In a pickle....
When I was a kid, gift shops (of the kind that sold pot pourri and unicorn figurines) also had a quirky thing: PICKLED PEOPLE. I’ve no idea where this kitscherie originated, and I don’t think I’ve seen them in decades. (I found some “vintage” options on ebay and etsy, claiming to date to the 1970s or 80s).
They are weird little dolls made of pantyhose stuffed with cotton wool, and then put inside a jar.
Truly a bizarre little folk art fad of the twentieth century. What do they mean? Who conceived of these creepy things? But weird dolls are just one of the craft or household purposes pantyhose have been put to. They were used because, at the time, they were something everyone had. (Including bank robbers, who put hosiery on their head as a disguise). You may once have been told that a stocking or pantyhose can substitute for a fan belt.
Hosiery found its way into these multiple uses by being, well, everywhere. Tights go back centuries, in the sense of some kind of knitted legwear. They fit, kinda, but were nothing like the sheer stockings that emerged with finer yarns and knitting capabilities of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, stockings (not pantyhose) were made of silk or more affordable rayon, but weren’t especially cheap.
“Fashioned” stockings (cut to be wider at calf and thigh and narrower at knee and ankle) were achieved through being cut and seamed. (The seamless stockings that were available circa 1930 were known for being saggy: the fashioned style fit better, and the seam down the back of the leg offered a slimming effect). Women who couldn’t afford stockings (during the Depression or shortages of World War II) would fake it by drawing a “seam” down their bare leg with eyebrow pencil.
Stockings also had to be held up, either with a garter or straps (which were in the 1940s and 50s attached to a girdle). Layers of undergirding produced the look of midcentury fashion.
That would change with the arrival in the late 1950s of pantyhose. One piece, pulls all the way up to the waist, it was a gamechanger. The development of spandex, a product from DuPont in the 1950s, made pantyhose fit tighter and smoother. No lumps and bumps under tighter skirts from any apparatus to hold up stockings. Just in time for the arrival of the miniskirt in the 1960s! They also have a smoothing effect, perfect for more clingy outfits (it was the effect Sara Blakely wanted to replicate - and build on - when she developed Spanx. Her first attempts to pitch the idea were to hosiery mills in North Carolina, the center of pantyhose manufacturing).
But within a few years of their invention, pantyhose became a standard part of women’s daily wear. They were part of uniforms. The military and police adopted them for female officers. (The shade of navy was named AIRLINE by some brands because it was required for flight attendants).
In 1969, Hanes introduced L’Eggs, their hose packed in a little plastic egg. Perfect for throwing into a handbag or keeping in a desk drawer, the egg was memorable and practical. It was a stroke of marketing genius, and they became a very popular brand, with the recognizable racks of eggs in drugstores and supermarkets. In the 1970s, someone even wrote a book of craft projects to make with the eggs!
They also had some (hilarious in retrospect) TV advertising, varying from famous dancers and athletes talking about how much they loved L’Eggs, to stories like this one, of how a woman was mortified by wearing wrinkly hose at a dog show. She missed out on a date with the middle-aged dog expert. Devastating. But she could avoid this fate by wearing L’Eggs. Thank goodness. (I know marketing is about telling consumers they have a problem and offering a solution but the specificity of this one seems like it might have been personal for some ad executive).
The mortification of sagging hose is a recurring theme in the ads.
But the success of pantyhose is a fascinating cultural shift. They went from being a revelation in the 1950s to something any household with women in it would have knocking around. Millions of women wore them daily. Everyone knew the tricks for dealing with runs (clear nail polish if you had it; colored nail polish or wite-out in a pinch; hairspray - less effective but worth a shot). Their ubiquity also meant that any mother would have had a damaged pair destined for the dustbin, which could be used for children's arts and crafts.
When I was a teen, my mother told me bare legs were too casual for dressy situations; and the habit of hose has stuck with me. Pantyhose have their benefits, including shaping (as Sara Blakely made millions demonstrating). They smooth over bruises and veins and make your legs look nice. They offer that little bit of protection against the chill air. Hose protects you against blisters by giving that little bit of slip, and keeps sweat out of your shoes.
But pantyhose are seen as old fashioned and lame today. Fewer workplaces require them, and many women were glad to see them go. But they are something that was once a standby within the household, much like old newspaper (something else you notice by its absence when you realize you want to clean a window, or need to pack up breakable objects).
L’Eggs are still around, although the plastic eggs stopped in the 90s, to be replaced by cardboard. The racks in stores though seem to be long gone. I ordered from Amazon. They came in a ziplock bag.
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