Like lacquered red fingernails and stilettos, fishnet stockings are wrapped up in the performance of being sexy and being female.
Think of fishnets, and you think of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, maybe Sophia Loren. There are iconic images of each actress posed in pinup-girl mode wearing fishnet tights that ascend, uninterrupted by skirts, from toe to butt. In each photo, the actress’s legs are angled to emphasize the expanses of her curves. The unique power of fishnet tights is that their stretchy grid-like weave visibly distorts over rounded forms, highlighting curves magnificently.
The tights’ popularity exploded with the advent of flappers in the 1920s. Fishnets were the perfect leg covering for the age of higher hemlines because they didn’t cover too much. Their flexible construction could also withstand energetic dancing. The newly liberated woman, who hung out in nightclubs unchaperoned, soon became a cause of public concern. And fishnets, too, have never lost their associations with after-dark entertainment and sex.
In his 1957 essay “Striptease,” Roland Barthes describes fishnets among “the classic props of the music hall,” and in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), he explains their suggestive appeal. “It is intermittence,” he suggests, “which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing.” Fishnets are by nature a tease: a revelation of flesh masquerading as a covering.
The textbook sexuality of fishnets can easily be subverted. The alien transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry) appeared in the 1975 movie poster for The Rocky Horror Picture Show wearing full glittering drag and fishnets. Nearly every character in the original Rocky Horror movie appears on the screen in fishnets. When virginal honeymooners Brad and Janet reemerge in corsets and fishnet stockings, it is a true sign of their sexual awakening. But the context is far from the heteronormative world of pinup girls: Brad and Janet throw themselves into an anarchic orgy in which fishnets feel more like hilarious props of a bygone picture-book era of sexuality than truly risqué.
In 2017, fishnets are in vogue again, which feels appropriate in our gender-questioning time. Fishnet tights have been symbolic of womanliness and female sexuality since their emergence at the turn of the 19th century. Fashion historian Valerie Steele hypothesizes that fishnet tights arrived when a late-Victorian fad for all things lace commingled with the era’s fetishization of stockings — itself the result of floor-skimming Victorian dresses and the teasingly limited glimpses of women’s legs they afforded
I see fishnets daily now on the subway, the streets, and Instagram. But almost always worn beneath pants, so that just a short flash of ankle shows through. Perhaps we understand better now that there’s no boundary between tomboy and sexually intriguing young woman
Be sure to read Tasi’s article on Fishnets-Naughty or Nice.
Source of introduction:: June issue of VICE magazine