Netted clothing has become especially popular on the runways of Marchesa, Cushnie et Ochs, Alexander Wang and more which got me wondering about the origins of this controversial accessory.
The true origin of fishnet stockings or pantyhose is hard to pinpoint. The earliest mention of “fishnet clothing” actually goes back to one of Aesop’s Fables in the early 1900s, “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter”. In the story the king tells a peasant’s daughter that if she can solve his riddle, he will marry her. He challenges her to "Come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding..." and she solves the riddle by wrapping herself in a fisherman’s net. This idea has been a major factory in the appeal of fishnets. Philosopher Roland Barthes writes in his 1973 essay, The Pleasure of the Text, about the eroticism of the interplay of seen and unseen that fishnets embody. Not to mention the grid afforded by netted clothing like fishnets does a good job at emphasizing curves and musculature on one’s body.
Many say the fishnets began in the early 1900s with the showgirls of the famous Moulin Rouge but most images of women from the time highlighted adorned black stockings, not fishnets. Many women of the night in New Orleans wore vertically striped pantyhose in order to catch the eye but no one had graduated to fishnets quite yet.
Fishnets became popular with flappers and showgirls in the 1920’s as hemlines rose (to just barely below the knee). They were popular due to the fact that from a distance, fishnetted legs may look as though they're adorned in black tights, but under the bright lights of a dance stage, dots of flesh would show through. They actually had a nice functional advantage as well as nylon tights had not been invented yet. Standard silk and rayon stockings weren’t ideal for large range of motion and fishnets allowed the flappers to dance more freely. Fishnets continued to be associated with a ‘loose’ type of woman especially as they gained popularity in print-porn and pin-up girls of the 1950s.
In the 60s with the rise of the miniskirt, some women took to playing with the amount of leg they showed by wearing a tight weave fishnet in various colors. In the attitude of subverting mainstream fashion, punks and goths of the 1970s took control of the fishnet tights and made them more extreme by ripping more holes. This came along with safety pin earrings, patched denim jackets, and more. Especially for female punks, this was a great way to subvert the mainstream idea of proper women’s clothing.
Fishnet tights graduated to any netted piece of clothing with, you guessed it, Madonna in the 1980s. This pop goddess and fashion icon was often dressed in fishnets, but she didn't limit herself to just stockings. She also sported fishnet tops, gloves, and body suits.
As high fashion designers are wont to do, they took this provocative piece of clothing and in a brief period of shock, turned the fishnet mainstream. By the ’90s, a number of fashion and knitwear designers were creating fishnet stockings and loose-knit, nearly-nude dresses. Shortly thereafter, within the fashion system as a whole, fishnet tights became normalized as “fashion,” that is, desired in much the same way that It bag or shoe is. They range from conservative layering pieces to risque ripped garments.