In my humble but firm opinion the most evocative love song ever written is Those Foolish Things. The writers (Maschwitz and Strachey) deserve eternal credit. Among the lyrical gems are the words ‘silk stockings thrown aside as invitations’. If that doesn’t make you swoon with pleasurable images you must be dead. Now imagine ‘nylon tights lying in a crumpled heap tangled up with her knickers’. There’s no contest really. Watching a woman remove her tights is as off-putting as watching a bloke shed his socks. All right, it’s not as bad as that, especially if you are both hot to trot, but the process lacks finesse. I doubt that even Angelina Jolie could make it look great.
As a debate about sexiness the issue is a non-starter. Tights are only useful as a functional item. For women they are essentially and in all sorts of ways a protective device. They also have the advantage of making suspender belts redundant. They are handy for tying tomato plants to stakes and straining portwine into a decanter. But they are useless as hoods for robbers since the gusset invariably hangs baggily to one side and makes you look like the Elephant Man. Whether this causes bank staff to shake with terror or laughter I can’t say, but it is poor presentation.
The editor wonders if Robin Hood might have looked good in tights. He might have. That said it has always bewildered me how male ballet dancers can dress the way they do. Even more, why the audiences seem to find it acceptable for a well-developed man to go leaping around with his genitals bulging under white Lycra combinations even when he or the ballerina are not about to have sex but to die. In my experience, balletomanes normally giggle if you merely enquire if they prefer ‘breast’ rather than ‘white’ when offering meat from a fowl. What is it that legitimises wearing something that would get you arrested outside the theatre? As Paul Hogan observed in one of his famous Foster’s lager TV ads ‘strewth the bloke’s got no strides on!’ That said, fairness demands that we recognise the utility of tights as a practical garment in certain contexts. For example, they hold the tummy in and are essential for your Carol Singing expedition.
Their erotic score is however, zero. Or maybe they get one point if you allow Madonna or Britney in fishnet tights – plus all the other kit of course. Against that, how about Ann Bancroft removing her nylons as she seduces Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, or Lisa Minnelli as Sally Bowles with black shorts, suspenders and stockings in her classic Cabaret routine. Both score ten beyond question. Even women who might normally want to fire bomb Ann Summers shops and demonstrate outside Agent Provocateur ought to admit that objectification should sometimes be acknowledged as a celebration of female aesthetic power.
But tights and stockings are also interesting as part of our cultural evolution in the area of sex, fashion and feminism. It’s nothing you would get a Ph.D. for (except possibly at Central St Martins School of Artistic Stuff), but it can lead to essentially lewd yet intellectually respectable speculation. This is in much the same way as does watching men in tights at the Royal Ballet. The Art element cloaks the real semiotics of suggestion and suggestiveness. So let’s get on with our doctorate about the role of female legwear.
If memory serves it was the mini-skirt that really brought tights into popularity. Even racy girls realised that the mini plus bare thigh, stocking top and suspender was not ideal street wear if you wanted to limit inadvertant exposure of your intimate person. The mini plus tights however, allowed a comfortable ‘look but can’t touch’ component of knowing innocence. Knowing is about exactly what was being looked at and that nothing could be revealed that was other than well clad. Innocence is freedom from any sense of nakedness, unintended titillation and hence risk.
Feminists have been able to take ownership of tights as garments that can be as free from sexuality as possible. True warriors would wear thick brown or black knitted tights under battledress if possible. The jollier ones affected colourful stripes and dirndl skirts. There was an early perception that wool and kapok were inimical to sexual activity, disguised sexual identity and so prevented the despised ‘objectification’ – which hadn’t been invented then but was definitely a concept. Indeed, so successful was this stylistic shift that come the end of British Summer Time the average high street was populated by what looked like a delegation of the Lapland Women’s Institute.
Luckily, the fashion movement regained the initiative. Legs were back in. Still clad in tights but with the bulkiness taken out and light, very short shorts substituted. My fashion adviser tells me that nowadays, the shorts remain attenuated and skirts have become pelmet short, but the tights have become commensurately thicker. I don’t know quite where this leaves the anti-sexual woman. But then she won’t want to be in fashion anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I think women have every right to avoid becoming fashion victims. Just as they do to enjoy the display element of clothing. We all choose the clothes we put on each day as some expression of ourselves and as a response to various social situations. Mostly there is a clearly understood (if unspoken) language in clothes. Like signal flags on ships, our choice of garments always carries some idea of message and response. This may be vague or it may be specific. With men, it is pretty simplistic. Is it a tie or no tie, suit or casual situation. If casual, are we Lauren or Hilfiger or Paul Smith or whoever these designers are? Mostly, we are M&S.
Personally, I hate being in a supermarket queue behind some prat – usually mid-thirties, wearing calf length multi-pocket trews and heavy sandals on size 14 bare feet. He always has huge and ghastly legs. He goes out like this even in November. I don’t know what statement is being made, but if he has no jeans he should definitely wear tights.
For women the choices and nuances are infinitely more subtle. Not only is there the colour, cut and fabric of the outer garment to play with, but an endless choice of accessories from blouse or shirt to shoes and ornamentation. In some contexts underwear is to be just that and concealed. In others it may become lingerie which nowadays it is once again becoming fashionable to display. Though tights have maintained their grip on the female lower body. As a mere man, all this feminine artifice sounds quite fun. But TV programmes like Trinny & Susannah or Gok Wan present it is as often agonisingly stressful.
Quite evidently, tights are an uncomplicated and supportive choice for any woman before she goes on to the harder questions of what to wear and how to look good clothed, let alone naked. Stockings have, over the last forty years gone from being a relatively innocuous universal female leg covering (albeit with sensual undertones) to a rarer and more deliberate selection carrying a distinctly erotic symbolism for both wearer and viewer. This is why lingerie is so heavily featured in department store Christmas advertising. It is the only time of year when showing ladies in underwear on prime time TV is permitted. True, tights advertisers on posters and in magazines have always created toothsome leggy montages. But it is noticeable that these end way below the pantyline. This is not simply about the decency thing. Much as estate agents’ pictures avoid showing the abbatoir just behind the greenhouse at the end of the garden. Of course, I refer to the architecture of the garment rather than the inhabitant, whose ‘greenhouse’ (to adapt a euphemism and sustain an analogy) is doubtless a fragrant blossom.
The clear distinction between functionality and sex appeal is probably a good thing. Tights can create a proper boundary between the woman’s self-definition as person and the interpretation of her as citizen of a gender with all its attributions. Wearing tights allows a woman to keep her options open. It ensures too, that nothing too hasty can happen. Any decision to remove the tights must be considered and done modestly in private. Stockings on the other hand leave you open to the breeze, to the whim of the moment and can be left on, or of course, invitingly thrown aside.
Bruno Phillips’s book, The Main Point: The Life and Work of a Porno Film Maker, is available now at Amazon.