Molded: A History of Hosiery
Clothing can be, quite literally, an extension of who we are. It can skim the body in such a way that looks and feels like a second skin. Consider undergarments: these items are used for both coverage and support beneath our regular clothes. Some have garnered their own acclaim by being worn alone, creating a new trend that has challenged societal acceptability of what makes an outfit; the slip dress is an iconic example of this trend. This is also true of another, albeit more subtle, accessory: hosiery. While the name for it may vary depending on the context (hose, pantyhose, leggings, stockings, tights, socks, etc.) the concept of hosiery has maintained a level of relevance for centuries.
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The history of hosiery is an interesting one as it originally began as a fashion style for men; it was seen as indecent for women because it exposed too much of the body. This article of legwear has sat at both ends of the style pendulum throughout time, with groups making cases both for and against its place in society. Innovations in fabrication and manufacturing have served to help it be seen as both statement-making and utilitarian (i.e. athletic wear). With this in mind, it seems that hosiery sits at the intersection of fashion and culture at large.
While the first known articles of leg coverings were achieved by prehistoric men wrapping animal furs around their calves for warmth, it was medieval patrons that created the form of hosiery that is most similar to today. Prior to the 1100s, clothing was based on geometric shapes that were easy to cut and stitch together. The romantic period of the 12th century—defined by poetry, acts of courtly love and chivalry-ushered in a desire for clothing that clung closer to the body. As the style of dress became more form-fitted, it was not uncommon to see men wearing split front tunic styles that showed off the full attached hose. According to the Smithsonian’s Fashion: A Definitive History of Costume and Style, members of the clergy were not fans of the look, as it “revealed intimate parts.” In such, hosiery was one piece that created a clear distinction between religious and secular clothing in that time period.
The look would be popular with men well into the Renaissance. As people became more skilled in the art of garment making, a variety of styles began to emerge in hosiery. Popular takes were those with detailed embroidery and dyed “parti-colored” (colorblocked) versions. Because these techniques were time-consuming and expensive to produce, they were generally cut on the bias for a better fit, crafted from fine fabrics like silk and reserved to be worn by those in the royal court. Everyday men and women crafted their socks at home and used sturdier materials like wool and linen. Thus, clothing became a marker of where one stood in society. This separation was made more apparent through statutes that sought to prevent the average person from wearing certain styles, though these laws were hard to enforce.
With the advent of longer and more elaborate womenswear dress styles in the 19th and 20th centuries, hosiery became an important part of the look for women. As women sought liberation in the 1920s-both politically and sartorially-a new trend emerged among teenage girls who intentionally rolled their thigh high stockings below the knee. This freed them from wearing garter straps and corsets, allowing for a wider range of movement. An important innovation in 1935 however, would make an incredible impact on hosiery as it was previously known. That year, Wallace Carothers invented nylon, a synthetic fiber that replaced silk in many products. The fiber was durable, cost-efficient and more readily available than silk; it even became known as the “fiber that won the war” of World War II. During this time there was a shortage of stockings as nylon was being used to build essential wartime materials including parachutes, ropes and hammocks.
In recent years, the blending of hosiery and footwear have given way to new hybrid styles. The early 2000s saw athletics giant Nike create the Sock Dart-a running sneaker that was originally inspired by a seamless Japanese children’s sock. Designer Mark Smith described the shoe as “an exercise in refinement.” For Tamara Mellon, the founder of her namesake label and former lead designer of London based shoe brand Jimmy Choo, the idea proved to be maximalist. She has been a champion of a boot-pant style that she created for her label called Sweet Revenge, which she originally conceived years ago for Jimmy Choo but was told that it may be too risky for their customer. Mellon currently sees it as an item that “breaks down barriers between clothing and accessories.” The look also seems to be an exaggerated version of a style that is now seen in every corner of the industry, from high fashion to leisure: the sock shoe.
The past few seasons in fashion have seen many designers sharing their iteration of this popular design-notable examples include Dior's latex and lucite boots from Fall 2015 and the now ubiquitous Balenciaga sock trainers and knife boots. The fitted silhouette of the sock shoe uniquely molds to each wearers foot in a way that gives the illusion of a sock with a heel attached-reminiscent of pointed medieval poulain shoes. The trend has even trickled down to mass-market brands like Steve Madden, speaking to its accessible nature. It may be that its arrival was well received for the same reason that hosiery sparked debate: the style is both shocking and pragmatic. Through his collaboration with Adidas, designer Rick Owens has created multiple styles that put the practicality of the sock shoe center stage. In a 2016 interview with Footwear News, Owens outlined his design preference as, “I like things that function and that are logical.” This is an interesting sentiment given the conceptual nature of his pieces but makes sense when considering the following that the brand has: wearers still need to live their lives. Tom Kalenderian, the Executive Vice President of Men’s Merchandising at Barney’s New York, echos that thinking about Owens’ footwear styles, “The aficionados who buy the most extreme footwear likely wear it everyday confidently, as though they were a basic.”
For the recent Spring 2019 womenswear shows, some designers looked back to the original inspiration by designing statement hosiery with their latest offerings. Donatella Versace paired sheer plaid and floral styles with multi-patterned ensembles for her namesake house while New York-based designer Marc Jacobs accentuated his opening look (a boudoir-inspired silk slip dress) with glittering gold tights. LVMH prize winning designer Marine Serre sent full patterned bodysuits down her Paris runway. After many seasons of the sock shoe and a drastic change to a chunkier dad silhouette, statement hosiery as an accessory feels fresh. There’s a sense of whimsy and glamour that comes with wearing patterned tights. The spontaneity of juxtaposing them against items that are more relaxed in style drive that point home. As an emerging brand, Serre’s work is representative of that.
In an interview for British Vogue, Louis Vuitton's Creative Director Nicolas Ghesquière offered his reasoning for selecting Marine Serre for the LVMH Prize, “It was the way she represents dressing today: the sports clothes, the body consciousness, and a kind of romanticism and femininity. It really speaks of [this] generation.” Ghesquière’s understanding of the way we dress presently also serves as a fitting description for hosiery itself. Hosiery champions an intimate relationship with the body. As with most clothing, the history of hose offers a reflection on society’s expectations and our individual freedom of expression. Its history is also a study on how good design is rooted in form and function: While it makes a bold statement in an outfit, a molded form offers practicality to the wearer. It can provide an added layer of coverage, a warm reprieve from cold weather, and makes for an efficient slip-on style. As times change, trends serve as a barometer for what society is being confronted with and for that which it yearns; the vast narrative of hosiery is one such example.