No fictional character has articulated this writer's position on pantyhose so well as when Claire Fisher of HBO's Six Feet Under stood atop her cubicle desk and belted out "You Ride Up My Thighs" (sung to "You Light Up Life") in ode to her ill-fitting nylons. Most sane people would agree: Hose are the bane of womanhood. Who wouldn't hate being confined in nylon as it slowly squeezes the life out of her?
Alas, there comes a time in every woman's life when the wearing of pantyhose is required. It could be a funeral; it could be the prom; it could be every day at your new corporate job. I used to have an office job that required pantyhose often enough to remind me how maddening they are. Now, I work at home and spend much of my "free" time chasing a toddler. When I wear hose, I need them to be good—I don't have the time or the energy to stash an extra pair or a bottle of clear nail polish in my diaper bag. So, what I want to know is this: Are all pantyhose created equal, or does popping for a fancy pair ensure higher quality and less sausagelike discomfort?
A Brief History
There is some comfort in the knowledge that, sadly, hose used to be more uncomfortable than they are today. In the days of Charlemagne, both men and women wore hand-knit stockings—a practice that continued until 1589, when Reverend William Lee invented a time-saving knitting frame that could weave stockings out of wool, cotton, and silk.
For the next several centuries, hose evolved little, until 1937, when a group of scientists at DuPont led by Dr. Wallace Carothers invented nylon. A DuPont team subsequently created nylon hose, unveiling them at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Like their predecessors, the hose had seams and were attached to garters, but the new material made them much less difficult to tear and much easier to wash and re-wear. In their first year on the market, DuPont sold 64 million pairs of hose. By the 1950s, seamless stockings hit the scene.
In 1959, DuPont scientist Joseph Shivers invented spandex, bringing forth the next generation of hose. (DuPont's brand name for this product is Lycra; all Lycra is spandex, but not all spandex is Lycra.) Because spandex boasts soft and rubbery segments, its fiber can stretch to as much as 600 percent of its original size and then snap back into shape. Since you now didn't have to worry about stretching your hose, they could last—in theory—a lot longer. According to the United States Patent and Trade Office, Allen Gant Sr. of Glen Raven Mills invented what we call "pantyhose"—an opaque nylon top that is sewn on to a pair of stockings—that same year. (Reader: Do you notice that all of these people are men?)
Combing the aisles of a hosiery department, be it at Duane Reade or Neiman-Marcus, consumers must not only decide which brand suits them, but decipher the differences between, say, L'eggs' "sheer vitality" and "sheer energy" lines, all without stepping foot in them. My testing criteria were as follows: All hose boasted sheer toes, and, whenever possible, I chose the color "nude." Nude is hardly a set color; some are the color of a bottled self tanner while others give you a Goth look. It's no small feat to find the perfect match: Many women I know would gladly sacrifice comfort for sheerness, so I evaluated color, too. I tested the hose by wearing each pair for a minimum of 10 hours; nearly every pair was worn for at least 12. I tested them by doing what most moms do every day: regularly jogging up and down stairs, picking up toys discarded from strollers, and other similarly vigorous physical activities. My friend Alicia, another work-at-home mom, helped me out. We were careful to note how long it took to don each pair, as wriggling in alone can be an exercise in self-flagellation.
L'eggs Sheer Elegance Silky Sheer Pantyhose Control Top
Panty: 80 percent nylon, 20 percent spandex
Leg: 85 percent nylon, 15 percent spandex
Run count: 3
Texture and Color: Like faux silk—mildly smooth but with a cheap, mesh feel. This L'eggs line doesn't make "nude," so I tried "buff," which resembled a light ivory on my legs—it's definitely for a pale woman or winter-only wear.
Fit: On the tight and suffocating side. The waistband in particular feels super-cinched. The hose began to itch halfway through the day, and we found them difficult to get on because of the fit.
Grade: F. Runs began spontaneously about three hours into wear, and did I mention that they are very tight?
Ann Taylor Hosiery Naturals
Panty: 88 percent nylon; 12 percent spandex
Leg: 76 percent nylon; 24 percent spandex
Run count: Stopped counting at 5
Texture and Color: Ann Taylor offers three shades of "natural" in this line; I tried "Natural 01," a pretty, pale color. The texture was outstanding—very soft. The hose made the legs look, well, "natural" and thus attractive.
Fit: Ann Taylor's hose are cut smaller than others of the same stated size, resulting in a tighter fit that's more difficult to get on the body: The first run occurred while pulling them over the first thigh. The second and third runs occurred while pulling them over the second thigh.
Grade: F. These are dreamy to touch, but they're too fragile to sustain even the slightest movements.
Hanes Her Way Absolutely Bare Control Top
Panty and Leg: 81 percent nylon; 19 percent spandex
Run count: 3 before the entire right foot popped out
Texture and Color: Hanes offers a seemingly helpful control top that quickly turned suffocating. The "absolutely bare" moniker was almost accurate; they were a touch darker than we would have liked, but not objectionable.
Fit: The confines of the control top require one to dance a bit more than usual to put them on, but they feel good and even somewhat refined when on. They cling to your body in a way that is not uncomfortable.
Grade: D-. While these look and feel great, they couldn't stand up to activity; by the end of the day they were completely shredded. Like a boxer with a weak heart.
Talbots Silky Sheer Control Top
Panty: 82 percent nylon; 18 percent elastane
Leg: 86 percent nylon; 14 percent elastane
Run count: 5
Texture and Color: Transparent in look and almost weightless in consistency; the "control" top was fairly flimsy, but the leg felt positively luxurious. Talbots offers three nudes: pale, light, and medium; the pale did indeed match my own fair skin.
Fit: Great fit, neither strangling nor loose. These are very prone to runs, however; the first happened 3 hours in (a run in the heel prompted by bending down). By the end of the day, the runs were like rivers up the whole of both legs.
Grade: D. Such unfulfilled promise! Everything is great until you put these suckers on; there is no endurance.
L'eggs Sheer Energy Active Support Regular Pantyhose
Panty: 83 percent nylon, 17 percent spandex
Leg: 70 percent nylon, 30 percent spandex
Run count: 0
Texture and Color: Nicely smooth but a touch itchy. Itchiness grows progressively more intense. By "nude" here, they mean "for women who live in Florida"—suntan city.
Fit: Very loose; after 15 minutes, the roll-down waistband syndrome began. Ironically, as the waist got looser throughout the day, the legs felt more confining. Discomfort grew to such a level that these were torn off.
Grade: C-. The high point here is sturdiness. Try all you want: These won't run. Still, that doesn't make up for the texture, fit, and color. I'd buy these again if they were the only option.
CVS Bare Pantyhose Control Top (manufactured by L'eggs)
Panty and Leg: 81 percent nylon; 19 percent spandex
Run count: 1
Texture and Color: Sturdy and thick but smooth. Color is somewhat darker than others.
Fit: Nice snug fit, not too tight. The hose did not sag, but the waistband quickly became loose and did roll as the day progressed.
Bottom line: Good value for the money. For drugstore brand hose, these worked surprisingly well. The fit could have been more comfortable and the run was a bummer, but it was small and self-contained.
Grade: B-. While the fit, color, and texture of these aren't glamorous, they're not horrible. And the price is right; I'd buy these again.
Spanx All the Way Full Length Hose Super Control
Panty and Leg: 85 percent nylon, 15 percent Lycra spandex/elastane
Run count: Two, although the first happened a full 10 hours into the wearing, and the second happened at the 12-hour mark.
Texture and Color: Somewhat reminiscent of what satin leggings might feel like—very soft and more substantial than others. Spanx offers three colors: Nude 1, Cocoa, and Black; Nude 1 is ultra-sheer in color and subtly tinted brown; pretty.
Fit: Spanx glided right on to the body and seemed to create a slimmer silhouette—any pantyhose that make you feel a few pounds lighter are a wonderful invention. Also, these were extremely comfortable.
Grade: B. The ultimate special-occasion pantyhose and good for a splurge; these would have been better, though, had they not spontaneously bust a run in the toe while a wearer was sitting on the couch!
Donna Karan New York the Nudes Control Top
Panty and Leg: 50 percent biconstituent fiber (51 percent nylon, 49 percent spandex), 38 percent nylon, 12 percent spandex
Run count: 0
Texture and Color: Elegant, superlight, and smooth. (Note: The clear plastic packaging tinged these with a funny smell for the first hour or so of wear.) There are five colors available in DKNY's "the Nudes" line, coded by letter and number. Tone B02 is tawny-putty, almost colorless, which is a plus.
Fit: These hose feature a control top shaped like a bikini bottom rather than biking shorts—they cup the rear nicely. While they fit like a glove at first, they got progressively less taut over time.
Grade: B+. These classy hose fit and look great, but they're expensive, they can smell funny, and they stretch out easily.
Victoria's Secret Body by Victoria Control Top
Panty: 84 percent nylon; 16 percent Lycra spandex
Leg: 88 percent nylon; 12 percent Lycra spandex
Run count: 0
Texture and Color: Exceptionally thin, fine, and smooth. The line comes in five colors with two nudes: one regular and one pale. The regular is very beige but also very sheer, giving any leg some subtle color.
Fit: While these hose were a tad loose, I appreciated their nonstrangling nature over the course of the day, and the waistband never rolled down.
Grade: A-. The clear winner: You barely notice you have pantyhose on for 12 hours, and the color is great. The only downside: Each pair was a little stretched out when removed, so subsequent wearings may not be as comfortable.
If there's one lesson I learned in the world of pantyhose, it's this: The more spandex in the hose, the tighter the fit; the more nylon, the scratchier the texture. Another lesson: Cheaper brands tend toward the fake 'n' bake end of the color spectrum; to find a color that more closely matches your own requires some spending. Victoria's Secret Body strikes a good balance. At $8.50 a pop, you're pretty much guaranteed at least two wearings—bringing the price down to $4.25 per pair. I cannot say I enjoyed wearing pantyhose every day for weeks, but I can say that the impossible happened. I actually found a pair I liked: Call it sheer luck.