From Victory Gardens to gasoline rationing, a lot of sacrifices were made on America’s “home front” during World War II. It may surprise you to know that rationing even impacted the world of fashion!
Before the War, silk stockings were a necessary part of every woman’s wardrobe. No decent woman would be seen in public without her hose and stockings. In 1938, during the New York World’s Fair, nylon stockings were introduced to the world for the first time. Hitting the market on May 14th, 1940, every woman needed a pair and rushed in to buy them by the millions! They were so immediately and widely popular that 75,000 pairs were sold in their first day of release. After only a year, 64 million of them sat in drawers and closets across America. They quickly became an integral part of any classy woman’s daily attire.
Affordable, long-lasting and wrinkle-free, the nylon stocking nearly stopped the production of previous hosiery in its tracks. During the War it turned out that the men needed them more than the women did! Nylon was found to be the perfect material for manufacturing parachutes and supplies for our troops. Raw silk was also seized by the Office of Production Management, causing a very limited supply to be sold while reluctant women had to purchase their nylon stockings for $10 a pair. Supportive of American efforts, women across the country were called upon to give up their stockings to the effort.
Because of the huge shortage of stockings, the women back home had to make do. While some went around bare-legged, reserving their last pair of stockings for special occasions, treating them with immense care, others began faking it.
Nylon stockings were such a style symbol at the time that it seemed graceless to go on with out them. Many women began penciling in lines on their legs to recreate the appearance of stockings using eyeliner or an eyebrow pencil. These “drawn on stockings” were normalized so that cosmetic companies such as Max Factor began manufacturing “liquid stockings” which could be drawn on and look great for three days (if you didn’t shower). Rain became a challenge of its own!
Through the sacrifices of the War, fashion never failed. As the War came to an end and rations were eased, nylon found its way back to thousands of longing women crowded around stores to snag a pair. Helen Beaubier recalls that “after the War was over [she] heard Penny’s had nylon stockings”. She remembers: “I ran out of the house and was going to run down to the store and get nylons and I got a pair and they were thick and they wouldn’t stay up; they were…just awful those first nylons that came”. In Pittsburgh, 40,000 women formed a mile-long line competing over just 13,000 pairs. This became known as the “Nylon Riots” of 1945. The invention of lycra, in 1958, finally put a rest to the nylon craze, but goes to show that “in difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.” (Elsa Schiaparelli)