How Artists Reclaimed Pantyhose to Make Provocative Sculptures

Charlotte Jansen
Oct 1, 2019 4:25PM

Daido Moriyama, No. 19, from “Tights,” 1987-2011. © Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery.

María Ezcurra, Not even one more (“Ni una mas”), 2003. © María Ezcurra. Courtesy of the artist.

As colder weather approaches, many will be pulling out the pantyhose. But few have likely considered the significant role the undergarments have played in contemporary art. A new exhibition opening at Carl Freedman Gallery, U.K., titled “Gossamer,” explores the explosive history of hosiery from the 1950s to today. The show’s 22 artists employ pantyhose (or stockings or tights) in innovative ways, from the subversive erotic photographs of Pierre Molinier to the exuberant self-portraits of Polly Penrose.

Pantyhose have been extremely controversial since their invention 60 years ago, noted the show’s curator, Zoe Bedeaux. While stockings existed for centuries, originally worn by men for riding horseback, it was only in 1959 that pantyhose were first commercially manufactured and marketed to women and girls. They “revolutionized the female form,” Bedeaux said, pointing to the role pantyhose have played in the way we view women’s bodies. When they hit shelves in 1959, fashion was intertwined with more liberal sexual attitudes. Yet pantyhose were also designed to conceal and cosmeticize women’s legs—binding, sculpting, and shaping them into homogenous color and form. Bedeaux called them “cosmetic surgery in a packet.”

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1997. Photo by Christopher Burke. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY.


In her research on pantyhose in art, Bedeaux found an overarching narrative around race, gender, and sex. Typically made of silk, rayon, or nylon, and varying in their stretch and sheerness, pantyhose are “extremely accommodating,” Bedeaux said. “It’s a wonderful malleable fabric that can be conjured into endless forms; because of their function, they are loaded with associations, which also adds to their appeal.”

The relationship to women’s bodies has made pantyhose the perfect material for feminist artists. Louise Bourgeois was among the first to turn stockings into sculptures and assemblages. A work from 1997 included in “Gossamer” is an appendage-like soft structure with hairy stitches. Also on view is work by the little-known Belgian artist Marianne Berenhaut, who is now in her eighties, as a “direct response to the feminist movement and the Vietnam War,” Bedeaux said. Her “Poupées-poubelles” (“Garbage Dolls”) series features representations of women and their inner worlds.

Marianne Berenhaut, Vietnam, 1974. © Marianne Berenhaut. Courtesy of the artist.

Bedeaux’s own interest in the way artists have returned to pantyhose was sparked after she saw Senga Nengudi’s 2014 exhibition at White Cube, London. The 76-year-old American artist is known for her iconic abstract sculptures made of stretched and knotted pantyhose. Filling the feet with sand, the artist evokes the elasticity of different parts of the female form, and thus addresses the limits of and demands on women’s bodies. Often created through performances, Nengudi’s works are a radical way of working with the garments that paved the way for the feminist politics of artists like Sarah Lucas, who also appears in “Gossamer.”

As Bedeaux pointed out, many of the artists in the exhibition “have used the sociopolitical connotations of this material with intent.” In María Ezcurra’s arresting sculpture Ni Una Más I (2003),different shades of nylon dangle down from a metal structure, weighed down by shoes, ominously empty. The work was created in response to disappearance and violent deaths of women in Ciudad Juarez.

Sarah Lucas, Sheela na gig, 2012. © Sarah Lucas. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Ma Qiusha, Wonderland Street No. 1, 2018. © Ma Qiusha. Courtesy of the artist and Beijing Commune, Beijing.

Raising awareness about women’s rights is also central in the work of Shirin Fakhim. Her humorous assemblage of three Tehran prostitutes—made a year before Ezcurra’s—plays on the absurdity and hypocrisy of the attitudes towards sex workers both in Iran and around the world. In Fakhim’s works, sheer stockings are used deliberately, playing on the stereotypical feminine and erotic connotations, as well as the way western fashions collide with Middle Eastern dress.

Designed to wrap around women’s legs and intimate parts, pantyhose also have an erotic frisson. Many artists in the exhibition address this, from Daido Moriyama to pioneering fetish photographer Elmer Batters, who captured women’s legs and feet in stockings. Most of the eroticized images in the exhibition are by men. Bedeaux noted that one of her aims was to see if men and women approached the material in different ways.

Shirin Fakhim, Tehran Prostitutes, 2008. © Shirin Fakhim, 2019,Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

There is one work, however, that subverts the expected male gaze. A video of an early 1990s performance by Roman Stanczak shows a bag of tights collected from the streets and given to the artist by a friend. The work “touches on fetish, but at the same time, it touches on invisible identities and stories of the women who owned and discarded these tights,” Bedeaux said.

“Gossamer” also brings attention to the more recent racial issues implicit in tights, addressed in the works of Enam Gbewonyo and Ma Quisha. Both artists consider the use of “nude” as a homogenizing color, marketed towards white women. It resonates with Bedeaux’s own memories, growing up at a time when the “American tan” color was ubiquitous among pantyhose. “I remember looking at my aunt’s legs as child and wondering why the looked so strange, as if they belonged to someone else—because they did!” she remembered.

Daido Moriyama, No. 19, 1987, from “Tights,” 1987-2011. © Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Bedeaux related the works to a recent shift in public discourse. For example, last year, the American ballet dancer Precious Adams announced that she would no longer wear the traditional pink nude tights to perform. “What is nude for one is not nude for another—and that is finally being addressed,” Bedeaux said.

There are, it seems, endless creative possibilities present in pantyhose. “What appears to be folly on the surface is extremely complex and deep,” Bedeaux noted in the “Gossamer” press release. “Tights represent the skin we are in and opens up a myriad of worlds and underlying socio-political subtexts.”

Charlotte Jansen