the strange, sexy history of fishnet stockings
Exploring fishnets' relationship with femininity, from Bettie Page to Junya Watanabe.
Like lacquered red fingernails and stilettos, fishnet tights are wrapped up in the performance of being female. I first wore a pair, which were neon turquoise and did nothing for my pasty English legs, at around 13, while transitioning out of "tomboy" and into my best impression of "sexually intriguing young woman." This was during a renaissance of fishnet tights among kids in the early 2000s, when we would wear them with miniature kilts to underage parties in bad London clubs. We thought they made us look grown-up; in fact, they emphasized the barely pubescent nature of our bodies, like the adult clothes of wayward waifs in the most haunting photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
Think of fishnets, and you think of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, maybe Sophia Loren. There are iconic images of each actress posed in pinup-girl mode wearing fishnet tights that ascend, uninterrupted by skirts, from toe to butt. In each photo, the actress's legs are angled to emphasize the expanses of her curves. The unique power of fishnet tights is that their stretchy grid-like weave visibly distorts over rounded forms, highlighting curves magnificently.
In 2017, fishnets are in vogue again, which feels appropriate in our gender-questioning time. Fishnet tights have been symbolic of womanliness and female sexuality since their emergence at the turn of the 19th century. Fashion historian Valerie Steele hypothesizes that fishnet tights arrived when a late-Victorian fad for all things lace commingled with the era's fetishization of stockings — itself the result of floor-skimming Victorian dresses and the teasingly limited glimpses of women's legs they afforded.
The tights' popularity exploded with the advent of flappers in the 1920s. Fishnets were the perfect leg covering for the age of higher hemlines because they didn't cover too much. Their flexible construction could also withstand energetic dancing. The newly liberated woman, who hung out in nightclubs unchaperoned, soon became a cause of public concern. And fishnets, too, have never lost their associations with after-dark entertainment and sex.
In his 1957 essay "Striptease," Roland Barthes describes fishnets among "the classic props of the music hall," and in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), he explains their suggestive appeal. "It is intermittence," he suggests, "which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing." Fishnets are by nature a tease: a revelation of flesh masquerading as a covering.
The textbook sexuality of fishnets can easily be subverted. The alien transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry) appeared in the 1975 movie poster for The Rocky Horror Picture Show wearing full glittering drag and fishnets. Nearly every character in the original Rocky Horror movie appears on the screen in fishnets. When virginal honeymooners Brad and Janet reemerge in corsets and fishnet stockings, it is a true sign of their sexual awakening. But the context is far from the heteronormative world of pinup girls: Brad and Janet throw themselves into an anarchic orgy in which fishnets feel more like hilarious props of a bygone picture-book era of sexuality than truly risqué.
The film's costume designer, Sue Blane, has suggested that the production's ripped fishnet stockings, glitter, and colored hair directly influenced the aesthetic of punk. Nancy Spungen (a former stripper and dominatrix) wore ripped fishnet tights throughout her relationship with Sid Vicious in the mid 1970s. Later, post-punk heroine Siouxsie Sioux championed the look with matching fishnet gloves and body suits. Both women's torn fishnets read like a symbolic rejection of cookie-cutter femininity.
During recent fashion weeks, fishnet tights have been reincarnated yet again. In 2015, Proenza Schouler showed a new breed of thick, almost futuristic fishnets under ankle-length coats and dresses. And this past season, designers as diverse as Lanvin, Jason Wu, and Junya Watanabe all presented variations on the theme. Interestingly, each pair peeked out from beneath long, sweeping hemlines.
Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic at The New York Times, recently declared that our generation's defining clothing trend is the desire to cover up. But what she found most interesting were the variety of explanations for this that she received from industry experts: "Some people brought up reality TV. Some people brought up celebs and all the bodies on display... Some people brought up next wave feminism."
I see fishnets daily now on the subway, the streets, and Instagram. But almost always worn beneath pants, so that just a short flash of ankle shows through. Perhaps we understand better now that there's no boundary between tomboy and sexually intriguing young woman.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Lead image Lanvin fall/winter 17, photography Mitchell Sams