Until the end of the 1930s the best women’s stockings were made from silk. This changed in the United States when DuPont began manufacturing nylon in 1939. Nylon stockings went on limited sale in October of that year followed by a national launch at selected stores in 1940. Eager American shoppers bought up the new nylons even though they were priced the same as those made of silk (Miekle, 1995). DuPont struggled to keep up with demand and American women were still complaining of shortages up to 1942 when the United States joined the war. Commercial quantities of nylon stockings would not reach the rest of the world until after 1945.
Although most nylon was used to make stockings, some was bought by the American military to replace silk in the manufacture of escape parachutes. When the United States entered the war, DuPont shifted nylon production to a war footing and production was channeled into national defense uses, including parachutes and bomber tyres, and supplies of nylon for stockings dried up. Silk stockings were also unavailable, as trade with Japan ceased and the American army requisitioned all stores of silk for use in munitions. American women were not that badly off as they still had access to rayon or cotton stockings. Across the Atlantic, where supplies were more limited and clothing rationing more extreme, the stocking situation was much worse. Women in England were issued with 60 clothes coupons per year and stockings took 2 of those plus cash. The first time English women had the opportunity to try nylons was after the American military arrived in 1942.
As silk and nylon stockings vanished from the shelves, women looked to alternatives. Depending on the occasion, what was available, their degree of patriotism and their economic situation, they substituted with stockings made from other fibres, wore socks, covered their legs with trousers, went bare-legged or used leg make-up – also known as cosmetic stockings, liquid stockings, bottled stockings and phantom hose – to give the appearance of stockings.
Some cosmetic companies had been making leg make-up before the war to give legs the appearance of a tan, e.g., Elizabeth Arden’s Velva Leg Film. However, as the idea of cosmetic stockings gained support, a large number of products became available under names that included, Leg Make-up (Charles of the Ritz), Jiff-On (Beauty Counselor), Stockingless Cream (Cyclax), Stocking Lotion (Harriet Hubbard Ayer), Summer Stockings (Jaquet), Leg Make-up Film (Frances Denney), Leg Show (Dorothy Gray), Wondersheer (Bellin), Gentlemen Prefer Bronze (Charbert), Stockings out of the Bottle (Products Nina), Stocking Stick (Armand), Leg Silk (Revlon), Mist of Dawn (Kathleen Mary Quinlan), Chiffon Liquid Hosiery (Primrose House) and Leg Stick (Helena Rubinstein). As might be expected, the United States had the widest range.
Sales of cosmetics stockings were low in the early part of the war but picked up as manufacturers improved their products and sales techniques and women got more desperate. Even so, sales never met early expectations mainly due to the poor quality of the products – it was very difficult to produce a fluid product that did not separate, dried quickly, and left a water repellent film. Many of the brands suffered from pigment separation and few were waterproof. Acceptance and repeat business also suffered from the fact that it took a long time to put on and remove.
In an attempt to drum up sales, some stores ran promotions where you could have your legs painted to see the effect or had specialist leg make-up bars where you could purchase the cosmetic and get advice on how to apply them for best effect.
Helena Rubinstein was an early American advocate of the leg bar. In 1942 she opened a Bare-Leg Bar in her 5th Avenue salon. The bar featured leg make-up, special lotions, creams and cosmetics for the legs, a cooling masque for legs and feet, foot talcs and pedicure preparations. Cosmetic stockings in stick form, out of a bottle and sprayed on the legs were demonstrated on the opening day (American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, 1942).
Cosmetic stockings came in a number of forms including liquids, lotions, creams and sticks. As well as the fit-for-purpose products women also used other cosmetics they had on hand, such as Pan-Cake make-up and face or suntan powders on top of cold or vanishing cream.
A good cosmetic stocking needed to have a colour and texture that resembled women’s hosiery, go on smoothly and evenly without streaks, dry quickly, adhere to the skin and not come off when wet or rubbed against clothing but be able to be washed off with soap and water. Some forms contained a dye but many did not. The ingredients used included: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to give covering power; iron oxides, lakes and dyes to provide colour; talc to simulate the sheen of a stocking; humectants such as glycerin or sorbitol to reduce flaking; an adhesive agent such as methyl cellulose, casein or latex to help the mixture stick to the legs and; alcohol to quicken drying.
Water constitutes the major proportion of the suspending medium. It should be modified by the addition of a certain amount of alcohol to promote more rapid drying. Furthermore, a certain amount of glycerin or other humectant should be present to act as a plasticizer and help to prevent the powder from flaking off the legs. A useful addition to the liquid should be a small proportion, differing according to the material used, of a wetting or spreading agent. This promotes a more uniform spread of the solution on the skin surface. Too much is not desirable, since the liquid may later excessively. A product formulated along these lines will still not adhere so well that it cannot be rubbed off by contact with the skirt hem, and a fixative should be of some value. The addition of a gum, natural or synthetic, is valuable in promoting adhesion and may even serve to modify texture in a desired manner. Here again the gum should be used judiciously, excessive amounts thickening the mixture unduly, and preventing uniform spread and quick drying.
Some sample recipes are given below.
Liquid cosmetic stocking
Precipitated chalk 10.0% Talc 5.0 Titanium dioxide 3.0 Bentonite 2.0 Alcohol 8.0 Glycerin 3.0 Wetting agent 0.5 Methyl cellulose 0.5 Water 68.0 Dye and pigment q.s. 100.0
per cent Zinc oxide 6.0 Chalk (precipitated) 16.0 Methylcellulose 0.5 Glycerin 16.0 Water 61.5 Colouring matter, preservative, perfume q.s.
A cream for of leg make-up could be made by adding the colours to a cream base in which some oil has been added to give luster. Stick forms, being made of a wax-oil mixture would not need additional oils.
Stick cosmetic stocking
Petrolateum 45.0% Ozokerite 15.0 Soft amorphous wax 10.0 Deodorized cocoa butter 5.0 Titanium dioxide 20.0 Color 5.0 100.0
In England, wartime austerity led some women to try their hand at making their own cosmetic stockings from published recipes.
The simplest form of liquid leg make-up is a kind of liquid powder...
The following is a suggestion for the powder content—
Talc 20 Kaolin 75 Lakes or pigments 5 100
The liquid will, of course, consist principally of water, but something must be added to assist spreading properties, to help to hold the powder on and perhaps to hasten evaporation. ... Such substances as glyceryl mono-stearate (Tegin or Abracol G.M.S.) or “diglycol laurate” are useful additions. ... The following is a formula for a really cheap emulsion which is nevertheless satisfactory for this purpose, and is easy to make provided some kind of homogenizer or emulsifier is available
Suphonated castor oil 20 Liquid paraffin (technical) 36 Water to 100
No heating is required. Mix the two oils. Stir in the water and pass through an emulsifier.
The preparation of a liquid leg make-up along these lines would resolve itself into the following stages—
Preparing the powder content—mixing, grinding, or sifting.
Diffusing the glyceryl mono-stearate or other similar substance in a portion of the water.
Mixing these two portions together with sufficient water to produce a creamy liquid.
Preparing the emulsion.
Adding this to the previously mixed ingredients with light stirring, and finally adding perfume, which may be dissolved in a little alcohol and making up to the desired weight or volume.
Having obtained a jar, bottle or stick of cosmetic stocking, women soon discovered that there were a number of obstacles they needed to overcome to achieve the illusion of stockings.
Before applying the make-up, leg hair had to be removed, most commonly by shaving or abrading the leg with a mitt. Loose skin on the legs and feet also needed to be rubbed off to avoid having it flake off leaving light patches behind.
Applying the cosmetic stocking liquid, lotion, cream or stick evenly so that there were no streaks would also have taken some practice. Fortunately, help on how to achieve the best results was available from the place of purchase as well as from articles in newspapers and magazines.
You may think you give your legs pretty good care. You see that they get a good lathering when you have your evening bath. You dry with care. But just try smoothing on one of the liquid preparations for leg make-up! It may start on smoothly and evenly, but next thing you know little specks of dead cuticle will rub off, leaving streaks behind!
Use a Brush
Heels, insteps and toes are even worse, because skin is thicker and more likely to be calloused. The calluses may be such small ones that you aren’t even aware of them, but once you start rubbing, up they come to your embarrassment and chagrin.
Feet and legs need scrubbing nightly with a brush and soapsuds with an extra workout around the backs of the heels, ankles, insteps and across the tops of the toes. Rinse off and use a rough towel for drying, rubbing briskly over the points named as well as up and down the legs to remove every flake of dead skin. Finish by smoothing the legs with body lotion, hand lotion or that odd bit of cold cream you want to get rid of. It won’t take much of this regular routine to turn out limbs you can be proud of, with make-up or without it.
There are three main types of leg make-up: the dark tinted liquids that you apply with cotton, the lotion and cream type that you apply with your hand and the solid stick variety that you stroke on directly. Whichever you prefer, there is a trick to applying it for best results. Experiment with different shades until you find the one that is most flattering, then practice putting it on until you can do it easily.
The creamy and lotion types are easiest for me to apply, although I must warn you to be careful about overlapping. Have the legs slightly moist: immediately after your shower is a good time to put on your liquid stockings. Pour a bit of the lotion into the palm of one hand and use the fingers of the opposite hand to dip and transfer it to the leg. Apply from the knee or just above it down to the tips of the toes. Work in one direction and be sure to cover all the leg surfaces. Give the application time to dry, then take a clean cloth or old silk stocking and go over the leg. This removes any powdery excess and erases streaks if any.
Long Even Strokes
If the heavier stick make-up is your choice, first smooth the legs with a bit of cream or body lotion and wipe of the excess. Then apply the make-up from the stick in long even strokes, putting it on as evenly as possible to start with. Then use the palms of the hands to smooth any overlaps and wipe off the excess. After the surplus cream is removed, dust lightly with tinted bath powder. This keeps down any stickiness that might smudge the hem of your dress and gives a mat-like finish that really looks like stockings.
The transparent tinted liquids are applied with cotton wool in long upward or downward strokes and blended while still moist. One of these liquids in a shade called bittersweet can give almost any effect. A single application looks like pale, sheer evening stockings: two or three coats give a deeper suntanned look for daytime wear.
Those women who wanted the produce the illusion of wearing real stockings as closely as possible could do two other things. Firstly, real stockings had a noticeable sheen. Some cosmetic stocking mixes could be buffed up after application to make them shine. Elizabeth Arden sold her Velva Leg Film Buffer for precisely this purpose. Secondly, stockings of the day had obvious heels and leg seams that could be drawn on with an eyebrow pencil or something similar, as long as you had a steady hand. Drawing a straight line of even thickness down the back of the leg would have required a good deal of skill and practice. Clearly, not everyone went to this trouble and many women simply applied the cosmetic stocking and left it at that.
The end of the war saw nylon stockings return to the shelves and the decline of substitutes. DuPont began producing nylon for stockings less than two-weeks after the Japanese surrendered. The resumption of limited sales of nylons in the United States produced what reporters of the time called the “nylon riots” of 1945 and 1946 (Miekle, 1995), as women scrambled to buy them. In those parts of the world where clothes continued to be rationing and/or were economically depressed, cosmetic stockings lingered longer and were still being sold in the 1950s, well after the war was over. The eventual disappearance of cosmetic stockings was not the end of leg make-up, it simply went back to being sold for its original purpose – making the legs looked tanned.
Updated: 11th January 2013
The American perfumer and essential oil review. (1942). New York: Robbins Perfumer Co. [etc.].
Bushby, R. (1947). Cosmetics and how to make them (3rd ed.). London: Pitman.
Hunt, J. (1942, September 1). There’s an art to applying that liquid leg make-up. The Daily News.
Kay, G. (2005). Dying to be beautiful: The fight for safe cosmetics. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Meikle, J. L. (1995). American plastic: A cultural history. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Wells, F. V. & Lubowe, I. I. (1964). Cosmetics and the skin. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation.
Wilkinson, J. B. & Moore, R. J. (Eds.). (1982). Harry’s cosmeticology (7th ed.). New York: Chemical Publishing.