Tights, pantyhose, stockings, pop socks, hold-ups, knee-highs, ankle-highs... the forms of hosiery available today are bewildering. This is a brief guide to the hows and whys of modern hosiery.
What Are They?
All of these products are fine, often sheer, coverings, designed to fit closely to the foot, shin, thigh and abdomen (as appropriate). Originating many centuries ago, stockings worn by both men and women would have been thickly knitted from wool, with silk available to the upper-class. The evolution of longer legwear1 for men led to the development of socks, while in the 20th Century, shorter hemlines, and the inventions of nylon, elastic and, later, Lycra led to the development of the ladies' hosiery that can be seen today.
Well-chosen, well-fitting hosiery can look smart and attractive. It evens out the skin tone and minor blemishes and emphasises the contours of the leg. However hosiery can also be high maintenance, unflattering and uncomfortable, seen by many women - and men2 - as a curse of modern social expectations.
Stockings were the original form of hosiery, all others developing from them. Stockings, like tights, start life as two tubes of nylon sewn closed at the toe, but in stockings these remain as separate items, and finish in a broad band of folded over fabric, which should reach - if worn correctly - the mid to upper thigh.
The average upper thigh tapers, and there are no obvious anatomical notches into which the wearer can wedge the stocking top, therefore suspenders are required. These are thin strips of elasticised ribbon, featuring unique little catches at the bottom. This catch consists of a rubber button and a rigid loop of metal or plastic that fits very snuggly over the button. The lace (or any) trim is placed over the button before the loop is fastened, thus securing the stocking top without making a nasty hole in it. There are usually two such suspenders for each leg: one at the front and one for the outer side. Care should be taken to fasten them to the section of stocking immediately below, as they can become uncomfortable when twisted.
These suspenders, in turn, are attached to some garment worn on the upper body. The simplest form is a suspender belt, a mere scrap of lace or other fabric fastened around the waist with the suspenders dangling from it. This adds yet another layer of constricting fabric to that delicate tummy area. If wearing knickers, suspender belt, skirt/trousers and waisted top, things can get a bit congested. Suspenders can also be fastened to more extensive 'foundation garments', ranging from basques and bodies to corsets and panty girdles, running the whole gamut of style, substance and sexiness.
Finally, one or more garters can be added. These are simply loops of elasticised fabric hauled up to mid-thigh where they can act as some sort of temporary dam for any waves of loosened stocking fabric slipping down the leg.
Stockings, with all this complex paraphernalia, seem to be somewhat of an obsession with on-lookers and partners, and they do have some benefits:
They provide a little less coverage than tights and so may be cooler.
There is a mix and match option: laddering one stocking does not necessarily render the other useless; the spare stocking can be conserved and matched up with a new partner.
However, stockings are not many women's first choice for everyday:
They are fiddly to put on, and have a nasty tendency of going 'ping!' at a crucial moment when you are a long way from the nearest bathroom. This usually happens when the stockings are first stressed: bending the knee to sit down on the morning bus or train is a favourite moment.
The suspender system is inefficient, as it hangs the whole weight or the stocking from just two points. This can drag uncomfortable on the suspender belt, and cause the stockings to sag or wrinkle further down the leg.
You have to find a matching pair - an awkward process in a dim bedroom on a winter's morning.
Bizarrely, they are more expensive than tights, despite being simpler to manufacture and containing less fabric.
Tights (known as pantyhose in some parts of the world) provide the most complete hosiery covering, reached from toe to waist. Two tubes of sheer fabric (usually nylon) are sewn closed at the toe, but are seamless up the legs. At the crotch the tubes are opened out and sewn together to cover the abdomen. A gusset is usually added for the crotch region itself.
Tights are normally worn over underclothes, although some modern varieties feature a cotton gusset, so that underwear can be omitted, usually under close fitting garments. Tights may also feature strengthened stretch panels to hold in stomach, buttocks and upper thighs. Tights are the most popular, low-hassle form of hosiery. However, it does have to be said that they are generally considered to be passion killers.
Hold ups were trumpeted as modern technology's solution to the problems of stockings. Extra helpings of modern fibres like Lycra mean that these stockings don't need suspenders! That's the theory anyway. In practice the increased elasticity can still cut painful strangulation lines into your thighs, and cannot be guaranteed to stay up in a time of crisis. Their efficacy can also be affected by - how to put this delicately? - the girth of the thighs wearing them. Some legs put a lot more strain on the gravitational forces than others.
Nobody is likely to find knee-highs sexy, but they are the modern working woman's friend. Knee-highs (sometimes called 'pop socks') are like miniature stockings, made of the same sheer material, but finishing, in the style of knee socks, in that useful notch at the top of the calf, just below the knee. These are easy to put on and cool and comfortable to wear under trousers. Knee highs should never, never be worn with any skirt shorter than a full-length crinoline3, and only then if you're not planning on dancing. The sight of drooping knee-highs through the split of a mid-length skirt is the depths of naff.
Why not just wear socks under trousers?
Simply, socks are not a good idea with high heels and strappy ladies' shoes. They stretch the shoes (which often have no laces or buckles to compensate) and can make you look like an early '80s extra in the Kids from Fame. If you wear a trouser suit, socks and lace-ups, it can look a little, well, mannish, and they may not be your thing.
Well why not wear tights or suspenders under trousers, then?
Suspenders are a bad idea under trousers as all those knobbly catches make it look as if you have a nasty crop of ulcers at mid-thigh. Tights are more practical - especially if you're going for the tummy-control thing - but can be hot and, if the tights start to sag, distinctly uncomfortable in the crotch region.
You can work this one out for yourself. Ankle-highs are like ankle socks, but made out of the usual sheer hosiery fabric. There are supposed to provide an even lower coverage option than knee-highs, but as there is no handy notch in which to hook them, ankle highs have a nasty habit of sagging - and hosiery sags far more spectacularly than socks. If the trouser ride up when the wearer sits down, it is all too easy to see the top of the hosiery and the bare, mottled shin above. Not recommended.
Shoeliners or Footsocks
These are the briefest hosiery items. They are designed to cover the sole of the foot and the toes, but end halfway up the foot, so they have the same basic outline as an open-fronted, 'court' shoe. They are worn by women who want to go bare-legged, but cannot stand the sticky feeling of shoes against bare skin. Whatever the shape of shoe, they have a tendency to show above the edge of the leather, which can look pretty weird.
A Word on Fabrics
Hosiery fabric can vary according to colour, thickness, pattern and fibre content.
Hosiery fabric is graded according to a mysterious system known as 'denier'. The higher the denier, the thicker the fabric, and the more robust it is. 15 denier is the standard; ten denier is thinner, easier to snag, and sometimes chosen for a lighter effect for evening wear. Seven and even five denier are also available: mere scraps of fabric, and ridiculously easy to rip. Going up the scale, 20 to 40 denier looks cumbersome and has an association with 'old lady' style. Beyond 40 denier, up to 80 denier, are the thick opaque hosiery items often preferred in winter. On the right person, they can look just great with a mini-skirt, but are the worst culprits for sagging and wrinkling.
Most modern hosiery is based upon nylon, and may contain elastic or Lycra for an improved fit. Silk hosiery is still available. If the idea of shelling out a fortune on something that could be ruined in seconds appeals to you, then silk is your thing. However, no one can deny that silk has a certain cachet, and feels just gorgeous.
Thicker hosiery may contain cotton or even wool which can make them undeniably warmer, but appreciably itchy.
Support hosiery is made using a special blend of fibres to cling closely to the leg and inhibit any bulging in the leg during wear. It is said to make legs feel 'less tired' and is used by those who experience water retention, swollen legs, and varicose veins. This same characteristic means that both men and women wear it to prevent deep vein thrombosis on long-haul flights.
Colour and Pattern
Here there is as much variation as your imagination will allow, but do try not to let taste go out of the window. Plain hosiery is available in a dazzling array of shades, and you may be tempted to colour-match your legs to your outfit. Beware - the human leg was not meant to be lime green, or pillar-box red, and it is a rare and lucky person who can carry this off. If in doubt, stick to the more subtle colours, and as a rule of thumb never chose hosiery that is brighter than your outfit or darker than your shoes. Hosiery is most commonly available in shades ranging from natural skin tones, through greys, browns and dark blues, all the way down to black. The biggest problem with these colours is that they are too subtle, especially given that each company's version of 'barely black' is slightly different. Matching up pairs of these tones requires full natural sunlight and an artist's eye for colour. Fumbling through the knicker drawer in the pre-dawn is almost guarantee to leave you with a combination that you will regret in the full light of day.
And then there are the patterned ones. Hosiery can be patterned in two ways - by weave or by print. The delights of modern technology allow hosiery (usually tights) to be printed with any design that can be imagined. These are only recommended if you really want to make an impression. Stripes and plaids tend to give some of the most vivid effects, but as they can give the effect of a contour map of your cellulite, they're best kept for those with really great legs. For anyone else, what do you fancy? Flowers, stars, even great works of art: take your pick.
Altering the weave or texture of the hosiery can give a huge range of results, from the neat sensible rib-knit sported by librarians, to the infamous fishnet - more hole than hosiery and with a nasty habit of leaving an imprinted image on the back of your thigh. That's basically the problem with textured tights. If you are sitting for a long time, then the slight but constant pressure of the pattern on knee, thigh and instep can be like Chinese torture.
How to Put It On
So, you've chosen your hosiery - now it's time to put it on!
First make sure that your legs are nice and dry, especially if you have just come from the bath or shower. If you're the type to use talcum powder then sprinkle it on now. Hosiery sticks to damp legs and will not go on evenly. It's also very uncomfortable.
Next, check that your finger and toenails are neat and trimmed. Snags and catches will ladder your hosiery before you've even put it on. Alternatively, It is actually possible to buy 'hosiery gloves' - super-smooth, thin gloves worn while handling hosiery to avoid snagging it with your nails.
Now, perch on the edge of the bed or a chair - nothing too low. Gently gather the hosiery by putting your thumbs into the open end, and bunching the fabric up with you hands so that you just slip the toes of one foot straight in. Make sure that the reinforced section sits snuggly over your toes, and that the seam is not trapped unpleasantly under your foot.
Gently edge the fabric up your shin, just a little at a time - don't pull too hard! If you are wearing stocking or knee-highs, then keep going until you run out of fabric. If you are wearing tights then stop pulling up the first leg just below the knee. You need to get your foot into the second leg of the tights before it becomes anatomically impossible to do so. Repeat the procedure with the second leg until both are at the just-below-the-knee level.
At this point the phone usually rings. Ignore it. Instead, stand up and start to edge the fabric gradually up each leg, a little at a time. Again, don't pull too hard, or the top of the hosiery will come right off in your hand. Don't twist the fabric, as this has a nasty habit of cutting off the circulation. If you've done this correctly, and your legs are nice and dry (and the tights fit!), then your crotch and the gusset of the tights should come together like two spaceships docking. Sheer poetry.
Now just pull up the top of the tights so that the waistband sits across your tummy. If anything has gone wrong, it will appear as if the legs of the tights are about six inches too short for you, and the gusset will be left stranded about halfway down your thighs, forcing you into a comic waddle. Don't panic! Swiftly adopt a half-crouch position, legs apart, knees bent, similar to that used by Sumo wrestlers or the Maori haka4. This will free up much needed slack fabric, and allow you to adjust the tights to your comfort.
Remember that you will have to go through the later stages of this procedure every time you go to the toilet, so think before you drink!
How to Look After It
Now you're inside your hosiery, surely that's it? Wrong! The world is full of perils to the hosiery wearers, and the big danger is laddering. Most hosiery is knitted together in such away that any break will cause the fabric to unravel, usually in a straight line up or down your leg, leaving a long thin hole, held together with occasional horizontal strands, hence the name. Ladders 'run' faster than the eye can see, and the wearer is not necessarily aware of them. Any minor snag can cause a ladder. Half-open drawers, kitchen cupboards, car doors and attentive cats are the usual suspects. Ladders cannot be mended, so once laddered, hosiery is ruined. However, if you spot a minor or discreet hole, you can attempt to prevent the ladder developing. First, do not bend your knee, or otherwise stretch the fabric, this will set the ladder running. Hobble or goose-step your way to the nearest bottle of nail varnish, preferably a neutral shade, and dab a little at either end of the ladder to seal the break. Do not move your leg until the varnish has dried! If you don't have varnish, then 'super-type' glue will do the trick, but with obvious unfortunate side-effects. Well-organised ladies carry a bottle of clear nail varnish in their handbags for just this purpose, so try asking around.
Come the end of the day, if you have done everything right, your hosiery will still be in one piece and in place. Take it off gently by scrunching it down your legs and turn it right side out - this saves time when putting them on the next time. Most hosiery is marked 'hand wash only' but life is too short to wash by hand. Pop them in the washing machine on a mid-temperature wash, and they'll be just fine.
When your hosiery reaches the end of its wearable life, don't despair. Here are a few alternative uses for old hosiery:
Clean hosiery can be used as a strainer in jam making.
Appropriately-coloured hosiery can be used to tie-in drooping tree branches.
Use hosiery to stop children or pets scratching the soil surface around potted plants: pull the hosiery up form the bottom, and fasten tightly around the base of the plant.
Make a simple playground toy for children: double the legs of a pair of tights one inside the other, and then drop in a tennis ball. Tie a knot to keep the ball at the base of the tights. Now stand with your back against a solid wall (the side of a grumpy neighbour's house is ideal) and swing the ball against the wall from one side to the other. Variations and routines can be developed to co-ordinate with playground rhymes.
Stories abound of resourceful men using their lady-friend's stockings to mend various fanbelt-type things if their car breaks down on a date. However, these stories are unsubstantiated, and the practice is not recommended.
Stockings have famously been used as a disguise by bank robbers. Tights could be used at a pinch, but you'd end up with the gusset seam across your face and bunny ears. Be warned, robbing banks is illegal and is not recommended.