Guaranteed to instantly turn any outfit into something "sexy," fishnet stockings almost invariably conjure up images and feelings of sexual desire or kink. Considered sexually subversive for most of their existence, fishnet stockings have an edgy ethos, adding a bit of subtle sexuality to the aesthetic of whomever wears them.
Like all contemporary stockings, fishnets are most associated with women (though shout-out to Rocky Horror for showing the world that men can pull them off, too), and the sexual connotation of this next-to-skin hosiery has made them a symbol of "smuttiness," but they've also served as a bit of a fuck-you to the male gaze.
In many ways, the fishnet stocking represents western culture's obsession with a Madonna-whore complex for women. The fishnet shows some flesh, but doesn't reveal the whole shebang; there is both the illusion of being fully covered and nearly bare, allowing women to play with this dichotomy on their own terms.
"Come To Me Not Clothed"
One of the earliest references to fishnets as clothing comes to us in one of Aesop's fables. In "The Peasant's Wise Daughter," published in the early 1900s, a king tells the titular peasant's daughter that she'll be able to solve any riddle he gives her if she is really so clever and wise. With the promise of marriage to the king if the daughter solves his riddle, he challenges her to "Come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding." (Men….)
Indeed being very clever (and evidently rather ahead of her time in a fashion sense), the daughter wrapped herself in a fisherman's net and returned to the king.
Fishnets emerged as more of a trend in the U.S. during the 1920s, but at the time they were not yet a typical staple of a woman's wardrobe. No, fishnets were much more of a showgirl or flapper look (i.e., not for the more straight-laced 1920s lady). This is in large part due to the fact that unlike regular stockings of the day, fishnets showed some skin; from a distance, fishnetted legs may look as though they're adorned in black tights, but under the bright lights of a dance stage, dots of flesh would show through. Suffice it to say that at this time, fishnets were favored by women who might have been called "loose."
Well, the joke's on those prudes, because fishnet stockings were in fact a looser fit than tight and sticky stocking alternatives at the time. Dance was a major part of the culture in the 20s, but stockings at the time were not particularly practical for a wide range of leg motion. Silk and rayon stockings of the day were physically restrictive, and not to mention sweaty (nylon stockings didn't make their way to the market until the late 30s). The patterned holes in fishnet stockings made them a more breathable and functional stocking option.
Fishnets emerged as a prominent fashion feature in the pin-up and print-porn world in the 1950s. Pin-up and bondage model Bettie Page wasn't just famous for her short bangs, but also for posing suggestively in (sometimes) nothing other than fishnet stockings. And it wasn't just Bettie Page: Around this time, fishnet stockings were basically a part of the pin-up uniform. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe were both frequently appeared in fishnets.
Hell yeah, the punks latched onto this trend. When punk music became popular in the 1970s, it brought with it an entire fashion aesthetic that included the DIY body modifications: safety pin piercings, spiked hair, patched denim jackets, and, of course, fishnets. Punk fishnets were and are often worn extra torn up with huge holes on the stockings.
Clearly referencing BDSM culture, the shredded up fishnets of 1970s and 1980s pundkom, female punks were basically throwing up their middle finger to traditionally feminine attire of the day and openly embracing the subversive.
Like A Virgin
One can't have a half decent conversation about the history of fishnets without talking about Madonna. This pop goddess and fashion icon of the 1980s was often dressed in fishnets, but she didn't limit herself to just stockings. Madge also sported fishnet tops, gloves, and body suits.
The fishnet was perhaps at its peak popularity during this decade, as evidenced not only by the millions of women who wore fishnets of various kinds a la Madonna, but by the Morris Day song, (you guess it!) "Fishnet." The lyrics to this song leave no mystery as to the sexual association of fishnets:
Trapped at first glance
I did a double take
A victim without a chance
Pulled in by the bait
When I caught the
Fishnet black pantyhose
Big legs show through the holes
Fishnet black pantyhose
She's out to catch you
With those fishnet pantyhose.
Caught In The Mainstream
Having remained a sexual and subversive piece of women's clothing for nearly a century, we're now just as likely to come across a massive variety of fishnet stockings on display in Target as we are to see them featured in a party scene in The Great Gatsby.
Somehow, the pervasiveness or perhaps the age of the fishnet stocking has sanitized it a bit, rendering them less risque than they once were even a decade or so ago. Even Real Simple, the magazine for the practical yet fashionable working woman, has sanctioned fishnets as "great for work, evening, and everything in between." The fashion website Stylecaster has said not only said that it's fine to wear fishnets as an everyday accessory, but that they are superior to other stockings in a sense that runs in fishnets can render them even more fashionable.
But as the philosopher Roland Barthes opined in his 1957 essay, Striptease: "Woman is desexualized at the very moment she is stripped naked," and therein perhaps lies the fundamental appeal of fishnets to the male gaze. If we can only see the suggestion of a woman's bare flesh, a multitude of fantasies can still be projected onto the stocking and the legs beneath.
The subversive nature of the fishnet is not so much in what the polka dots of skin they leave bare, but rather the insight into what is expected or demanded of female bodies by society. The fishnet may appeal to the male gaze, but it has always been a symbol of reclaimed female sexuality. Fishnets say: "I know you think I'm a tease, but I don't fucking care."