Today’s post appears on the Guardian books blog and is about stockings, nylons and tights in literature – and my theory that the coming of nylon took out legwear as a class marker. The lovely Samantha Ellis - who is much admired on this blog for her book How to be a Heroine - described the piece as combining 'impeccable research & epic frivolity', which is about the nicest compliment I could have.
The article is here at the Guardian.
This is part of it:
In his final Narnia book, The Last Battle, published in 1956, CS Lewis betrayed every teenage girl with the line: “Oh Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” With those words, Susan was gone, a lost cause, condemned by her legwear.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first limited production by DuPont of nylon stockings, and though Lewis has his fuddy duddy disdain for them, I’m going to claim a bigger and better significance. Nylons (and later tights) meant the democratisation of women’s legs. Until they became widely available in the 1940s, there had always been a sharp division between silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).
In Ulysses (set in 1904, published 1922), either James Joyce or Leopold Bloom has a lot to say: there’s Gertie and her stockings, Zoe and her garters, the display of “rays of flat silk stockings” in the department store and Molly Bloom’s “silkette stockings”. This was a silk-effect material, which AA Milne noted as inferior in his 1922 crime story The Red House Mystery, when a shopping trip to buy silk stockings for his sister throws the jovial narrator into a fret: “Could I be sure I was getting silk and not silkette … ?”
In her memoir The Laughing Torso, Nina Hamnett has brightly coloured stockings in pre-first-world-war Paris, and some with chessboard squares. But she tells us that Gertrude Stein wears grey woollen stockings (she was a bohemian, you see). And Hamnett herself lamented to a market seller that she couldn’t afford silk. He said it would be “an investment”, and she was “flattered that he mistook me for a lady of loose morals”.
“Art silk” stockings are much mentioned in books of the era, and I can’t be the only reader who initially thought they were particularly fancy ones – perhaps with a nice design on them. But actually it was short for “artificial silk”…
READ ON AT THE GUARDIAN BOOKS BLOG