The USA celebration of 15 May as Nylon Stocking Day is such a tempting idea for museums with a hosiery collection that I found it impossible to resist stretching the idea to Aotearoa.
American chemical company DuPont’s discovery and development of nylon fibre had big implications for women’s legs. Nylon stockings wafted onto the market for a moment in the early days of WWII, before vanishing in the face of urgent wartime requirements for nylon, for things such as parachutes, airplane cords, and rope.
Their release was headline news here. “Silk Stockings from Coal!” read the Auckland Star, written by a journalist conscious of the attraction factor: It “has only recently been announced in the United States … that with the addition of water and air, coal now forms the basic substance for a valuable and completely new synthetic fibre, which can be spun into the sheerest material for ladies’ stockings”.
Prior to 1939, most stockings were made from cotton, rayon, silk, or wool, separately or in combination. Each material had its adherents, advantages, and drawbacks. Warmth and wear were important; for some consumers, stretch, ability to take dyes, finish, and/or price were deciding factors.
Images: (Left) Well darned feet on a pair of early 20th century cotton stockings. G85.58 Gift of Otago Women’s Club; Otago Museum Collection. (Right) Yellow lisle stocking with ladder. G85.57 Gift of Otago Women’s Club; Otago Museum Collection.
To help achieve a good fit, stockings were made and sold in a range of finely graduated sizes that related primarily to foot length and width. Then, as now, however, sagging, bagging, or constriction were common problems: unattractive and uncomfortable. The means of construction also played a role. ‘Fully fashioned’ stockings had a profile similar to a real leg by being knitted flat, and shaped by increasing or decreasing the number of loops on each row; then seamed. The imitation fashioned stocking, advised the Ladies Mirror, was “the old style tubular hose with a fake seam up the back … which invariably loses its shape after the first washing”. 
The new, synthetic nylon fibre fitted more closely by stretching more effectively. As the Auckland Star article noted, “stockings made of this yarn possess all the qualities which fastidious women regard as of supreme importance. In addition to extreme sheerness these include great elasticity, considerable strength and resistance to "runs." This last characteristic will make nylon stockings a blessing to a man whose wife is of the unfortunate type that ladder her stockings at least once a day”. 
“FINER THAN SPIDER'S WEB” ran another heading: “Stockings made, not from silk, but from a new yarn called nylon, were shown in London recently at the Imperial Chemical Industries' headquarters. They were woven from material which can be turned out in filaments finer than a spider's webs or in bars as thick as a man's arm. It is predicted that English women will all be wearing nylon stockings after the war. The new product … is said to be sheerer than any other material. Other qualities claimed for nylon stockings are their durability and their capacity for retaining unworn shapeliness even after they have been washed and dried...” 
Closer to home, from the Mt Benger Mail: “These stockings, utterly different from anything yet produced by manufacturers in any part of the world, have caused a riot in America. After months of preliminary reports of progress they were first put on sale in the United States on May 15 last. Four million pairs were sold in a single day. They were made, from a complex, wonderful, and secret derivative of coal called nylon.
The … new stockings can be taken off, dipped in water, wrapped in a towel, and put on again at once. A woman whose stockings have been splashed with mud on her way to a restaurant can wash them in the cloakroom and put them on again at once. ... The only ‘disadvantage’ women have reported about the stockings is that at first they feel as though they are continually coming down. But as soon as this imaginary feeling has been overcome, women settle down to enjoy what some of them declare to be the greatest boon they have received for years.” 
The article gave details of tests undertaken by an “independent research organisation having no connection with the manufacturers”. Nylon stockings were compared to silk and cotton stockings for “powers of resistance to brambles and sharp points”; for knee-bend resistance; and in a toe-rubbing test, for which a machine was devised that acted like a toe rubbing inside a shoe. In all these tests, nylon stockings were said to out-perform their silk and cotton counterparts.
One downside reported in the Underwear and Hosiery Review was “the lack of absorbent qualities and the reported consumer objections to ‘moist’ feet, from perspiration”. 
After the War it was game on for nylon. In March 1945, the American hosiery industry post-war planning committee suggested a “stock pile of 3,000,000 dozen pairs of nylon stockings should be built up before manufacturers start shipping their products … That would represent one month's supply … and would require 1,500,000 pounds of nylon yarn… The sale of nylons would begin on a fixed date at all retail outlets.” 
Images: (left) Unworn 1960s ‘Frivolity’ nylon stockings, size 10½. G92.392 Gift of Brenda Shore; Otago Museum Collections (Right) Packet of Prestige Service Sheers; colour: Sweet spice G92.389 Gift of Brenda Shore; Otago Museum Collections
Image: St Mark Fairy-web nylon stockings 'Intrigue'. G87.231 Gift of the estate of Mrs Ethel McMillan; Otago Museum Collections
There were still advocates for the traditional materials, especially silk. Under the heading, A Dream to Come True, a ‘leading Dunedin draper’ gave his opinion that “Although nylon has excellent wearing qualities, and a lovely appearance, it is non-absorbent and is rather cold to wear. It is difficult to manufacture, as it snags very easily, and girls working in nylon factories have to wear special gloves. The stockings, too, have to be very carefully handled to give the best results”. 
One proof of the share of the market they soon achieved, however, is the Consumer Institute of New Zealand’s decision to include a report on nylon stockings in the first issue of its magazine, Consumer.  That had information on sizing, yarn weight, gauge, construction, care, and storage. It effectively educated its readers about the factors they needed to take into consideration before making a purchase. 
Transformative in many ways, one journalist has suggested that the introduction of nylons also marked the end of stockings being used in literature as an “excruciating class marker”. Her argument is that before the widespread availability of nylon stockings in the 1940s, writers of fiction had utilised “a sharp division between [the wearers of] silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).” 
She cites Gertrude Stein’s grey woollen stockings as a symbol of her bohemianism, and Agatha Christie’s “lower-class young typist in the Parker Pyne Investigates collection, who is “all lipstick and silk stockings and curls” – with ideas above her station. And … the posh girl [who] ups sticks to the country in The Moving Finger, [whose] brother points out that really she should be wearing old, thick stockings, not silk ones, to fit in with the county set”.
She is not the only writer who has since evaluated the wider impact of nylons. In 1980, feminist author and activist, Susan Brownmiller, said: “Sheer, see-through nylons were the only legwear that met the test of both sex appeal and conservative refinement in rain, snow, bitterly cold or brutally hot weather. Not only did their exquisite transparency serve to remind a woman that she needed to shave every couple of days in order to wear her stockings, but their fragility dictated a certain cautiousness and restrictive movement that the girdle with garter tabs compounded.” 
Sadly, nylon hosiery is far from eco-friendly, as journalist Ellie Bramley, and various other commentators, have pointed out. The discard volumes have, of course, increased astronomically this century, and Daniel Clayton of ‘Legwear Company’ describes tights as “the single-use plastic of the textile industry”. Jessica Kosak, of the Sustainability Consortium, says “the main environmental impact from tights is due to the energy needed to create workable yarn. Nylon requires a great deal of heat to create fibres and to form them into strands used to spin yarn”. And Sarah Needham, from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL points out a secondary impact: “When you wash things like nylon there’s a lot of microplastics that are released into the water.” 
But, it is good to remember, too, that in the 1940s, the Evening Post described nylon as “diaphanous as a dream”, 15 while the Northern Advocate spoke of its “sleek beauty” and called nylon stockings “the answer to every woman’s prayer”. 
Image: Pair of sheer ‘Glitterscopes’ nylon stockings, ‘Silver Sand’. G88.23B Gift of the Maunsell family; Otago Museum Collection
Top Image: Pair of seamed Christian Dior Vermeil nylon stockings. G92.359 Gift of Joan Morrow; Otago Museum Collection
1 Auckland Star, 6 May 1939, p.4 (Supplement)
2 M. Miller, Knitting Fully Fashioned Hosiery (New York and London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1937), p.1
3 Ladies’ Mirror, 2 August 1926, p. 23
4 Auckland Star, 6 May 1939, p.4 (Supplement)
5 Evening Post, 8 June 1940, p.18
6 Mt Benger Mail, 6 November 1940, p.1
7 Press, 4 September 1940, p. 6
8 Auckland Star, 7 March 1945, p. 3
9 Evening Star, 5 July 1946, p. 9
10 Consumer, Volume 1, no.1, Summer 1959, pp.14-15
11 Moira White and Stella Lange. 2019. ‘Getting it Straight: stocking seams, shades, and one-size-fits-all'. Context 39 pp.20-38
12 Moira Redmond, “How nylons changed literature”, The Guardian, 18 October 2014
13 Susan Brownmiller, 1980. Femininity. New York: Simon & Schuster, p.147
14 Ellie Violet Bramley, “Tights go green to fight sheer waste”, The Guardian, 5 October 2019
15 Evening Post, 23 August 1941 p.13
16 Northern Advocate, 27 August 1945, p. 5