In the nineteenth century men’s legs were considered an indication of class and distinction with an elegant leg the mark of aristocracy. Long well-formed legs became associated with moral probity, decency, worthiness and reliability whereas the short fat hairy leg was considered the opposite and the preserve of the lower class. The object of fashion then was to look tall and athletic with top hats and Pompadour hair styles and clothes cut to streamline the body all a hallmark of ruling class. Women found men’s legs an erogenous zone.
After the French Revolution trousers became popular and to make their legs look more muscular men wore artificial calves. During the Napoleonic Wars sailors who allowed to take their wives to sea. In the morning when the boson went to raise the crew, he ordered any reluctant riser to ‘show a leg’. If it was a female leg that appeared from under the covers they were allowed to sleep.
In Victorian Times legs became an obsession associated with sex and even table legs required to be encased to prevent impure thoughts. Women’s uncovered legs were considered indecent and hence the legs of women had to be covered with stockings.
The first real attempt to abandon stockings came in during the First World War when Gaby Deslys, actress and mistress to King Manual of Portugal shocked society by refusing to wear stockings again until Germany surrendered.
A decade later Pola Negri went bare legged and Joan Crawford followed suit by not wearing stockings for eveningwear. Going barelegged was considered inartistic and the leg aux natural, was thought to spoil the softness of the skin according to the fashion weekly Sketch (1936).
Attitudes changed six years later when the Board of Trade (UK) warned that if women did not stop wearing stockings in the summer there would be no material left by the winter. The British Government tried to ban them because of material shortages.
When eventually supplies of wartime cotton and rayon stockings ran out many women used specially prepared leg make up.