A sales shock: A last glimpse of stockings

Once the epitome of glamour, but research shows they are now on their last legs
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The Independent Online

In olden days, according to Cole Porter, a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as something shocking. Today, however, the garment's main shock value seems to reside in its rarity rather than its ability to titillate.

A new report has suggested that when it comes to a choice of legwear ­ in public at least ­ anything other than stockings goes.

The slide of the stocking, which has been under attack since the invention of the pantyhose in 1959, is part of a more general trend, it was claimed. According to the market analyst Mintel, total UK hosiery sales slipped last year to £272m ­ down from £319m in 2002. But stocking sales were worst hit, plummeting 50 per cent ­ from £10m in 2002 to £5m last year, making up just 2 per cent of all hosiery sales.

Once the epitome of big screen glamour, immortalised by movie sirens such as Anne Bancroft as the carnivorous Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, modern generations consider stockings to be quite simply inconvenient.

Younger women it seems are more likely to buy hold-ups or footless tights, as seen on the legs of Elle Macpherson, Sienna Miller and Kate Moss. The latter have become particularly popular this season, with every bright young thing shunning bare legs for opaque tights cut off at the ankle.

The move away has been exacerbated by the resurgence of 1980s-style outfits and the fashion for shorter skirts and dresses ­ sometimes worn over the increasingly fashionable footless tights. As a result, tights have largely bucked the trend, with sales increasing to £200m from £191m in 2005.

But worse news yet for that generation of men still able to recall silk stockings thrown aside as invitations in the bachelor pads of their imaginations ­ women are also increasingly choosing to wear trousers, the report said.

The switch threatens to confine a once must-have female fashion accessory to the historical closet alongside whalebone corsets and flouncy bustles.

Kate Child, report manager at Mintel, held out some hope for stocking lovers. "Suspender belts are fiddly and they show up under any dress made of clinging material," she said. "I don't think they will disappear altogether, but they will become a niche product for special occasions, worn mainly for the bedroom."

The last decade witnessed a rapid growth in the bespoke underwear market, partly through the emergence of upmarket brands such as Agent Provocateur but also through the success of high street sex shops such as Ann Summers, which are now seen as less and less taboo.

What goes down must also come up, and analysts are predicting that total hosiery sales will rise again ­ though not back to the previous high water mark.

To combat the decline, brands such as Pretty Polly have hired stars such as Rachel Stevens and the Sugababes in an attempt to lure young customers into the hosiery habit. Marks & Spencer, seen as increasingly in step with the fashion demands of the 21st century, has launched a new range that claims to firm thighs by stimulating the blood supply to the legs.

But stockings are also facing the remorseless logic of changing demographics in modern society. According to the report: "Stockings are losing out as the mature section of their consumer base contracts and younger women turn to hold-ups as a more convenient alternative."

Up until the mid-20th century, stockings had dominated fashion among women for some 400 years, since the invention in the 16th century of the knitting machine. Back then, they were made of wool, silk and cotton.

When the first nylon stockings appeared in New York ­ that centre of trend and style ­ in May 1940 more than 780,000 pairs were reportedly sold on the first day alone. After a year, some 64 million pairs were sold across America.

Nylon stockings were known as "fully fashioned" stockings, and the first blip in the stocking trade came during the Second World War, when nylon production was channelled into the war effort and the material became hard to come by.

But it was only when women began to show a bit more leg ­ a process that climaxed in the 1960s with the arrival of the mini-skirt ­ that stockings began to be threatened. Tights took the lion's share of sales and within two years they had 70 per cent market share in America.

In England, stockings are clearly seen as increasingly old-fashioned and, along with their twin item the garter, are often worn by newlywed brides. Traditionally, it is the groom's privilege to remove his wife's garter at a wedding and fling it in the direction of his male guests. This is historically for good luck, but the "de-flowering" connotations are not so subtle.

From this emerged the tradition of the bride throwing a bouquet of flowers over her shoulders at female guests, the lucky captor of which is meant to then be the lucky one next in line to marry.

It is within this market, when women are more likely to don legwear with a less practical, more decorative look in mind, that salvation for the UK ­ if it is to come ­ will be found.

Fashions may come and fashions may go, but for the occasion that demands the ultimate in erotic elegance, it seems, the stocking is here to stay.

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