People have worn some sort of stockings or socks for centuries, the style varying somewhat as fashions and technology changed and developed. In the 1800s women usually wore cotton stockings, which were covered by their long skirts, but by the 1920s hemlines had risen, and sheer silk stockings became popular. These were two individual tubes of silk, one for each leg. They were held up by garters, elastic circles that fitted tight around each leg, or garter belts, elastic bands that went around the waist with several fasteners that hung down to secure the stockings. Later, tight elastic pants called girdles would be outfitted with fasteners for stockings and worn for the dual purpose of keeping up hose and making a woman look slimmer.
In 1959 Allen Gant Sr., a designer for North Carolina clothing manufacturer Glen Raven Mills, created a garment that combined underpants and stockings. Although worn at first by dancers and other theater performers who wore skimpy costumes, pantyhose would become popular for all women by 1965. Several factors led to the increased popularity of pantyhose. First, Glen Raven Mills incorporated a new stretchy fabric called spandex into pantyhose, which helped the hose to keep their shape instead of becoming stretched out and baggy. Second, a London, England, fashion designer named Mary Quant (1934–) introduced a new, very short skirt, called the miniskirt. The tops of old-fashioned stockings held by garters showed under the new skirts, so women turned to pantyhose and most discarded their uncomfortable garter belts for good. Pantyhose became a multimillion-dollar industry.
Though pantyhose were once hailed as a giant innovation in women's fashion and a wonderful benefit for busy women, women continued to demand more comfort and freedom of dress. Even though skirts and pantyhose were still considered necessary for women in many places, pants had become increasingly accepted business and dress attire for women by the late 1970s. In the 1990s a general trend toward wearing more casual styles to work enticed many women to stop wearing pantyhose. The profits of the hosiery industry continued to fall into the early twenty-first century.
Melinkoff, Ellen. What We Wore. New York: Quill Press, 1984.
"Nights of the Garter Are Over, 1959." Wall Street Journal (August 25, 1989): B1.