Why pantyhose sales are still surprisingly strong

November 11, 2015, 4:09 PM UTC

For much of the 20th century, pantyhose were an essential component of any polished woman’s outfit. But then, many Gen X and Boomers stopped wearing pantyhose years ago, dismissing them as uncomfortable and easily ruined by runs. Most Millennial women have never even worn them, and thanks to more casual office wear, they don’t need to in most offices.

Overall sales for sheer hose are down 8% in the 12-month period ending in September, according to the NPD Group / Consumer Tracking Service, and just last year, Cosmopolitan’s style editor declared that hose was not okay.

But pantyhose is far from extinct. In fact, it is enjoying a small bit of a popularity among younger women, according to the NPD Group. Sheer hosiery had $482 million in sales in the one year period ending May 2015, the NPD Group reports, and 27% of those sales were to Millennials, which considering its increase of 9%, the group calls a notable revival.

What’s driving the popularity

While the fashion-forward (and Gen X) First Lady Michelle Obama does not wear them, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, a Millennial, notably does. She even inspired the “Kate effect” upon her royal engagement in 2010, boosting sales of styles and brands she wears, and in the case of hose sales surged. Hose have even made some recent appearances on runways,

A Google search for “pantyhose” brings links to major brands like No Nonsense and Hanes, but also shows another modern iteration of the legwear: as an object of fetish. One of the top results is a six-minute voyeuristic video called “Secretary in miniskirt, pantyhose and heels.” Many of the photos appearing at the Instagram hashtag #pantyhose (less than half a million hits, compared to #tights’ 1.1 million and #leggings’ 2.3 million), appear focused on the sexual aspect as well, with a more specific tag, #pantyhosefetish, also bringing up more than 60,000 posts.

And, while many companies have eased up their dress codes, pantyhose are still required in some types of workplaces.

Here’s a rundown of employers keeping the pantyhose industry alive.

Health care: Pantyhose were required wearing for women workers at the Mayo Clinic, but as of June, they’ve been removed from the dress and decorum policy, which forbids jeans, fleece and hiking boots.

But they’re still required in some other health care workplaces. Female officers of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service must wear sheer hose when wearing skirts or dresses. All employees of Summa Health System, the largest employer in Summit County, Ohio with over 9,000 workers, must wear hose or tights if wearing skirts or dresses. (Also on Summa’s list of no-nos: “extreme or faddish” hair colors, visible piercings in excess of 2 per ear, visible tattoos, and going commando.) This did not go over well with all employees, according to posts on the job ratings site Glassdoor.com: “Female employees shouldn’t be required to wear panty hose and closed toe shoes because it just reinforces the misogynistic attitude that women’s bodies are dangerous and must be concealed,” said one worker’s comment. “Even the nuns that work in our affiliated hospitals are wearing sandals and capris.”

Financial services: In 2010 the Swiss bank UBS issued a persnickety 44-page dress code which specified, among many other rules and items of grooming advice (avoid garlic breath), what colors of stockings and undergarments were required (skin-tone). “Always wear stockings with dark trousers. If you wear a skirt, wearing tights remains binding even in hot weather.” That code was mocked, and the company later issued a shorter revision. Anecdotal evidence indicates that in numerous conservative workplaces including corporate, finance, and banking jobs, pantyhose is still either expressly or implicitly required. For lawyers, it can depend on the day’s duties, and if it’s a court appearance day, it can depend on the judge.

Politics: While it’s not required, hose are still worn in Washington, D.C., which the Fashion Whip blog called “one of the last bastions of formal attire in the country,” though the columnists attribute the hose-wearing more to Republican figures and wives. A congressional staffer told them, “Tights are all over the Hill in the winter, on everyone, because we all wear skirts so often. But come summer, the only women in hosiery are staffers who work for Southern Republican senators. Then it’s sheer, nude pantyhose every day.”

Non-conservative restaurants: Hose doesn’t have to be polished or demure. At the “breastaurant” Hooters, “Hooters Girls” female wait staff wear Tamara brand shiny, tan, footless hose as part of the uniform. The capri-style hose is less likely to run, more comfortable, easier to clean, and fits a range of leg lengths. (Employees also wear slouchy white socks on top.) The Tamara hose are dispensed in vending machines in Hooters bathrooms in addition to being sold online. The Hooters style is also worn by cheerleaders, and the brand also makes a light support line of hose for casino workers.

Flight attendants: Each airline’s flight attendants wear distinctive uniforms, including opaque tights or sheer hose with skirts or dress styles. It’s not just a matter of a complete uniform being part of the airline’s branding, but because of the hours spent working at high altitude, there’s also a safety element. Compression stockings can help prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and there’s a line called Sky-Highs marketed just to flight attendants.

Amanda Pleva, a flight attendant with 13 years of experience, wears Spanx tights for her uniform, but says the DVT concern is a definite threat. “Compression hose is great as well as convenient because it doesn’t snag as much.” That’s fortunate, as Sky-Highs cost $25 a pair–but Pleva said some insurance plans may cover the cost.