Corporate dress codes are barometers of the standards of polite society. Between the lines, they also articulate the limits within which power may permissibly intrude on personal space. Consider, then, the dress and decorum policy of the Mayo Clinic, which is, among other distinctions, a hospital where your doctor is likely to turn up wearing a suit. The text leaves no don’t undone: Bluejeans, fleeces, hiking boots — all forbidden. No casual Friday has ever mussed its calendar. And so Mayo’s recent abolishment of its hosiery requirement amounts to a little rip in a large tradition. Virtually all the women on its staff were effectively liberated from pantyhose in June, only five years behind the sister missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is tempting to interpret Mayo’s newfound hose-agnosticism as a natural response to the times. Once a sine qua non in places with any pretense to respectability, pantyhose, tights and stockings have evolved into accessories worn at a woman’s discretion — which says as much about the level of discretion afforded to women as it does about the garments themselves.
Sheer hosiery entered a steady decline in 1995. It is impossible to think that it will recover its former esteem, though observers have suggested the Duchess of Cambridge, often obliged by palace protocol to wear nylons, as a force guiding its resurgence. Her intervention is a twist appropriate to hosiery history. Who better than a princess to make a star turn in a narrative of idealized femininity? Hose have been an avatar of a certain sultriness: The seams on the legs of gun molls in pulp novels and fatal ladies in films noir are as essential to mood as the lines of light leaking through the Venetian blinds. And they have been, simultaneously, essential to salvation for the church ladies who think it indecent to sit barelegged in a pew.
We should understand the current state of hosiery in the context of a collapse of intimate infrastructure that started in the 1920s, when flappers cast off corsets and petticoats. The 1960s success of pantyhose, which essentially obviated the girdle and its garter straps, answered a dream of some 19th-century suffragists who identified the matter of holding up stockings as one of the main problems of rational dress for women. In recent decades, some women, embarking on their first office jobs, rolled L’eggs over their limbs because their mothers had. It just seemed like the thing to do — and then they got to the office and saw that things had changed. It was now a matter of personal preference whether to wriggle into a synthetic sheath that was plainly a vestige of an old social framework.
Hose were first strictly a thing for men. In medieval Europe, a member of the elite was likely to wear them in velvet, clothing each leg in a different color, both of which presumably coordinated with his codpiece. Women’s hose were generally a knee-high affair at the start of the 20th century, but when hemlines rose, so did their significance. Adding luster and masking supposed flaws, they had the innate glamour of the sumptuously inessential. And because they appeared in an age when people disregarded fashion dictates at the risk of their social lives, they satisfied a prevailing idea of decorum — but not necessarily modesty. In the mind, as in the department store, stockings are adjacent to the intimate.
The modern hosiery era began with the democratization of silk stockings, which were once on the verge of seeming a contemptible extravagance. After World War I, the price dropped to put them within the reach of a middle class newly encountering the ‘‘artificial silk’’ of rayon, which on the one hand was cheap and on the other looked cheap. DuPont introduced nylon stockings at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 by presenting a model (Miss Chemistry) emerging from a test tube, her legs coated in a polymer boasting futuristic properties: ‘‘filaments as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web, yet more elastic than any of the common natural fibers.’’ Within two years, nylon had captured 30 percent of a market dominated by the silkworms of a bellicose Japan. During World War II, when DuPont directed its nylon toward ropes and tarps and parachutes, nylon stockings came off the market. When they reappeared, the shop-floor frenzies that followed were construed as Nylon Riots. Imagine these scrambles as the claiming of delicate peace dividends and baptismal sites of postwar consumerism.
n the long run, the customer is always right. And now the customer can increasingly afford not to be one. A woman’s clothes are not simply her own in certain professional settings. As a rule, the more male-dominated a work environment, the more likely it is expected that women in the ranks will make a gesture toward covering their skirt-bared legs with fabric as thin as a gesture itself. A friend who is employed by a big bank with a conservative culture (and who declines to identify herself because she would like to remain so) tells us its women are made to understand that they should wear nude hose or black hose or maybe, maybe, opaque black tights in all but the sultriest heat.
There are certain corners of life where pulling on a plain pair of hose remains a prerequisite for success. But more and more it is rare to find very many ‘‘fashionable’’ women cornered in them. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for his first presidential term, Michelle Obama materialized on ‘‘The View’’ and explained that she stopped wearing pantyhose ‘‘a long time ago.’’ In legwear as elsewhere, the personal is political, and these politics were centrist and pragmatic.
The chic woman now inhabits a world in which the exposure of naked shins to the winds of February is quite the opposite of a ghastly mishap. It is a power move, one that indicates the vigor of youth and the muscle tone of Pilates and possibly further implies the brevity of a stroll from a hired car to a reserved table. Or, in the instance of legs striding through a long commute clothed only in moisturizer or self-tanner, it is not only a novel variation on the idea that we all must suffer for beauty but also a callback to a workaround of wartime rationing — paint-on hosiery like Max Factor’s ‘‘liquid stockings.’’ The bold bareness asserts the enjoyment of an increasingly common luxury — freedom from codes of thought that are, in their way, as constraining as any corset.
Those people who find hosiery a pain are free to renounce it, while those who enjoy or endure it can indulge a multiplicity of pleasures — all the old thrills of all the old frills condensed in an ultrasheer embrace. Once, the goal of following the mode in hose was to achieve conformity; an old Hanes ad captures the ideal in its illustration of a cancan kickline, identical curves of calves receding to infinity. Now that hosiery is no longer quite so compulsory, it has been refashioned as a site of play. The browser confronts a carnival of decorative possibilities: jubilations of patterned tights and dainty plays of dots, embroidery suggesting the avant-garde compromise of a tea cozy and a temporary tattoo. There are mass-market numbers apparently engineered to adjust to body temperature and most definitely embellished with crystals, and there are high-end fishnets constructed with an understanding of the millimetric nuances in flirtiness. I wonder what veterans of the Nylon Riots, for whom a run in a stocking was a blot on the day, would make of the habit of wearing deliberately ripped hose to lend yourself a punk-waif atmosphere.
What was a cultural monolith fragmented into many niches, and the official language of hose gave way to a Babel of vernacular. These duds do not say the same things they did in the day before, for instance, the acceptance of leggings as trousers signaled a revision of the rules of lower-body array. Think of the deliberate run as a manifestation of the decay of ideas of order. Women’s hose have evolved into something new and dissolved into nothing all at once, just as measured feet of poetry evolved into free verse.
Troy Patterson, contributing writer
Photo illustration by Mauricio Alejo