I love pantyhose. What’s not to love? They add a little warmth, they even out splotchy skin, they give a hint of support if you’re into that (or a lot of support if you’re into that), they keep you from sliding around in heels, and, most important, they make you look just a little more polished. I buy the cheap drugstore kind—to my chagrin I can no longer find the kind that comes in a plastic egg—but given how often I wear them, I have probably spent hundreds of dollars over my lifetime in pantyhose. I love pantyhose.
Which is why I was genuinely confused—to the point of being surprised by my own naivete on the matter, given my years working in fashion magazines—to find out that plenty of people don’t. Somehow I missed the spate of articles in 2011 on the matter, which tended to focus either on Kate Middleton’s apparent fondness for them or on the L’Eggs campaign aimed at getting the 18-to-34 set back in the control tops. (Of course, I turned 35 last year, so perhaps I overlooked the articles because I was just too old to notice that pantyhose had become unfashionable over the years, along with scrunchies and sanitary napkin belts.) Pantyhose naysayers find them dowdy, old-fashioned, stuffy, stuck in the ’80s (see the Night Court reference in this pantyhose face-off), even sexist, which, given that they’re not necessarily the most comfortable things around and have no equivalent for men, is understandable. (“Meggings” don’t count.)
But just one year after Slate pondered whether it was “too late to pull nylons back from the brink of extinction,” it seems I needn’t worry. The very same industry expert quoted in that Slate piece from November 2011 was quoted a year later in the Times, saying that with the continued popularity of the dress (and the obligatory nod to the economy, which might make women want to “dress for success,” as though that’s new), pantyhose was seeing a resurgence. Which it really is: Hosiery sales increased from $900 million to $1 billion in 2011, with sheers “definitely leading the legwear pack in terms of increases,” according to a vice president at Bare Necessities. Pantyhose is back.
Except it’s also, like, not. Reading comments on any article about pantyhose, you’d think we were talking about the Gaza strip, not flimsy tubes of nylon. Trends come and go, and people find themselves wearing things they thought unimaginable to don only months earlier (I have yet to buy a pair of skinny jeans, but I’ve tried them on, this despite being a vocal opponent during their initial resurgence in the 2000s). But there’s something about pantyhose that’s oddly divisive.*
Part of this, I think, is that unlike skinny jeans, pantyhose isn’t about fashion; it’s about lifestyle. It’s one of the few wardrobe items that definitively is or isn’t in people’s wardrobes—punks and preps alike all have jeans, skirts, and sweaters of some sort, but pantyhose? If you work at a smoothie joint in Oregon, you might not have ever worn them; if you work for the federal government, it might not cross your mind to not wear them. In fact, depending on your workplace, you might have to wear them, as this Wall Street Journal post points out. Geography comes into play too: In the Northeast and Plains states, pantyhose never really went out of fashion for dressy events, whereas I’m guessing most famously casual Californians would likely only wear them if it’s a part of a dress code. This can be mighty baffling if you operate in separate spheres: “Like many women, I found our ‘liberation’ from pantyhose terribly confusing,” wrote Margaret Hartman for Jezebel in 2011. Between her Senate internship (hose!) and working in ladymags (no hose! I never got the memo, obvs), “Suddenly I had to review my personal pantyhouse policy on an event-by-event basis to determine if I’d be committing a fashion faux pas.”
It can also be mighty baffling if you find yourself straddling generations. At 36, I consider myself a Gen-Xer, as are most of my friends. But I also have plenty of friends in their 20s, and it’s interesting to note the little things that mark our age difference. Remembering a world with East Germany and without MTV is one; pantyhose is another. For even if women my age choose not to wear pantyhose now, we grew up with it—I distinctly remember a period when it was fashionable to wear shorts over black pantyhose, obligatory flannel shirt wrapped around our waists, and I can’t imagine that any of my classmates went to prom bare-legged. But women in their teens and 20s—geographic and lifestyle dictates notwithstanding—didn’t. In fact, that could be integral to what appears to be its return: Women in their 20s can embrace pantyhose in part because their mothers had the freedom to shed it—and were likely raising their daughters with the knowledge that nylons were no longer a must. (And in Japan, where pantyhose sales are growing as well, teens may have some shyness about exposing bare legs, thanks in part to their mothers’ fondness for leggings.)
Whatever the case, insofar as pantyhose is back, it’s, as they say, not your mother’s (optional) pantyhose. “Value-added” hosiery is partly responsible for the category’s resurgence; call it the Spanx effect. Between consumer expectations that foundation garments give a virtual tummy tuck and technological developments that mean such garments are no longer insanely uncomfortable (trust me, “control top” in the early ’90s was a different beast), it’s no surprise that part of the L’Eggs campaign emphasizes the shaping functions of their hosiery. Plus, since opaque tights have been perennially popular for several years (whereas they weren’t particularly in vogue 15 years ago), hose can now be marketed as “sheer tights,” an exercise in oxymoronic rebranding if there ever was one.
That doesn’t mean that the reasoning for pantyhose’s comeback isn’t retro. Bare legs—at least according to the Hollywood Reporter, which, well, whatever—are now beginning to look “tawdry” and “cheap.” So let me get this straight: Pantyhose was once thought dowdy, and now appearing without it might be tawdry. Virgin/whore, anyone? Between the association of bare legs with “cheapness” and pantyhose with somewhat conservative fields and regions, I’m actually wondering if there is some sort of connection between pantyhose and conservatism, even if most of its wearers—like myself—don’t consciously think of it that way. I wore it in earnest for years and still do, but at least now I can play it up as a sort of “retro” thing à la Mad Men—a show that was born from America’s conflicted relationship with conservatism.
Certainly one of the complaints against pantyhose—that it looks like one is trying too hard—registers with this line of thought. “Trying too hard” can take a lot of different forms, but it has immediate associations with a sort of over-the-top femininity that goes hand-in-hand with the conservative “let women be women again!” mind-set. And though I don’t find pantyhose particularly uncomfortable, it’s not exactly comfortable either**—again falling into line with conservatism, the idea that maybe women shouldn’t be too comfortable with their bodies.
Still, despite the connections, I’m going to stick with ’em. For here is my conservative little secret: Pantyhose, to me, are one of many symbols of womanhood. My mother didn’t wear pantyhose, but I remember visiting her mother when I was a kid and eagerly accepting a pair of nylon knee-high castoffs that I figured would have to do until I was old enough to wear full-on big-girl pantyhose. Which I started doing in 8th grade, for special occasions: I loved feeling encased in this tight, stretchy stuff that somehow didn’t look tight but just looked…finished, making me feel finished, giving me a sense of finesse that I lacked otherwise. It does that for me still: I happily go bare-legged in the summer, but come fall, slipping on a pair of pantyhose is an adult version of putting on my back-to-school wardrobe. Pantyhose means I’m ready; it means I’m in public, wanting to be seen not as a prolonged adolescent who still sleeps on a futon and wrinkles her nose at broccoli, but as a professional. As an adult, as a woman who isn’t afraid to take herself a little seriously. As someone who looks at what some might say is a sign of “trying too hard” and instead interpret it as a willingness to go the extra mile. My nails may be chipped, my hair may have flyaways, my lipstick might be eaten off. But my bottom half? I’ve got it covered.
*To wit: Despite being firmly in the pro-pantyhose camp, black pantyhose now makes me shudder. Tights are fine, as are black thigh-highs in the boudoir—but the sheer stuff, on the street? Ix-nay, otally-tay.
**Certainly not as comfortable as these freakin’ amazing fleece-lined tights that I am totally shilling for without shame because I love them so much, and they really do keep you warm.