Hot weather and the casual workplace have been bad news for the pantyhose industry. But now that combination is the foundation for a new product line: toeless hosiery.
Toeless hose arrived in the United States from Brazil last summer and were sold online and at a limited number of retailers for $4 to $7 a pair. This spring and summer, major brands such as DKNY, Hanes No Nonsense and Hue started selling the product at major department stores, trying to hold on to a disappearing consumer: the woman who wears hose in the summer.
Katie Wilson, 20, an intern at the National Assn. of Home Builders, said she goes back and forth between hose and bare legs. She said the toeless stockings are comfortable, so much so that on a recent 90-degree day Wilson wore a gray business dress with jacket, closed-toe shoes and toeless hose--her only clean pair that day.
"My mother was in banking for 25 years. She taught me to wear hose," Wilson said. "She's the one who suggested the open-toed hose."
Toeless hosiery was born out of necessity. In the last decade, production and shipments of nylon stockings have dropped 48%. Older women are wearing hose less frequently, and younger women haven't quite made a habit of wearing them regularly.
"There are not many at work who wear pantyhose--even my boss," said Irene Rosenbalm, 53, who works in management information systems at the D.C. Lottery. Rosenbalm said she stopped wearing hose five years ago and now wears them only if she has a meeting.
"Certainly there's been a decline in full-length-pantyhose sales," said Sid Smith, president and chief executive of the Hosiery Assn. "When a company goes to casual Friday, the pantyhose manufacturers have lost 20% of their market in that particular company."
That forces hosiery manufacturers to look elsewhere for growth, namely, the fishnet, the thigh-high, knee-high, nude hose and toeless. Toeless pantyhose are cut off at the foot right before the toes and have a stitch between the big toe and the rest to keep the stockings in place. The effect is letting the toes hang out of the sandal while keeping the leg looking smooth.
Other parts of the hosiery industry are picking up. Trouser socks, knee-length sheers and thigh-highs "are doing very well," Smith said. "All of this is driven by the casual fashions."
"Workplace casual" doesn't show any signs of letting up. Out of 1,020 large employers across the country, 43% of companies have a casual workplace every day and 15% of employers allow casual dress on Friday only, according to a 2000 poll by Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill., human resources consulting firm.
Freedom from hose has its price. Although companies in other places, such as New York, have long considered dressy sandals OK, some fashion consultants and companies aren't so sure.
"I truly believe it's a grooming issue," said Terry Isner, chief marketing officer at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm. "The foot is probably the most unkempt part of your body." With sandals, every unpleasant part of the foot--from crusty, dry heels to broken and too-long toenails--gets exposed, he said.
Isner recommends that people who wear sandals get pedicures and keep their feet presentable: "At least take as much care of your toenails as your fingernails. In an elevator, most people look down."
Letitia Baldrige, etiquette expert and former chief of staff to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, says the bare-legged, no-hose look is just part of a larger trend of businesspeople dressing sloppily and inappropriately at work. "There's no sense of decorum," Baldrige said.
Baldrige, who wears stockings and closed-toe shoes even on the hottest of summer days, recommends that employers set up strict rules about appropriate clothing and grooming. "Girls who go without pantyhose are real losers," Baldrige said. "A woman always looks more finished with pantyhose."
About 70% of women ages 18 to 65 wear pantyhose, said Jed Holland, vice president and general manager of Kayser-Roth Corp., a Greensboro, N.C., hosiery manufacturer. The problem is, they're not wearing them as much.
He said older women are wearing pantyhose less often, and younger women are a tougher audience because they're not in the habit of wearing pantyhose regularly.
To reach young consumers, Holland said, companies have to be more innovative. DKNY, for example, sells bright pink and blue toeless hose in addition to the nude-colored versions. "For the younger people, it might be fun if they wanted to make it funkier," said Deborah Boria, executive director of design and merchandising for Hanes, Donna Karan and DKNY.
Holland said he's optimistic: "We may find the product you'll eventually try and like. It's as if we put the consumer to sleep and the only way to wake her up is with new and different products."