Underalls Pantyhose circa 1978 / photo Kelly O

Nylon is a synthetic polymer made from an intricate mix of coal, air, and water chemicals. Working with Wallace Carothers's research team for DuPont, Julian Hill discovered nylon in 1930 when he dipped a glass rod into the syrup and drew out strands that were both stretchy and tough. Wallace was out at the time, so Julian joyfully fucked around, webbing the lab's hallways with the substance that would come to be used in everything, really: sausage sheathings, lipstick, dental floss, medical sutures, carpeting, hair spray, and fake Christmas trees. "The human race is going to perish by being smothered in plastic," Julian said 60 years later, though the deeply brilliant and deeply troubled Wallace did not live long enough to witness his product's profound impact. He believed himself a failure and, just after the invention, committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room by ingesting the vial of cyanide he'd kept in his pocket for years.

In far happier news, Wallace and Julian's work brought us the shimmery glamour of nylon stockings. DuPont presented them in an array of pastels, which never really caught on for some reason, but the flesh tones were wildly popular, despite the public's initial distrust of the emerging synthetic realm. As Jeffrey Meikle wrote in American Plastic, some rumors drifted, largely bullshit: The stockings caused nylon poisoning and leg cancer; they were made of cadaverine, a juice extracted from decaying human bodies. That they dissolved in polluted city air actually turned out to be true. On especially humid days, nylons developed spontaneous runs, and direct blasts of car exhaust melted them away.

Still, they snagged less than silk, laundered smoothly, dripped dry, and, because they were embedded with elastic properties, wrapped themselves sexily about the knees and ankles. (Here, rayon only drooped.) Women did without during war shortages, though they listened to weird songs, filled with longing, such as "When the Nylons Bloom Again." When they were reintroduced a week into peacetime, high demands and production lags stoked the Nylon Riots of 1945–'46. (Pittsburgh's was the worst, though nobody died.)

Today, wearers of panty hose can look great while seeping in functionality. For Australian lifeguards, they repel certain jellyfish stings. And turgid celebrities love them, too. From William Shatner's autobiography: "Patrick Stewart had very little experience on horseback, so I worked with him. I remember the best single bit of advice I ever gave him: Patrick, you should wear panty hose under your pants because it will reduce the chafing." recommended

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