during their initial resurgence in the 2000s). But there’s something about pantyhose that’s oddly divisive.*

Part of this, I think, is that unlike skinny jeans, pantyhose isn’t about fashion; it’s about lifestyle. It’s one of the few wardrobe items that definitively is or isn’t in people’s wardrobes—punks and preps alike all have jeans, skirts, and sweaters of some sort, but pantyhose? If you work at a smoothie joint in Oregon, you might not have ever worn them; if you work for the federal government, it might not cross your mind to not wear them. In fact, depending on your workplace, you might have to wear them, as this Wall Street Journal post points out. Geography comes into play too: In the Northeast and Plains states, pantyhose never really went out of fashion for dressy events, whereas I’m guessing most famously casual Californians would likely only wear them if it’s a part of a dress code. This can be mighty baffling if you operate in separate spheres: “Like many women, I found our ‘liberation’ from pantyhose terribly confusing,” wrote Margaret Hartman for Jezebel in 2011. Between her Senate internship (hose!) and working in ladymags (no hose! I never got the memo, obvs), “Suddenly I had to review my personal pantyhouse policy on an event-by-event basis to determine if I'd be committing a fashion faux pas.”

It can also be mighty baffling if you find yourself straddling generations. At 36, I consider myself a Gen-Xer, as are most of my friends. But I also have plenty of friends in their 20s, and it’s interesting to note the little things that mark our age difference. Remembering a world with East Germany and without MTV is one; pantyhose is another. For even if women my age choose not to wear pantyhose now, we grew up with it—I distinctly remember a period when it was fashionable to wear shorts over black pantyhose, obligatory flannel shirt wrapped around our waists, and I can’t imagine that any of my classmates went to prom bare-legged. But women in their teens and 20s—geographic and lifestyle dictates notwithstanding—didn’t. In fact, that could be integral to what appears to be its return: Women in their 20s can embrace pantyhose in part because their mothers had the freedom to shed it—and were likely raising their daughters with the knowledge that nylons were no longer a must. (And in Japan, where pantyhose sales are growing as well, teens may have some shyness about exposing bare legs, thanks in part to their mothers’ fondness for leggings.)

Whatever the case, insofar as pantyhose is back, it’s, as they say, not your mother’s (optional) pantyhose. “Value-added” hosiery is partly responsible for the category’s resurgence; call it the Spanx effect. Between consumer expectations that foundation garments give a virtual tummy tuck and technological developments that mean such garments are no longer insanely uncomfortable (trust me, “control top” in the early ’90s was a different beast), it’s no surprise that part of the L’Eggs campaign emphasizes the shaping functions of their hosiery. Plus, since opaque tights have been perennially popular for several years (whereas they weren’t particularly in vogue 15 years ago), hose can now be marketed as “sheer tights,” an exercise in oxymoronic rebranding if there ever was one.

That doesn’t mean that the reasoning for pantyhose’s comeback isn’t retro. Bare legs—at least according to the Hollywood Reporter, which, well, whatever—are now beginning to look “tawdry” and “cheap.” So let me get this straight: Pantyhose was once thought dowdy, and now appearing without it might be tawdry. Virgin/whore, anyone? Between the association of bare legs with “cheapness” and pantyhose with somewhat conservative fields and regions, I’m actually wondering if there is some sort of connection between pantyhose and conservatism, even if most of its wearers—like myself—don’t consciously think of it that way. I wore it in earnest for years and still do, but at least now I can play it up as a sort of “retro” thing à la Mad Men—a show that was born from America’s conflicted relationship with conservatism.

Certainly one of the complaints against pantyhose—that it looks like one is trying too hard—registers with this line of thought. “Trying too hard” can take a lot of different forms, but it has immediate associations with a sort of over-the-top femininity that goes hand-in-hand with the conservative “let women be women again!” mind-set. And though I don’t find pantyhose particularly uncomfortable, it’s not exactly comfortable either**—again falling into line with conservatism, the idea that maybe women shouldn’t be too comfortable with their bodies.

Still, despite the connections, I’m going to stick with ’em. For here is my conservative little secret: Pantyhose, to me, are one of many symbols of womanhood. My mother didn’t wear pantyhose, but I remember visiting her mother when I was a kid and eagerly accepting a pair of nylon knee-high castoffs that I figured would have to do until I was old enough to wear full-on big-girl pantyhose. Which I started doing in 8th grade, for special occasions: I loved feeling encased in this tight, stretchy stuff that somehow didn’t look tight but just looked...finished, making me feel finished, giving me a sense of finesse that I lacked otherwise. It does that for me still: I happily go bare-legged in the summer, but come fall, slipping on a pair of pantyhose is an adult version of putting on my back-to-school wardrobe. Pantyhose means I’m ready; it means I’m in public, wanting to be seen not as a prolonged adolescent who still sleeps on a futon and wrinkles her nose at broccoli, but as a professional. As an adult, as a woman who isn’t afraid to take herself a little seriously. As someone who looks at what some might say is a sign of “trying too hard” and instead interpret it as a willingness to go the extra mile. My nails may be chipped, my hair may have flyaways, my lipstick might be eaten off. But my bottom half? I’ve got it covered.


*To wit: Despite being firmly in the pro-pantyhose camp, black pantyhose now makes me shudder. Tights are fine, as are black thigh-highs in the boudoir—but the sheer stuff, on the street? Ix-nay, otally-tay.

**Certainly not as comfortable as these freakin’ amazing fleece-lined tights that I am totally shilling for without shame because I love them so much, and they really do keep you warm.

26 comments:

  1. i'm 26 and a huge advocate of pantyhose. and truthfully, i may be the only 20-something female that i know who is. my friends love opaque tights and leggings, but i seriously wonder if any of them own a pair of sheer hose. the only one that likely does is a lawyer, but it's fairly standard protocol to wear pantyhose when you are in that line of work.

    while i adore my sweater tights and patterned tights for fun, funky, casual looks, i would DIE (and then run to the nearest pharmacy) if i had to dress up and couldn't find any of my five pairs of sheers. i may have been the only girl at my prom with pantyhose on, but dang it, my legs looked awesome (albeit, one or two shades darker than the rest of me. i didn't get the difference in shades of nude when i was 18).

    when i was growing up, i was expected to wear pantyhose if i was wearing a dress fancier than a summer play dress. when i was forced into professional portrait studios, and i always had to wear a dress for those, i put on pantyhose. when i went to a house of worship, i wore pantyhose. when we went to holiday dinners, i wore pantyhose. nude, white, black, whatever the color appropriate for my age bracket/occasion, i wore them. and frankly, i loved them then and i love them now.

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    Replies
    1. Wow, I admire girls who still have a taste and know just how to dress like a lady. And dressing up like one, involves wearing pantyhose most of the times! Clearly, you sound like the kind of girl who does have some sort of class and style which most other girls have left behind.

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  2. A bit of history may be required. The relief of not needing to worry about garters and hose slipping meant pantyhose were welcome with open arms by young women. Although i must admit, it was that freedom which led me to discard hosiery altogether. What made me shiver was when i witnessed a return to garters in the '80s. Who would opt to return to the machinations of metal, which, to me, seemed more like a return to being in chains.

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  3. I couldn't agree with you more: pantyhose *are* a symbol of womanhood. Which is why, when I was 8 years old, I kept a pair hidden in an empty coffee-can buried in my backyard, to be taken out for cherished moments when I was alone.

    As a child, I associated pantyhose with femininity in the strongest way. That emotional linkage never left me. I now have dozens of pairs in my drawer.

    You accurately cite their benefits (smoothing skin-tone) and drawbacks (discomfort). I always found it puzzling that society used to require them for modesty in the workplace, whereas bare legs were considered indecent. I view pantyhose the opposite way: to me, they're sexy and bare legs are plain.

    Fascinating post on an important topic.

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  4. UGH, I HATE PANTYHOSE. Literally, when I think about it, there's a voice in my head that starts screaming "Nooooooo!" I grew up doing ballet--white tights! Semi-sheer! Literally SO UNYIELDING that your shoes would wear out before your tights would! And ever since I've refused to wear anything that isn't opaque black tights in winter. Even that's up for mental debate sometimes because I'm tall, and pantyhose/tights/whatever slips and falls, causing attractive saggy-bagging in the crotchal region. Or, if they're long enough, they're too wide and flap around my legs like elephant skin. Obviously this is both attractive AND professional.

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    Replies
    1. As a short, fat woman, I have the exact same struggles finding pantyhose that fit properly. Can they not make a size that is short and wide, and one that is long and thin?

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    2. I'm tall too, and my solution is to be a superhero. I put on a thin slip on top of my pantyhose. Thin enough that the seams don't show under the dress, but solid enough to keep my pantyhose up. Mostly works very well.

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  5. I'm in my mid-twenties and wear pantyhose. However, I'm not very likely to wear them if it's warm out even if I'm in a suit. When deciding if I should wear them or not, I'm chiefly thinking about that touch of warmth. But when I actually put them on, what I notice is that final finishing touch. I should probably wear pantyhose more often. I do wear a lot of tights.

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  6. I don't like sheer hose. It probably has a lot to do with never being able to find a nice shade that matches my skin tone. I remember wearing horrible shades as a kid to church. They were uncomfortable and funny colors. (I am 34)

    I don't mind wearing patterned tights, and I have become quite obsessed lately.

    But sheer hose? It is far too much work to find a shade that is not too dark or too light to match my chocolatey skin tone. I'll probably continue to avoid it.

    I'd love to find a great black or brown patterned tight that had a large enough pattern so it doesn't look too "heavy" on my legs!

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  7. I grew up and spent most of my adult life in Florida...so you can imagine I was extremely relieved when my mother heard pantyhose was out of fashion and stopped making me wear them. our love of them surprises me but then again it doesn't because you've likely never worn them in FL humidity (which is almost year round) and never experienced the way heat can make them feel like the lower half of your body is covered in an itchy dry rash.

    And ditto to what Jame said about colors. They never seemed to have a shade that truly matched brown skin. "Nutmeg" and "cinnamon" were shades in almost every brand but one was either orangey and too bright and the other greyish and too dark. And yet the older black women I knew as a kid were not put off by this. They coordinated those non-matching pantyhose shades with their outfits the way that modern teenagers use leggings. Clever I suppose but it just made me even more convinced they were unnecessary.

    ~Mary

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    1. But I think it's the unnecessary nature of pantyhose that she enjoys. If they were neccessary they feel as...feminine?

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  8. I had to wear pantyhose for my first job. As a very pale 17-year-old, I spent a lot of time shaking my fist at my bad luck at having to wear them and trying to find the palest, sheerest pair possible. Of course, when I did, they were $30 a pop and I made, like, $100/week. Harupmf! When the tide turned and the pantyhose requirements started to fade, I was oh-so happy! I vowed to never wear them again. And I haven't. I do, however, wear seamed stockings, which, for me, hold the sexy, womanly vibe that pantyhose seem to hold for you.

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  9. I'm not a big fan of pantyhose (I don't like the way the waistband digs), but a garter belt or girdle and stockings are my everyday undergarments. I've come to embrace tights this year, but I can't imagine going bare-legged any time other than summer, just for practicality. As for peoples' judgements: if I cared about those, I wouldn't have continued to wear hosiery in the first place.
    And I do like sheer black stockings. I even like them with open-toed shoes. Unpopular opinion to have, but it's mine.

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  10. I think you're spot-on about pantyhose being a lifestyle item. The quote from the lawyer who notes that if opposing counsel has bare legs then she's won should be reason enough for an aspiring barrister to put them on. Why work hard only to lose on something that can be bought at CVS for $6?

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  11. Your comments about pantyhose making you feel grown up or "finished" are fascinating, because these are exactly the reasons I hate them. I associate pantyhose with needless fussing, with restrictive standards I don't really understand, of all the confusion I still have with what is considered "professional", and my conflicted feelings on whether I really want to be "professional" or not. I have an enormous drawer of knee high socks so I can skirt around this whole issue and not freeze in winter. Wearing socks instead of pantyhose to work feels like a comfortable compromise between how I would LIKE to dress at work, and how I am expected to dress, that manages to reflect some of me from under the homogeneous exterior.

    ...wow, I have a lot to say about this. I might have to do a post in reply.

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  12. I work in an office. Not a conservative office, so we don't really have a dress code. In the warmer months I go bare-legged in skirts and dresses. In the cold months, I wear hose or tights. It's simply a matter of warmth. I don't want to give up skirts, and I don't want to always be in opaque tights.

    I, too, am amused that panty hose are now called sheer tights. The hardest part is finding a pair that works - they have to be the right color, the right level of "sheer", and for me, sheer toe and non-control top. I've found that the sheerest, nearly invisible styles are also coarse and scratchy. Ick! If I find a pair that looks natural on my legs, chances are I'll never find that style in my size and color again.

    And then there's the lack of durability. They don't last, despite my best efforts. So I have to constantly throw money into them when I'd rather get a new sweater or skirt.

    It's no wonder that woman who aren't required to wear them, don't.

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  13. I don't wear dresses or skirts often. When I do, wearing hose (never tights because they are too, well, tight) depends on the shoes I will be wearing. Open toe shoes = no hose, closed toe shoes = hose because I don't like my feet feeling sweaty and slippery in closed shoes. I also like that hose help keep my thighs from rubbing uncomfortably.

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    1. I am amazed that the crucial issue (for me) has only once been mentioned - the general ick factor of wearing shoes (not sandals) with bare feet! I don't like pantihose because they are uncomfortable and dig in at the waist, and my legs are quite long, so pantihose often tear at the crotch. But what else to wear with a dress and closed shoes? What do other women do to avoid the really awful feeling of feet sweating and rubbing in leather (or worse, nonleather) shoes? Thigh-highs (with elastic tops) don't work at all - they just fall down. I flat out refuse to deal with a garter belt. I have resorted to making my own shoe liners out of old socks, cut to cover the interior bottom of the shoe, because the store-bought liners are both slippery and tight over my toes. Is there a better answer?

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  14. I hate pantyhose- for me, they're uncomfortable. They squeeze uncomfortably (I think I was also put in control-top hose as a teenager) and the texture creates rubbing that sends me up the walls. Instead, in the winter I wear leggings and socks, and since I tend towards ankle-length skirts, I can get away with it, so far. I've had marginally better luck with stockings (i.e. with a significant non-nylon component of the fabric), and while those aren't cheap, I imagine that's what I'll do if I need to give up my leggings at some point.

    In any case, wearing hose reminds me of being unable to pick out my own clothes, rather than femininity. Perhaps its because my mother's stockings were, for a long time, support stockings that seemed like an exercise in misery.

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    1. Support stockings are thick, uncomfortable, very tight (they have to be to truly work) and ugly. But if you have a vein problem, the hose are better and less expensive than a vein stripping surgery every few years. Covering them with tights looks better and works well in the colder months but summer is another matter.

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  15. The shoe companies will balk at the return of pantyhose. Hasn't anyone noticed that the insides of their shoes are chewed to bits after a very short time?

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  16. I'm 29, and I remember searching for pantyhose without toes to wear with my open-toed prom shoes. I would never have considered going bare legged to prom, despite my floor length dress! Compare to last week when I went to a work cocktail party bare-legged and didn't even consider a pair of hose. Not sure what happened in the last decade, but pantyhose went from essential to optional. I have a few pairs I save for job interviews (a suit doesn't feel right without hose!) or cold days. Tights inject so much more color and texture into an outfit that I almost always reach for them first. Plus I don't have to worry about the unnatural 'suntan' effect!

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  17. I used to hate pantyhose and tights, but I also hated skirts and dresses at the time so there was no need to wear either.

    Since I began wearing skirts and dresses, I was forced to incorporate both, hose and tights. I only wear them when it's too cold to go without. I like hose (nude & sheer black) because some outfits just look better with a nude leg or a non-opaque black (or other color). I suppose I also like the fact that I don't get chaffing with hose and tights. I do find hose relatively uncomfortable though. I buy the biggest size available (which isn't my size, according to the chart) but they still are hell to get on. By the time I've shoved my legs inside I'm shocked at how small the space is for my waist. I'm always surprised when I actually get them on.

    I don't associate them with femininity or conservatism, I don't care if they're in fashion or not. I wear them because they work for my life.

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  18. I won't bore anyone with why, as a man, I learned about this topic. Suffice it to say that my wonderful wife has some fetishes. Which is fine! There's nothing wrong with liking things.

    I think I understand why pantyhose elicit such powerful reactions. Here's the scoop: almost all men are pantyhose fetishists (to varying degrees), and a large number of women are pantyhose fetishists, too. Most of those who aren't, hate them.

    I'll make a comparison to a similarly impractical piece of traditionally male clothing: the necktie. Men often have no choice but to wear them. Unlike pantyhose, however, I have yet to meet a man who doesn't hate them, or at least prefer to never wear them. No man says "I love my neckties."

    The poster who said "I don't associate them with femininity or conservatism, I don't care if they're in fashion or not" seems unusual. For most people, pantyhose are so inextricably associated with femininity, glamor and sex. For women, it's all about Kate Middleton and Mad Men; for men, it's a thousand pantyhose porn sites and large numbers of them hiding pantyhose under their pants (if you can believe online surveys and anecdotes from online retailers).

    Now, I'm not talking about tights. Those make sense. They're either patterned or colorful, or both, i.e., they make a big visual impact on an ensemble. Some are strong enough to help with poor circulation, and some are thick enough to qualify as long johns. OTOH, sheer nude pantyhose make no sense at all. They're flimsy, are nearly invisible, offer no support to legs, are hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

    Bottom line, it's just clothing! Woman or man, if it works for you, wonderful! If not, wonderful! I'll go away now, thank you for reading the ramblings of a man.

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