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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

History of the hosiery industry

Smith divides the hosiery business into two parts: ladies' sheer hosiery and socks for all. He offers a history of industry innovation, noting that the development of nylon revolutionized hosiery, and that a new technique developed in the 1950s created flexible hose that stretched to better fit women's legs. Further changes in the market made hosiery products desirable and available to a wider audience.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: Looking back across this historical landscape, what have been the most important parts of the story in terms of the broad fortunes of the hosiery industry post war period, thinking of specific periods of import challenges, technological innovations, regulatory developments? SS: Looking at the product area I think is probably the critical one. We have to remember that hosiery is really two industry, two sectors. I like to describe them as being like two sisters. They're very much alike, but then they're very different. There is the ladies' sheer hosiery business. Then there is the sock business for the entire family, including ladies. They are two businesses. They are very much alike in some ways, but they are also very different. They have different markets, different machines, use of different raw materials, et cetera. Probably the two biggest events, one of them was right before World War Two, which was in 1937 when nylon was invented. Nylon married together the sheerness of silk with the strength of cotton or a natural fiber. Prior to that, if you wanted sheerness, you had to use silk, which was extremely expensive and very delicate. Or, ladies wore cotton stockings. They were not sheer et cetera. This gave them sheerness and strength at the same time. When World War Two came in, all of that production was taken away. All of that nylon went into war materials. When Dr. Carothers, a research chemist at DuPont, discovered and invented, if you will, nylon -- it is a DuPont product, although it now has generic connotations to all of us -- the first pair of nylon stockings went on sale or was presented at the New York World's Fair in 1938. It was a huge hit. Ladies only wore stockings, a thigh high garment. Nylon was still rigid. It did not have stretch to it. It was rigid like cotton and wool. So stockings were produced just like socks were produced and marketed to specific foot sizes, 6, 6 1/2, 7, 7 1/2. The array, if you will, of product that had to be carried at retail was huge if you were going to fit this population out here. That's why as early as the 1920s that you had the creation of a hosiery department inside of a store, because it took so much space to stock up and the hosiery department as we know it today was created. All of that nylon production was taken away into war production. When the war was over, the first sale of nylons was in San Francisco. A riot broke out and they had to cancel the sale, but the nylon came back on the market. That was, I think one of the critical elements was the introduction of nylon. The second critical one came about 1965. In the early '50s the yarn producers learned how to make a stretch fiber by crimping the nylon and setting it under heat. The hosiery industry then began to make some stretch-like products, but nobody paid much attention to it. Ladies still wore stockings, although they were stretch stockings. They fit better. They fit at the knee and they fit at the ankle, but they still were stockings. In 1965 the supermodel named Twiggy stepped out on a fashion runway in London, England in the newest rage called the mini-skirt. The skirt was shorter than stockings were long. If the ladies of that era were going to wear this new product, this mini-skirt, they had to have another product. So the industry came out with pantyhose. The first pair -- or what is recognized as the first pair -- was made by Glen Raven. One of the Gants -- and they were making stockings at that time in addition to making yarn -- actually let the stocking run long at the top, put a slit in it and ran it through a sewing machine, sewed on an elastic waistband, and you had a waist high garment. Mr. Gant made some and took them home and let his wife try them and she said, “This is great.” So, pantyhose hit the market in 1965. It was a huge success. It was a liberating event for women because they could now get away from girdles and garters and snaps and buckles and all the stuff that went with the traditional non-stretch stockings. That's why once the mini-skirt went by the boards, if you will, and other fashion came in to take its place, they never went back. They stayed with pantyhose. I think that pantyhose introduction was the second really big post-war change. I think the third big change--. Some people would say branding, national brands taking over rather than just selling generically, is a big factor. It is a big factor when you look at sheers. It is beginning in the sock business, but it is not quite to the same degree at least yet. JM: Meaning that a customer, a woman, might identify and go out and select a L'eggs brand stocking--. SS: A national brand. That's right. JM: But in the sock market people still are less brand conscious. SS: They’ll buy store brand. The companies haven’t put the money behind the development of a national brand. Now, there are strong examples contrary to that. There’s some tremendous and wonderful sock brands out there, but they just didn't make up the same percentage of the total industry as was true over in sheers. The big thing that changed for socks which started kicking in in the '70s and 80s was we began to develop and market socks for specific end uses. There was a time in a man's wardrobe, or anybody's wardrobe, you had only two or three kinds of socks, blue, black and brown. You wore them for everything. Then, there was the athletic sock that was specific. Then, we came out with casual socks that were somewhere in between athletic and dress. Then, we started even sub-categorizing, like within the athletic group there are socks designed for basketball, socks designed for jogging, socks designed for bicycle riding. They are engineered for the needs of that particular activity. So, we began a real marketing oriented thrust in socks, and that certainly raised the per capita consumption and the interest in the sock market. I think that was a major factor in the run up, if you will, of the production and sales and popularity of socks. The two biggest things that we're probably in the middle of right now is a fashion cycle, the “casual look.” Casual has certainly impacted on the frequency and wear use of ladies' sheer hosiery and has shifted quite a few of them to socks. They don't have to dress up the same way. I guess there's a lively debate as we sit here today: Is this going to ever reverse itself? I think most people agree that casual has certainly captured its share of the look. It will always be there, but at the same time, I think there will be a return to dressing up. We might even see some signs of it today. Those become generational things from one generation to the next. I think there will be times when the population does dress up a little bit more than it is maybe today. The other is the introduction of discount stores. I think that's had a tremendous impact on the industry. It is an entirely new focus, if you will, as far as channel and distribution. We used to sell-- JM: You mean Wal-Mart, Target? SS: Correct. If you look back in the '50s and even '60s, department stores -- traditional neighborhood or national chains department stores --were the predominant way that the consumer bought their goods. They were located usually in downtown locations. I think one of the critical elements there was that manufacturers could make a decision of who in a particular locale would carry their products and then limit that distribution. They could pick a particular department store and say, “Okay, I'm going to sell my brand or my products through you. I'm not going to sell them to anybody else in your neighborhood or in your city.” They could do that. They could also set what the retail price was, and they could hold the retailer, the department store to that. If the retailer didn't abide by it, then they lost their license to carry it and they could shift to somebody else. That kept pricing and channels of distribution controlled in the hands of the manufacturer and/or the selling agent and/or the distributor that had that line. That was true of all apparel, not just hosiery and of a lot of other products too. But there was a growing little group of companies called “discount stores” that felt that was discriminatory towards them, and that they should have the right to carry national brands or designer brands. They lobbied Washington to have that changed. The Federal Trade Commission agreed and did change the rules and regulations as it pertains a manufacturer controlling its distribution of its products and to where a manufacturer can't do that now. We can make a suggested retail price, but the retailer does not have to abide by it. Under the rules and regulations, an apparel manufacturer cannot limit distribution. Now, they can limit who they sell to based on credit worthiness or whatever, but you can't just say, “I’m only going to sell to certain chains of distribution,” anymore. That changed the ball game. It changed to where the discounters could then come in, buy in volume and sell at lower prices.