Make It Do – Stocking Shortages in World War II

For American women in World War II, a shortage of stockings was a minor inconvenience, but it did affect daily life. Before the war, no well-dressed woman was seen in public without hose, and silk stockings were a necessary part of every woman’s wardrobe.

Nylons Introduced

Nylon was invented by DuPont in 1938, and nylon stockings were demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. When they came on the market nationwide on May 15, 1940, over 750,000 pairs were sold on the first day. They sold for $1.25 a pair, the same price as silk, but their shrink-proof, moth-proof nature made them very popular.

Silk Shortage

Japan was the sole supplier of silk to the US, and deteriorating trade relations in 1941 cut off the supply. Silk was used for parachutes and was the best material for powder bags for naval guns. When the guns were fired, the silk completely disintegrated without leaving any damaging residue. To protect this precious resource, the Office of Production Management (OPM) seized the nation’s supply of raw silk on August 2, 1941. This set off such a shopping frenzy for silk stockings that most retailers set a purchase limit of two or three pairs. The price of nylon stockings subsequently rose to $10 a pair or more.

Deena Clark, Civilian Defense (right), and Tech. Sgt. Leo Malkins of the Army Air Forces (left) collecting used stockings (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum),

Deena Clark, Civilian Defense (right), and Tech. Sgt. Leo Malkins of the Army Air Forces (left) collecting used stockings (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum),

Nylon Commandeered

Nylon was also needed for parachutes, and was produced from chemicals vital to the war effort. In addition, nylon was used to make rope stronger and to supplement rubber (which was also short) in tire production. As a result, the War Production Board (formerly the OPM) commandeered DuPont’s stock of nylon on February 11, 1942. From then on, DuPont’s production of nylon went to war materials.

Collection of Stockings

Used stockings were also valuable. Used silk stockings were made into powder bags for the Navy, and used nylon stockings were melted down and re-spun into nylon thread for parachute production. On November 15, 1942, the War Production Board launched an official collection program for silk and nylon hosiery. When stockings developed holes or runs, women were encouraged to turn them in at the hosiery department of their local store.

Making Do

The famous kiss at Times Square, New York City, 14 Aug 1945 (Photographer: Victor Jorgensen; US National Archives) Note the nurse's cotton lisle stockings with the seam up the back.

The famous kiss at Times Square, New York City, 14 Aug 1945 (Photographer: Victor Jorgensen; US National Archives) Note the nurse’s cotton lisle stockings with the seam up the back.

Women treated their remaining stockings with great care, often reserving them for special occasions. Rayon or cotton stockings were worn, but not fondly, as they tended to sag around the knees. The rising popularity of slacks helped, but most women resorted to bare legs, sometimes with ankle socks for more casual wear. To simulate the look of nylons, some women used leg makeup from cosmetics companies such as Max Factor. These “liquid stockings” were reported to last up to three days if the woman didn’t bathe. If possible, a “seam” was painted down the back of the leg with an eyebrow pencil by a friend or family member. This leg makeup was endangered when a lady crossed her legs or when it rained.

8 Responses to “Make It Do – Stocking Shortages in World War II”

  1. Noelle the dreamer

    Leg makeup abroad was often a (wet) tea bag stroked on the legs in addition to the ‘seam’ drawn with a cosmetic pencil according to SIL!
    As for nylons, MIL deemed these to be fitting only for ‘ladies of the evening’ or ‘tarts’.
    I just marvel at the ingenuity of women of WW2!
    Good post Sarah and thanks for sharing,

  2. MichelleH

    Nowadays, even women working in offices go bare-legged, which even as young as I am, I find rather shocking. 😛 Hopefully Duchess Catherine’s good example will catch on, and pantyhose will come back, at least in more formal situations! The war’s over, eh… 🙂

    Have you read ‘Lime Street at Two’ by Helen Forrester? It has lots of great gems about war-time fashion. The preceeding books in the series are really good, too.

  3. Sarah Sundin

    How interesting! Considering tea was rationed in Britain, that was a great sacrifice indeed! I didn’t realize the women of Britain had issues with nylons – it seems American women embraced them wholeheartedly. The similarities and differences between the cultures never cease to amaze me.

  4. Sarah Sundin

    Michelle – Living in California, I see nylons only rarely now. Even when the girls get all dressed up for prom, they go bare-legged – their shoes are open-toed, and they don’t want the stocking foot to obscure their pedicures. How things have changed!!

    I haven’t read that book. Another to add to my teetering to-be-read pile 🙂

  5. Noelle the dreamer

    Tea ‘bags’ were probably a rarity Sarah,leaves were tucked in a piece of muslin (used to strain cheese) or old handkerchief and used that way (at least by SIL!). Because of rationing (or maybe because MIL was very frugal) tea leaves were used over and over…Imagine! By the time I met ex-RAF hubby FIL and MIL brew tea thick enough to have a spoon stand all by itself!
    I find it interesting nylons are not so much in vogue in CA. Panty hoses were a marvelous idea but not when you have long legs…and hoses are so much more feminine (my thought of course!)

  6. Liz Tolsma

    Interesting tidbits. Tea was next to impossible to get in WWII Netherlands, though I personally knew someone who used her tea bags over and over again. Most Dutch women went without nylons and wore socks. They work better with wooden shoes, anyway!
    It’s crazy, but in Wisconsin, most of the younger set NEVER wears nylons. NEVER. Even if it’s ten below. Yes, they will wear open-toed sandals, too. I’ve bowed to the nylon-less convention during the summer, but when it gets to be this time of year, I do wear nylons!

  7. Linda Matchett

    Great post, Sarah! Things have definitely changed with regard to stockings. Here in NH, most women go without during the summer, but during the winter it’s slacks and socks all around (and hats and gloves and coats and…)! Pants weren’t really an option during the war as trousers were mostly frowned upon.