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The Sexy, Feminist History of Fishnet Tights

by Emmaly Anderson

For at least the last century of fashion history, fishnet stockings have been synonymous with edgy, yet undoubtedly feminine expressions of sexuality that challenge the status quo. I can recall being a wannabe Goth pre-teen in the early ‘00s when I was stopped by my mother as I was leaving the house in a pair because they made me look too “grown up.” A few short years later, I noticed fishnets worn casually by women all around town as they became a mainstream fashion staple for adding a touch of sex appeal and edginess to any old outfit. Their popularity certainly hasn’t dwindled since – and they’ve been a fashion staple for much longer than you may think.

One of the earliest references to fishnet as clothing, published in the early 1900s, appears in the Aesop’s fable, “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter,” in which the titular peasant’s daughter is promised to a king if she can solve his riddle: “Come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding.” She returns to the king wrapped in a fisherman’s net. Perhaps this idea of wearing fishnet as being “not clothed, not naked” set the precedent for fishnet stockings to become a way of “teasing” sexuality.

Fishnet stockings saw their first boom in popularity during the Roaring ‘20s, as they were all the rage with flappers and showgirls alike. Showgirls favored the style as they were more revealing than the standard opaque stockings of the time and allowed for ease of movement while dancing. For the same reasons, fishnet stockings were often seen on flappers sporting newly-popular styles of dresses with shorter hemlines than had ever been socially acceptable before. As women’s dresses got shorter, fishnets covered just enough, but not too much. These women, embracing an era of liberation, spent time in nightclubs unchaperoned by men, kicking off the still-standing association of fishnet tights with the promiscuity of nightlife. 

As they were worn by showgirls for the way they showed skin and enhanced curves, fishnets became well-loved by burlesque performers and pin-up girls in the following decades. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee often rocked fishnets during her performances. Shortly thereafter, with the rise of pin-up and print porn in the 1950s, fishnet stockings were seen on such iconic sex symbols as Bettie Page and Jayne Mansfield. The ‘50s also saw fishnets becoming a hallmark of old Hollywood glamor, as they were worn by actresses Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. As skirt hems got shorter throughout the following decade, women played with the amount of skin they showed by wearing multicolored fishnets under miniskirts.  

 The 1970s and ‘80s introduced fishnet tights and tops as an essential component of punk and Goth aesthetics, which are now as trendy as ever. 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show put nearly every character in fishnets, but most important to the style’s ever-growing association with deviant sexuality was the way they were rocked by Tim Curry’s gender-bending mad scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The aesthetics of Rocky Horror went hand-in-hand with the growing popularity of punk in the fashion world. The late Vivienne Westwood – iconic designer, outfitter of the Sex Pistols, and arguably the mother of punk as a recognizable fashion statement – often incorporated fishnets in her edgy, androgynous stylings. In the interest of further subverting the norms of gender, sexuality, and fashion, punk and post-punk musicians and fans took it up a notch by tearing holes in their fishnets. The more extreme, distressed look of torn fishnets took a longstanding symbol of feminine sexuality and gave it an even greater rebellious flair, most notably seen on post-punk singer and Goth icon Siouxsie Sioux. While the alternative subcultures that adored fishnet were booming, particularly in the UK, it was legendary pop star Madonna that brought the style even further into the mainstream by rocking fishnet gloves, tank tops, undershirts, stockings, and even full bodysuits in her videos and live performances.

 While the ‘70s and ‘80s were, essentially, the “golden age” for fishnet’s popularity, especially as it related to music-based subcultures, ‘90s grunge incorporated the rebellious attire in its own way. Courtney Love wore torn fishnet stockings in a unique way that juxtaposed her babydoll slips, Peter Pan collars, and Mary Jane shoes. This deliberate combination of a rugged, rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic with a girlishly innocent, almost childlike one was the foundation of the fashion movement known as “kinderwhore,” popularized by Love. The kinderwhore aesthetic made an ultimately feminist statement, as it exaggerated the look of traditional and “innocent” femininity in a way that mocked and criticized it. 



Fishnet tights have characterized many trend cycles in more recent history, from the flannel-obsessed “soft grunge” style popularized on Tumblr in the early 2010s to the pastel-goth anime-inspired “E-girl” aesthetic made famous by TikTok. They’ve become more of a street style staple than ever before since the late 2010s, according to Vogue. The way fishnets are worn by mall rats and haute couture-lovers alike in the modern day is an amalgamation of the style’s extensive history and ever-evolving connotations. Fishnets now can be both feminine and androgynous, sexy and understated, cute and edgy. The lasting – and growing – popularity of fishnets today might be indicative of Gen Z’s rebellion against traditional gender expectations when it comes to fashion. Regardless of why they’re worn, it’s clear that fishnets will never go out of style, especially for those who relish in challenging the norm. 

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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