{ Each Woman Here Had Opted for the Nylons }
Leslie Hoffman

leggsWhen I think of panty hose, I always imagine the curvy, foreboding leg that teases a young Dustin Hoffman on the famous movie still for The Graduate. Just like that silk-clad leg promised a lesson in adulthood for the young Benjamin Braddock, thin and silky hosiery is just one more step for girls on the pathway to adulthood and the sophistication that is sure to follow.
   But, much like Mrs. Robinson, hosiery is deceptive. While the step from thick tights in solid, respectable colors like navy and ecru, to thin, nylon panty hose the color of flesh may represent a graduation to adulthood, panty hose do not automatically supply sex appeal. Lace-trimmed silk thigh highs are one thing; Leggs' control top panty hose in "suntan" are another story all together.

While hosiery has been around since the time of the Egyptians, silk stockings weren't invented until the weaving technology arrived in Europe in the 1500s, and panty hose didn't come into style until the 1960s. Sid Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers, provides a history of hosiery—including the invention of panty hose—on the Web site Bluechipsocks.com.
   In 1589, Queen Elizabeth was purportedly presented with her first pair of silk stockings. These were the sort of leg covering that involves the use of a garter and possibly a belt or corset to accompany it. The next major moment in panty hose history didn't occur until the late 1930s, when DuPont laboratories invented nylon, a mixture of coal, tar, air, and water.
   Naturally, someone thought it would be a great idea to turn this mixture into something to wear. When this fabric was presented to women in hosiery form in 1940, more than four million pairs were purchased within the first few hours.
   These same women were outraged when their nylon was taken away from them during World War II, and were known to draw a line up the backs of their legs with an eyebrow pencil, mimicking the seam on older styles of hose to make it appear as though they were wearing nylons. They eventually got their coveted material back after the war ended, and the next major step for panty hose occurred when miniskirts and the sexual revolution came into fashion.
   With hemlines inching up the thigh, hosiery manufacturers had to adjust to the demands of fashion plates. In response to short skirts, they started knitting nylons a little longer, and joining them at the top. Panty hose officially entered the world.

After panty hose entered my world, I transitioned from being in awe of these nylon tubes to being annoyed by them. By the time I was in high school a steady supply of fashion magazines full of stories and photographs of glamorous models tripping about New York, sans nylon, fueled my literary diet. I wondered how they stood the bitter cold of the North East protected only by a glittering sandal, but I figured if Vogue said it was okay, it was.
   My mother was not so thoroughly convinced and told me it was trashy to abandon tradition in the name of trend. "Panty hose makes you look finished," she emphasized. And, in my prom pictures, you can see the opaque, reinforced toe of my buff nylons sticking out of the pink satin sandal.
   I generally avoid panty hose now, except for black ones in the winter. But that does not mean I have not escaped their suffocating grasp. In recent years, nearly every job I've had has had a dress code that requires panty hose. Of all the jobs that require the wearing of the nylons, my position as a sales clerk at a suburban Kaufmann's department store was the most demanding. The dress code was extremely strict: Employees must dress professionally. Men are to wear a suit and women are to wear dress clothes to work. Panty hose with a skirt or dress are required. Sandals worn during the summer months must be accompanied by some sort of foot covering.
   A few weeks into work, I decided to risk it, to see if my youthful legs could pass unnoticed in the sea of synthetic fiber-swaddled varicose veins. Within five minutes, a white-haired sales clerk pulled me into a dressing room and hissed at me to run over to the lingerie section.
   "Quick, if you buy yourself a pair now, maybe no one will see you," she implored, a look of panic in her eyes. I wrenched my arm out of her grasp and stalked off toward hosiery.
   Currently, I'm temping in an office where mostly young women work. The dress is "business professional" four days of the week, and "business casual" on Friday. My second day of work, I wore a skirt suit and heels, but the muggy June morning kept me from pulling on a pair of hosiery. Once I got to the office, I noticed that everyone was wearing them. It was like a tame version of a David Lynch movie: somehow, despite the heat, each woman here had opted for the nylon menace. Even the women who opted for long skirts or pants wore knee-highs with their shoes.
   No one has said anything to me yet, and I don't know if it's a requirement or if it's just an unwritten law that "business professional" means "panty hose required," twelve months a year, in bitter icy months as well as sweltering, muggy ones. On casual Friday, more than one woman in the office abandoned her hose for tan legs and sandals.

So I started asking women who work in offices what they think of panty hose. Most of them were more than a little shocked.
   I asked Sandy, 50, a court reporter, whether or not she thought there was a differing opinion between the young women and older women in her office about wearing panty hose. She gave me a look of disbelief and responded, "It's not really something we talk about."
   And indeed, it is a strange topic to ask women about. After all, panty hose do contain the element of the panty—a sliver of cotton attached to the crotch—and is therefore almost a taboo subject.
   Women who worked in department stores were slightly more understanding. Angela, 32, a Chanel representative at Lord & Taylor, was wandering around the hosiery section one afternoon. Youthful and hip in spite of her uniform, Angela said she usually just wears pants to get around the store's dress code policy. She said if she wears a skirt when she goes out, she wears either tights or fishnets, or goes barelegged. She added that most of her friends feel the same way.
   "Normally I'm not a panty hose person, she said. " I never wear nude panty hose."
   At Saks, two women, one young and one old, talked hastily about panty hose and their dress code as they closed the register for the day. Erin, 20, said it didn't bother her a bit that she has to wear panty hose to work. Her counterpart—who refused to give her name and age and suspiciously asked if I had permission from the store to interview them—said she didn't mind, either. "There, you have an old view and young one," she said.
   But when I asked them if they wear panty hose when they go out on their own, both of them shook their heads. "Never."

That seems to be the consensus with working women: They endure panty hose for the workday and shed them when they're having fun. And maybe that's where the passage to adulthood enters—it's something greater than merely looking like one.
   As an adult, you have a separation between work and play, a separation between being serious and being sexy—and our dress helps signify which we're doing. Maybe panty hose aren't supposed to be attractive, maybe they're meant to reinforce the separation between the public and the private, and to serve as reminders of the responsibility that comes with adulthood.
   While I got dressed for work last week, I told myself that's what is important—being an adult, accepting the fact that sometimes the adult privileges we think will be fun simply are not. Last Tuesday, my desire to be different didn't get up to go to work with me. I considered my options, and reached for an old pair, black, amazingly still run-free.
   I struck a pose in the mirror, thought about Mrs. Robinson, and laughed.

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