Unless you live barefoot on a desert island, tights, socks, stockings and hold ups are likely to feature somewhere in your life, especially during winter. Hosiery is more than just an item of clothing to keep us warm, it is a fashion item in itself.
There are thousands of styles of hosiery from simple and functional to completely outrageous and everything in between. With the recent increase in brands catering to plus size customers, there are now more options whatever shape or size you are.
The technology behind hosiery has advanced over the years, however, the humble stocking actually boasts a long and colourful history spanning back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Stockings have inspired political movements in the UK and been a symbol of women’s liberation the world over.
What do we mean by “hosiery”?
The term “hosiery” was first introduced in the 1700s and it comes from the singular version of ‘hose’ that men and women wore around that time. Early hosiery was made from knitted yarn, silk and cotton. Because at that time it was not customary for ladies to bare their legs, until the 16th century hosiery was almost exclusively worn by men.
While a basic definition of modern hosiery according to the Oxford English Dictionary is, “socks, stockings and tights collectively,” what we understand as hosiery is generally expanded beyond this. Modern hosiery includes many variations on socks, stockings and tights including legwarmers, footless tights, hold-ups, shapewear and more.
Hosiery: A Colourful History
While stockings and tights as we know them may be a relatively recent innovation, in truth hosiery has been around in various forms for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Hosiery as we know it dates back to the Middle Ages when men wore single stockings known as hose to keep their legs warm – this is where the term “pantyhose” actually comes from. Around the 15th century the first tights came into being, made from woven stockings joined together with a codpiece. These must have been lot more clunky and uncomfortable than the nylon tights we know today!
Early stockings and tights were painstakingly hand woven, which meant they took a long time to produce and they were out of the reach of your average person. This changed in 1589 when Reverend William Lee was the first to build a prototype machine for knitting stockings. Lee’s invention paved the way for the industrial revolution and modern looms, giving manufacturers in England the technology to produce clothing on a more widespread level.
Unfortunately not everyone was happy with this new development. The industrialisation of the stocking production process meant that soon hand knitted stockings were virtually obsolete, a situation which was highly detrimental to the livelihood of the stockingers - artisans who made their living from knitting stockings. To add insult to injury, hosiery manufacturers also started charging stockingers to rent their frames.
Upset at losing their livelihoods, and as a way to protest against poor working conditions in the newly industrialised mills, stockingers and other textile workers sought retribution by destroying the stocking machines with hammers. This led to a five-year uprising that only ended in 1816 when the military stepped in. Those found guilty were hanged or transported. The uprising may have been over, but hosiery remained controversial for another 150 years.
The introduction of tights at this time came with its own set of scandal. Tights were created as an alternative to petticoats for women but while tights allowed for easier movement than bulky undergarments and assisted airflow, they were seen as lewd by the standards of the time as they meant their wearers’ legs would be more exposed.
It wasn’t until the Second World War that women’s stockings became truly accepted and the stigma disappeared. The invention of nylon in 1938 heralded a major shift in the manufacture of stockings. Nylon was cheap and long lasting compared to silk, which was in short supply during WW2. Soon nylon stockings were everywhere, although in short supply in England - American soldiers would give them as gifts to British women. Nylon stockings were so in demand that those who couldn’t get them would fake it by smudging brown makeup over their legs and drawing a black line down the back to resemble a seam.
The first nylon tights were invented in the 1950s, created by sewing a pair of nylon stockings on to crepe nylon briefs. These were far more comfortable than stockings and garters and soon tights became a staple in every woman’s wardrobe.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that stockings and tights became a fashion accessory in their own right. Sheer or patterned stockings and tights were worn underneath mini-skirts in the 60s and 70s. The 80s saw bright, patterned legwarmers take the world by storm, cementing hosiery’s current position as a fashion item in its own right.
Hosiery as we know it today is made from a combination of nylon and Lycra making it smooth and stretchy and able to fit any shape and size.
Different Types of Hosiery
The term hosiery is generally used to cover a wide range of foot and legwear, including:
- Tights: One-piece item of hosiery where the legs are joined at the top in a built in brief. Tights can be made from nylon, often with lycra added for extra stretch. They can be worn under skirts and dresses or even as an item of clothing in themselves.
- Stockings: Reach up to the thighs and are held in place by a suspender belt.
- Hold-ups: Self-supporting stockings, which stay up thanks to an elastic or silicone band at the top. This keeps them in place on the thighs and prevents them rolling down.
- Knee highs: Similar to socks but they reach up to the knees rather than ending at the ankle.
- Fishnets: Made from a mesh like material, which resembles a net.
Whatever type of hosiery you’re looking for, your best bet for plus size hosiery is online.
Plus Size Hosiery
Sizing charts were created in the 1920s when mass production of women’s clothing began, and unfortunately women who didn’t fit the ‘ideal’ petite body type of the time were excluded. This exclusion and marginalisation by the fashion industry has been a longstanding issue for women with full figures and until the 1980s, the clothing options for plus size women were greatly restricted.
Fortunately, since the 1990s we’ve seen a shift towards greater awareness of the needs of curvy women from brands and designers, and the creation of a thriving industry around plus size clothing generally and plus size hosiery in Australia. When online shopping became popular in the early 2000s it opened up a whole new world for women in speciality clothing markets whether that be petite or plus. Thankfully, it’s easier to find a plus size online shop in Australia which will deliver.
Finding Suitable Hosiery as a Fuller Figured Woman
From keeping warm during winter to smartening up a work outfit, socks and tights are an essential feature in every woman’s wardrobe. Most of us wear hosiery under dresses and skirts in winter, and socks with our shoes all year round. Some types of hosiery act as feature pieces.
In spite of the many and varied options out there, plus size women face a number of challenges when it comes to finding hosiery that is comfortable, fashionable and flattering. It doesn’t matter what size you are, the wrong pair of tights can make your day miserable.
Plus size women face a number of unique issues when it comes to finding the perfect hosiery. Chafing, riding, rolling and the unwanted emphasis of lumps and bumps are common problems, but thanks to plus sized hosiery, these problems can be dealt with and life lived the way it should.
Most of the plus sized hosiery available has an emphasis on both comfort and a flattering fit, using technology like Lycra to which stretches and fits like a second skin.
While in previous years, plus size tights might have been restricted to utilitarian black, these days there’s plenty of choice out there from bright colours, prints, fishnets, footless tights and more.
Sizing and Hosiery
When you’re buying hosiery online it can be hard to know what’s going to fit. Plus size hosiery generally starts at size 12 and goes up to around 28 or more. If you’re not sure what size you are, most brands will have a sizing guide on their website.
The measurements can be slightly different depending on the brand so it’s best to go by the sizing chart when trying out a new brand rather than assume your usual size will fit!
Many brands have started to move away from the ‘plus size’ label and are replacing traditional sizing with more body positive names. For example, plus size clothing brand Sonsee has replaced standard names for sizing with empowering alternatives like “Gorgeous,” “Flawless,” “Stunning,” and “Radiant.”
Plus size hosiery has come a long way over the years, but its future is colourful for all the right reasons.