The small, big fashion stories: when nylon tights won the Second World War

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One of the cheapest and easiest to find items of linen in recent decades, nylon tights, a little over half a century ago, were literally nowhere to be found. The reason? The beginning of the World War II, in which they proved to have a fundamental role. It was 1938 when the DuPont company began producing the first pairs of nylon stockings following the invention of Wallace H. Carothers. These were presented in 1939 at the San Francisco International Exposition, before being launched on the market in October of the same year, starting from a shop in Wilmington, Delaware.

The reason why DuPont invested heavily in the research of the scientist Carothers, was the recognition of the economic value of a more elastic and versatile fiber than silk, with which up until that moment women’s stockings were made: the United States in fact imported four-fifths of the world’s silk, and 90% came from Japan.

But, as we all know, with the passage of time the feminine edges began to shorten, and the need to cover women’s skin with something – anything – got bigger and bigger, as well as the need to have less delicate socks that, above all, could stand alone. The arrival of the tights on the shelves was a real success, also given by a strong communication campaign to, in fact, eradicate the competition of silk: three hours after their debut, 4 thousand pairs of socks were sold out, to pass after less than a year, a 4 million units sold in just two days. A fashion revolution that, in twenty-four months, led DuPont to conquer over 30% of the global market dedicated to women’s socks. But how did tights become part of the Second World War?

In the 1930s, it was not only stockings that were made almost exclusively of silk, but also instruments of war: in particular, military parachutes and the rope, also from Japanese imported materials. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States went to war with Japan and, suddenly, the nylon production was completely hijacked for the production of tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, bulletproof vests, shoelaces, mosquito nets, hammocks and, above all, parachutes. The demand for nylon was so important that even old Uncle Sam appealed to all American women to donate their pantyhose, essential for war reconversion.

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It goes without saying that women, now accustomed to the comfort of nylon stockings – but also to the sensuality and style they reflected – when they they returned to department stores in 1945, the result was a real mass buying phenomenon: after years of using nylon to exclusively make parachutes and other war supplies, in fact, the socks factories resumed their normal activity, facing an unexpected frenzy, documented by the newspapers of the time. The writer of Tribune Edith Weigle, for example, made a reportage traveling around the country in the fall, describing the production process of nylon stockings and updating buyers on expected availability.

“As women’s demand is apparently bottomless, due to the complete lack of nylons in the war years, manufacturers are united in trying to get as many socks as quickly as possible. The idea is to produce nylon stockings, only nylon stockings. Not extravagant colors, not variable leg lengths, ”Weigle reported in the American magazine. Just think that in 1945 there was a veritable “nylon riot” in Northern California, when a thousand rushed into a sock factory, which had just produced 12 thousand pairs, causing riots and a few brawls. If you’ve ever wondered about the existence, in the past, of some sort of Black Friday, here’s an example.

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