Blasted panty hose.
Women try to avoid them because they bruise their feminist sensibilities or because they're just plain uncomfortable. But like single-minded salmon plowing upstream, they always seem to return to the stores in search of the suffocating cover-ups.
Some come back to panty hose after a summer hiatus. For others, a special occasion looms and they can't resist the compulsion to struggle into Evan-Picone's Sheerest Sheers or Hanes' Silk Reflections. So they set out to understand one of the garments most shrouded in mystery and confusion.
In other categories of ladies' apparel, women have a dressing room at their disposal. They can slip into lingerie or the skimpiest swimsuits to verify just how revealing and uncomfortable they are. But with panty hose, women are forced into a guessing game.
The average mall holds hundreds of styles of panty hose. Most are made of some high-tech fiber or combination of fibers. Sizing varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and style to style. The true color of the hose depends on the skin underneath it, but other than test swatches that are rarely at the correct counter, women can't try them on.
And, to really give consumers a reason to climb atop a soap box, manufacturers know these frustrations exist.
"My heart goes out to the consumer who walks into a hosiery department, because it really is difficult," says Joni Zeller, vice president of research for Calvin Klein Hosiery.
They know it's hard to get the correct size and color on the first try.
"There is some trial and error involved. There's a great deal of personal choice," says Kathryn Cordes, spokeswoman for Hanes Hosiery.
The American woman has every reason to believe she is the victim of a vicious hosiery plot. Look at Europe. There, women can walk into a hosiery shop, look at a panty hose package and know exactly how sheer a pair of ultra sheer hose really will be. They can check for the denier measurement. Denier refers to the thickness of the threads used to make the hose. For example, 70 denier signifies opaque hose. Calvin Klein's Ultra Sheer Evening panty hose are 10 denier the finest threads generally used in the United States.
"In Europe, they're down to 7. I can't even pull them on, they just blow away. Most American women can't handle it," says Sunny Miller, vice president of research and development for Evan-Picone Hosiery.
European women request their panty hose by denier. In the United States, women have been taught to buy panty hose based on occasions. That explains names such as daytime sheer, business sheer, executive sheer and evening sheer.
Trial and error, repeat the hosiery company representatives, trial and error. Besides, they say, with so many personal needs and tastes, it's almost impossible to pigeonhole and define panty hose styles.
Women also have to confront the Lycra issue, which can affect the durability, fit, comfort and clarity of panty hose.
Lycra "really is a miracle yarn," says Zeller of Calvin Klein Hosiery.
The elastic fiber entered the hosiery market during the early '60s, according to Frank Oswald, Du Pont communications manager for apparel fibers. Lycra, the form of spandex invented by Du Pont in 1959, first appeared in foundation garments and support hose and tights. It wasn't until 1979 that Lycra became popular in the sheer market.
Lycra gives panty hose more stretch and better cling. The fiber won't lose its stretch, meaning that when a woman sits down in a pair of Lycra-enhanced hose, she won't stand up with baggy knees.
Hose with Lycra also are easier to size, because of the added elasticity. Nylon hose are broken into six or more sizes. Those that contain Lycra cover the market with only three sizes.
It used to be that adding Lycra to nylon hose meant giving up a lot of sheerness for durability and fit. Now, thanks to technological advances, Lycra comes in 10 denier threads that can offer an extremely sheer look.
Women also have a responsibility to demand more from hosiery companies, including better labeling and fit, says Miller of Evan-Picone: "They have to be braver and not be a coward and settle for dumb colors."
They also have to face reality. There is a trade-off. The more durable the panty hose, the thicker they are. Ultra-sheers may last through only one wearing. Opaque hose or cotton tights can last for a year.
"Hosiery, basically, is a replacement product. It can't last forever," says Calvin Klein's Zeller. "That's the nature of the beast."