“It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings

“Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress. (…) Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively-made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. ‘Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress’, concluded Francie.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

“One of the most important things in being well-dressed, to my way of thinking, is to watch your hose. No matter how expensive the rest of your costume, if your hosiery is not sheer and clear and in the right shade, the entire effect can be ruined. Therefore I am careful about the shade of hose I wear with each frock, and always, always have hose that are sheer and utterly ringless.” – Joan Blondell, Modern Screen Magazine, January 1937

Stockings have steadily fallen out of favor over the past four decades. Fishnet and patterned leggings are still donned by fun loving fashionistas, but today drugstore pantyhose is only one step ahead of crocks in the style department. However, there was a time when stockings were the must have accessory, for both everyday wear and to complement an elegant outfit. Held in place by garter belts, with a straight seam up the back, fully fashioned stockings (or “back seam stockings”) were worn by everyone from factory girls to movie stars.

I love pairing my favorite 1940’s inspired back seam stockings (purchased from Gigi’s House of Frills) with my gold 1930’s inspired heels and vintage handbag.

In her book Out-Of-Style: A Modern Perspective of How, Why and When Vintage Fashions Evolved, author Betty Kreisel Shubert presents a timeline of the evolution of fully fashioned stockings: in 1589, the first manual knitting frame to make stockings was invented; hosiery production was completely mechanized by 1860 and the first nylon stockings were introduced by DuPont in 1938. Kreisel Shubert’s book answered a question that has been bothering me for some time: when did stockings become seamless? According to Out-Of-Style, this (to me tragic) event happened after the end of WWII, when the circular knitting machine made seamless stockings possible, thus eliminating the rather suggestive query “Are my seams straight?”.

During WWII, war time shortages demanded that nylon fibers be used for parachutes, not gams. Due to the short supply of stockings, women would paint stocking seams on their legs using make-up, cocoa or even gravy. But even if nylons were in short supply at the local drugstore, they were abundant in men’s magazines. It was at this time – in what would essentially be the back seam’s twilight period – when fully fashioned stockings became a pinup staple.

Although stockings are ubiquitous with our modern vision of the vintage pinup, men’s magazines of the early twentieth century reveal (pun intended) a different story: pinups of the 1920s and ’30s were often barelegged and before that, in the early 1900s, a very popular breed of men’s magazine featured photos of “bifurcated girls”; in other words, women wearing men’s trousers. No kidding! In 1903, the sight of a woman in pants made a chap, well, pant.

But during WWII, no self-respecting pinup model would be caught dead without her back seams: the “glamour photography” and comedic magazines aimed at soldiers were bursting with photos of smiling, apple-cheeked voluptuous beauties bending over to straighten their seams or adjust their stockings. The pinup art of Gil Elvgren featured lovely women in precarious situations that always involved the lifting of skirts to reveal shapely legs clad in silk, fully fashioned stockings. In fact, Elvgren’s pinups were so popular that they were used as nose art on WWII military aircraft.

Stockings came to symbolize sex and could be even more tantalizing than nakedness, as illustrated in a Zippy magazine cartoon from 1941 which shows a bug-eyed artist ignoring his nude model in favor of the fully clad woman outside his window, who is lifting her dress to adjust her stocking.

Pantyhose was invented in the 1960s, along with the jokes of husbands balking in horror at the rather bandage-like contraptions hanging to dry in the shower.

Today, back seam stockings are still popular with those of us interested in vintage fashion. They now come in stay-up and pantyhose variations, as well as the traditional stocking and garter. I’m in love with my What Katie Did “latte on champagne” seamed stockings that I purchase from Gigi’s House of Frills. Although these are surprisingly sturdy, I usually save them for special occasions or just days when I want to feel sexy. For everyday wear, I adore Verona back seam stockings from Simons.

Years ago, I was shopping at Cloverdale Mall when a lovely elderly woman stopped me and complimented me on my back seams. “I haven’t seen those since I was a girl!” she exclaimed, informing me that she used to wear such stockings as a teenager in the 1940s. I told her that I had trouble keeping my seams straight and asked if she had any advice on how to wear them. “Honey,” she replied, “it’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em!

Written by Heather Babcock, 2021

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