Nylon stockings are common now, although we usually refer to them as pantyhose or simply hose instead. In the Air Force, beginning in 1948, women were required to wear a pair under their skirts since a proper lady “would not be seen in public without her hosiery.” Fortunately, the mentality changed, and the rules are laxer now, and women are allowed to either ditch the hassle pantyhose or wear trousers instead. We know that these stockings used to be a women’s wardrobe staple, but not everyone knows that the same stockings helped the Allies win World War II. Hint: The army did not wear them like usual.

The Birth of Nylon Stockings

Before nylon stockings were a thing, women used to wear silk stockings. The hemlines of their skirts started to grow shorter, and women’s skin had to be covered as they were deemed scandalous. In the 1930s, the United States imported four-fifths of the world’s silk. 90% were from Japan. Now, the problem with silk stockings was that they were not stretchable, they easily ripped, and they would need to wear a garter belt to keep them from sliding down.

In the 1940s, nylon stockings were commercially sold as a result of E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company’s extensive research through the help of Wallace H. Carothers, a Harvard-trained scientist. These stockings were more elastic and stronger than the silk ones. It was a hit that they sold 64 million pairs during their first year on the market.

The Fiber That Won The War

So how did these stockings enter the not-so-fashionable world of war, you ask?

A call to donate old silk and nylon stockings. Photo from Make Big Shadows

In 1942, nylon production was redirected for military use. You see, nylons are made from strong, tough, and very durable thermoplastic polymer that could be used to make glider tow ropes, mosquito netting, hammocks, flak jackets, and even parachutes for the troops. They were mold and fungi-resistant, light, and were quick-drying. Women were even asked to donate their used stockings so they could be repurposed. Thus, it was called “the fiber that won the war.”

The Nylon Stockings Craze

A lady imitating the seam of stockings. Photo from Make Big Shadows

The ladies were left with no nylon stockings, and it was a crisis. They couldn’t return to their old silk stockings(which was all being used to make parachutes, so women came up with resourceful and creative ways of making it look like they were still wearing a pair. Women began staining their legs with coffee, cocoa powder, gravy browning, or anything that could give them the appearance of their beloved stockings. Soon, leg cosmetics began sprouting in the market. Women began shaving their legs and applying “liquid silk stockings” and even put effort into drawing a line on the back of their legs to imitate the stockings’ seam.

Large crowd lining up for nylons in San Francisco. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, DuPont Textile Fibers Product Information photographs (Accession 1984.259), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807

After the war, the nylon stocking returned to the market, and there were “nylon riots” where hundreds, or sometimes thousands of women, would line up in stores to buy the limited supply of these stockings. The most extreme, perhaps, was in Pittsburgh in June 1946, when 40,000 women lined up to buy the available 13,000 pairs of nylon hosieries. There was a near riot with fistfights breaking out among the women over pairs of stockings, but that’s Pittsburgh I guess.