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Make It Do – Stocking Shortages in World War II

Make It Do - Stocking Shortages in World War II - on Sarah Sundin's blog

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

US poster, World War II

US poster, World War II

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 inside the gun barrels. 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 Commandeered

Wartime B.F. Goodrich ad about the requisition of nylon by the US government, which started in 1942

Wartime B.F. Goodrich ad about the requisition of nylon by the US government, which started in 1942

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

Deena Clark, Civilian Defense (right), and Tech. Sgt. Leo Malkins of the Army Air Forces (left) collecting used stockings, 1942 (Library of Congress: LC-DIG-fsa-8b08080)

Deena Clark, Civilian Defense (right), and Tech. Sgt. Leo Malkins of the Army Air Forces (left) collecting used stockings, 1942 (Library of Congress: LC-DIG-fsa-8b08080)

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.

1943 ad for Charles of the Ritz leg makeup

1943 ad for Charles of the Ritz leg makeup

Making Do

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 and ankles. The rising popularity of slacks helped, but most women resorted to bare legs, often with ankle socks.

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, or by using a Y-shaped device to guide the pencil. The leg makeup was endangered when a lady crossed her legs or when it rained, and its difficulty in application and wear limited its popularity.

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

  1. Yeoman

    Interesting.

    Are “nylons” even a thing anymore? They seemed to be a huge deal in this era, and not so much now.

    • Sarah Sundin

      They do exist. I wear them only for special occasions or at professional events, where I don’t think bare legs feel quite appropriate – but I’m in the minority! My generation hates them with a white-hot passion and usually wears slacks to avoid nylons. My daughter’s generation sports bare legs even at proms and weddings. I live in California, which is both warm and casual, but I’ve heard it’s the same in colder climates.

      • Pamela Meyers

        Yep. I live in northeastern IL and even in winter with temps below freezing the younger girls go barelegged with their bare feet in strappy sandals. I mostly wear pants in winter, but if I wear a skirt it’s with tights or leggings. i haven’t worn “regular” pantyhose in a long while but they are hard to find in stores anymore.

      • Yeoman

        Having kids in their 20s, I’ve noticed that young women have the practice you note. It’s a bit startling for those with a recollection of earlier days, but bare legs are the norm for everything.

  2. Janice Laird

    I have pantyhose with seams that I wear with my 1940s attire. They look fabulous. I also have stockings and a garter belt, but the pantyhose are more comfortable and no one is looking up my skirts anyway to check! 🙂 I also wear stockings in the fall or winter with dresses, but then, I live in the Midwest. Otherwise my dress shoes will get nasty. Hey, even Kate Middleton wears “tights”!