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Out of a synthetic miracle, real joy

Fifty years ago there was dressing in the streets when peace broke out and British women fell in love with nylons - invented before the war and brought over here by GIs. And, reports Francesca Fearon, the artificial silk is still hip
"Peace, it's here! Nylons for sale", "30,000 join in the rush for nylons", "Screaming mobs rush nylon sale". In the annals of fashion history, VE- Day has a special significance for women.

Across America, newspaper headlines avidly chronicled the frantic clamour for nylon stockings, illustrating the feverishness with photographs of impatient young women sitting on the kerbside donning their hose before they even got home. Here in Britain, women rejoiced in the knowledge that victory meant the days of clandestine purchases on the black market would soon end and that they would be able to lay hands on their precious nylons.

In the history of fashion, the invention of nylon in 1937 by Dr Wallace H Carothers at the Du Pont laboratory in Wilmington, Delaware, goes down as one of the most momentous achievements. In fact, nylon was first developed as a synthetic replacement for parachute silk. But within a year, Du Pont had identified a more conspicuous role for its "miracle of chemistry", and come up with nylon stockings. Thus the tyranny of nylon's fragile and pricey silk predecessor was over; in its place this attractive, durable, artificial silk spun from coal, air and water.

The impact was immediate. In the first year of sales, American women bought more than 64 million pairs. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 wreaked a devastating blow on nylon supplies as these were henceforth channelled into the war effort.

In Britain, some women courted Yankee soldiers with access to nylons. In the States, the mobsters tried to move in, hoping to emulate the profits of prohibition. An auction by the legendary leggy pin-up Betty Grable of a pair of hose raised bids as high as $40,000.

The heady glamour of a woman click-clicking down a street in seamed sheer stockings and high heels has the same mesmerising effect on men today as it did 50 years ago. Feminine reasoning then that "sailors won't whistle at anything else", might not be deemed politically correct in modern times. However, the anniversary of those VE-Day nylon riots has been swept up by fashion's nostalgic retrospective spin this spring. As designers plunder the Thirties, Forties and Fifties for ideas, so the sheer seam and heel nylons have made a comeback on the catwalk and in the shops. The chic, groomed glamour of Dolce e Gabbana, Alberta Ferretti and John Galliano's hourglass silhouettes demand a ladylike posture induced by a set of heels and sheer hose. And the flirty appeal of this image has prompted the hosiery brands Fogal, Le Bourget and Jonathan Aston to reintroduce modern versions of traditional nylons with great success.

The spring 1995 collections, though, do not simply focus on nylon through eyes misted with nostalgia. Dr Carothers's miracle fibre has undergone an extraordinary rehabilitation beyond hosiery and is now the hip fashion fabric.

It was not always so. In its early days, easy-care nylon was the modern fabric heralded as the key to utopia. But then in the Seventies it suffered a serious image problem along with other synthetics. However, high technology has improved the aesthetics of appeal, feel and performance (it has also reintroduced nylon's sibling yarn, Lycra) and fashion is once again captivated by nylon.

Witness its extraordinary success under the Prada label. First it shaped what had become humble nylon into chic bags, then parkas and rainwear that suddenly everyone in the fashion firmament wanted. Now Prada has fashioned nylon into little white A-line minis and tops. At collection time, its Milanese flagship store is as mobbed with international fashion editors pushing past one another for the ultimate item in nylon as shops were 50 years ago when stocks of nylon stockings arrived. Ten years ago, in the bleak years for sticky, sweaty, humble old nylon, nobody would have believed this.

Prada is not alone in the rediscovery of a miracle fibre now half a century old. Designers including John Rocha, Donna Karan and Anna Sui are similarly enamoured of its clean, modern looks. So the 50th anniversary of VE-Day also marks a turning point in nylon's history, celebrating its past and continuing success in hosiery and unleashing its potential as a fabric for the future.

I am not the type of woman who is very at home in ultra-girlie, siren clothes - although once in a blue moon I will go all out to shock.

This could mean turning up to a sedate dinner party in a very short skirt, or something which reveals a few inches of midriff (with fake navel ring). Or it could mean putting on a pair of seamed stockings with some indecently high heels, and sashaying into a West End bar to meet friends who normally see me dressed in a smart suit and flat shoes.

Recently, I opted for a hint of stocking when I felt like being a tiny bit shocking. The stockings I chose were a homage to the Forties, when the foot section was reinforced by a thicker denier, and the seam ran up to the thigh. There is something very womanly about smoothing a pair of stockings on to the legs, but it does get annoying when the seam refuses to lie straight. Nevertheless, it is a lot easier than in my grandmother's day, when she had to use walnut juice or gravy browning to do her legs, and a crayon to draw in the seam.

But although the accompanying outfit was quite smart, the stockings seemed to give the impression that I was "on the look-out'' for a date. Which I wasn't. Eventually the heels began to take their toll on my feet, and I began to wish that I had actually chosen to go on a date, rather than out with my friends for this little foray.

Jonathan Aston seamed stockings are £3.50 and come with a black, red or white seam and in shades from black to natural. Available from Agent Provocateur, 6 Broadwick Street, London W1; 0171-439 0229.

Melanie Richie