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.
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.
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.
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.
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.