There is a kind of cute little article in this week's New York Times Magazine that discusses the stockings donned by female 20-somtething Tokyoites.
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Standing in a manga store in Tokyo recently, I had an epiphany about Japanese women and their penchant for knee-high socks. Among the 13,000 comic books, videos and toys on sale at Mandarake, a store in the hip Shibuya district, not one single woman stood out.
In fact, the cover of almost every manga, or comic book, featured an identical doe-eyed, cutely sexy creature with elongated legs and white schoolgirl socks. When the salesperson was dressed in the self-same sailor-collared dress and white socks that I had just seen on a gaggle of giggling teenage girls, I began to get the drift. Socks in Japan are not so much examples of childish innocence; they are more an invitation to dalliance and deviance.
I began seeing socks everywhere. Sidewalk shops had racks of them, printed with girly drawings or mysterious messages like ''sweet tart'' or ''sugar.'' My hotel's laundry sheet had an extra page offering to supply them (which I naturally took to be a hooker service, although my Japanese language skills were not up to testing it).
I started asking a few questions about socks. One acquaintance theorized that manga images are now so deeply embedded in the culture of the 20-something generation that, in their heads, Japanese women are cartoon cuties. Another one traced white socks separated at the big toe (and here I thought Martin Margiela had invented them!) to the kind worn by young girls when they don their first kimono; socks are probably the only thing a geisha keeps on when her kimono is unfolded.
By the time an American friend of mine, who is married to a Japanese man and living with his family, had told me that she was greeted with screams of horror from her mother-in-law when she ran down the stairs barefoot, I was getting a complex about finding my hotel bath slippers when the waiter came in with breakfast.
But then I used to get a complex in New York when I was the only person in the front row watching the shows, in freezing February, without her bare legs crossed so that a dainty mule hung off one toe.
Or in the steamy heat of July during the Milan men's-wear season, when no fashionable Italian woman hit the city streets without pallid beige fishnets.
My awkward relationship with hose started years back in class-conscious Britain, where nice young girls (gals, as they were called among the upper classes) covered what was visible of their legs with navy blue stockings under long pleated skirts. They are still worn to this day (probably with those Bridget Jones-style knickers) by members of the royal court. They are not to be confused with bluestockings 2/3 who were the intellectuals and feminists of their era and the first women to make hosiery their flag.
I have tried to see a pattern in leg coverings. If hemlines soar upward with a bull market, do hose follow? That seemed to be true of the 1960's, when swinging Londoners showed off Twiggy-style legs with newly invented pantyhose. But if socks are a signal of economic expansion, how come all those Wall Street traders spent the bullish 90's with bare feet stuffed into their Ralph Lauren loafers? (Perhaps they were plotting to send up the stock price of pharmaceutical foot fresheners?)
Only now that the dollar is in free fall against the euro have socks come back into the fashionable man's closet. There are even thick, woolly clotted-cream socks for next summer (as opposed to fine silk for the winter, naturally).
Men in socks with their pants off conjure up only images of hilarity, whereas women in hose, and especially the naked space between thigh and underpants, have been considered titillating ever since Victorian society decreed that a glimpse of stocking was something shocking. All those naughty Edwardian postcards feature women in black hose and not much else. On the silver screen, a woman rolling up her stockings was always a signal of sexual allure.
I had my own teenage awakening over hosiery. My high school, without enough regard for the punctuation lessons that were solemnly taught to us, insisted that girls should wear white or fawn-colored socks or stockings. Since white hose were briefly in vogue, I insisted that the rules be read without the semicolon that should have separated the socks from (nude) stockings.
I won my case, thus proving to myself that, in fashion and in life, hosiery is open to all sorts of interpretations.