In 1934 Cole Porter gave us what has become the definition of the appeal of a shapely leg:
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
was looked on as something shocking.
Now heaven knows,
We all know that the gentlemen find stockings more enticing than tights, though apparently Ben Elton is the exception to this. In his play Popcorn an actress takes off her tights in a sexy way. This is unfairly challenging for the actress, and may go to prove that Ben Elton is no gentleman. The allure of stockings is because the answer to the question 'will she, or won't she?' is tantalisingly uncertain until after she either has or she hasn't. "With tights they are either off and you are on, or they are on and you are off". No teasing ambiguities there, then.
Tights are depressingly practical. Comfortable? - Check. Warm? - Check. Look good under trousers with no obvious lumps or bumps? - Check. Available in packs of three in petrol-stations? - Check. No point in buying the other kind of pack-of-three at the same time, though. Tights just aren't sexy1. If we re-write Cole Porter's lyric we realise just how un-sexy tights actually are:
"In olden days, a glimpse of tights
just gave everyone the frights.
with polish that shows,
through sandal toes.
Tights are practical in unexpectedly unpleasant ways. If the fanbelt snaps on a vehicle you can use a pair of tights as a temporary substitute. Always supposing that the petrol-station does not have fanbelts in its spares'n'tools department, of course. If the fanbelt does snap on a vehicle you are in, you will be gutted if you decided to go out not wearing tights. And stranded, for that matter. Mind you, if the vehicle won't start because the battery is flat or because you have run out of fuel, then all the tights in the nearest petrol-station won't help get it going again.
You can also use tights to strain jelly. 'Jelly' in this case is a clear fruit conserve, a fruit conserve with all of the fruit strained out. Apples make good fruit jelly, and so do black-currants. However this thought is so disquietening that I have never dared enquire about the origins of and methods of making Lemon Cheese.
There is another practical thing about tights. As Oprah Winfrey points out, if you have got half a dozen pairs of black 60 denier2 lycra-rich tights, you don't have to shave your legs all winter. Or have any reason to, presumably.
Comfortingly enough, there are a couple of practical disadvantages to wearing tights, to go with the myriad erotic disadvantages. The first is rather unpleasant. If you are squeamish close your eyes while you read the next paragraph.
Tights are not as healthy as stockings. Air does not flow as freely as nature intended. This is the sentence in which I mention vaginal thrush. I won't do it again, and only do so here out of a desire to write as complete an entry as possible. If you wear tights you are much more likely to confuse visitors by keeping yoghurt in the bathroom instead of the fridge.
Tights also work out more expensive than stockings. If you ladder a pair of tights you have to throw the whole pair away. Ladders are so-o-o-o-o slutty, and you obviously aren't that kind of slut3. If you buy matching stockings you can discard them one at a time until the last but one ladders, and they both have to go.
From the practical to the unpleasant. It is time to consider pop-socks4.
I cannot bring myself to write about pop-socks. They are just too unpleasant, though there is a certain irony about this. I have dozens of the damn things. All single. As I am. Co-incidence? I like to think so.
So. No. I am not going to talk about pop-socks.
Or slip-ons, either. These are foot-sized, and supposed to be invisible when you are wearing shoes. However they either come off and wrinkle up unpleasantly under the in-step or play peek-a-boo around the edge of the shoe. Some peek-a-boo clothing games are fun. This one isn't. I hope I don't need to tell you to trust me on this.
A glimpse of Stocking
Which brings us back to stockings.
Stockings are a visual short-cut for ambiguity of intention and erotic possibility. The accessablity of the private areas of the upper thigh combines with the clothed discretion of the more visible length of lower leg to give a mixed message, and mixed messages are so much more powerful. Men who will ignore a pair of long legs on a beach cannot tear their gaze away from the same legs partly covered and partly uncovered by a pair of stockings.
This visual short-cut can be sophisticated and subtle, or it can be simple and humourous. Stockings feature in Carry On.. movies, and are the staple with naughty nurses' uniforms, maids' outfits, and a whole array of fantasy outfits. The Bill featured WPCs in seamed stockings in the 1980s, which may say more about the particular twists of sexuality in the 1980s, the decade of the House Price Boom, Porsches and AIDS, than about the realities of policing.
Stockings can be sheer, they can be fishnet, they can have seams and seams mean stockings. During the second world war English girls faked stockings with gravy browning drawing the seams on the backs of their legs with eye-liner. No wonder the GIs were popular, with their packs of nylons. Nothing to do with their physical fitness, glamourous accents, and good pay, of course.
The practical uses of stockings have the charge of money, danger and violence - all the best bank-robbers wore them over their faces in the 1960s and 70s. And you can tuck folding money into the top of a stocking, but you can't do that with a pair of tights.
So stockings are sexy. Stockings are fun. Stockings imbue their wearer with erotic power, and they entice, delight and allure. What other garment gives such teasingly potent mixed signals?
And tights? 'Nuff said, I think.