For more than 20 years, the former war reporter Charlotte Eager has cultivated a special relationship with one brand of hosiery. Here, she confesses her passion for Wolford.
Photograph: Helmut Newton
There’s a faint smell of burnt dust oozing from my radiators as they’re roused from their summer sleep. Outside, hoodies, not T-shirts, now skim the bum cracks of builders digging mega-basements into the pavement for the mega-rich. I regretfully rootle round in my tights drawer: it’s autumn, time for my annual, rather expensive trip to Wolford for tights.
I don’t have much in common with the bankers’ wives in my Kensington street — I’m married to a writer and living in an (undeveloped) basement — but I will bet a £35 pair of black Cotton Velvet 50-denier tights that most of us are wearing Wolford hosiery.
As far as I am concerned, despite the price, Wolford tights are an economy. They are not only flattering and warm but also virtually indestructible. Each autumn, I buy one pair of the aforementioned Cotton Velvet, one Power Shape 50 Control Top (£31) and one sheer Individual 10 Complete Support (£31), and they last until summer renders them redundant. My tights drawer is full of old Wolfords I have never thrown away, two pairs identifiably from 1996, when chocolate brown was the new black — a bit saggy but without holes, and would do fine in an emergency.
I first discovered Wolford tights 23 years ago as the Balkans correspondent for The Observer. It was very cold in the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo in the war, with no heating, gas or electricity. In the duty-free space at Vienna airport, there was a shop called Palmers. (Herr Walter Palmers und Herr Reinhold Wolff set up Wolford together in 1949 — they met in Oxford in the late 1940s, hence the “ford”.) It was the first place I found sexy thermal underwear — toasty lace body stockings for Mitteleuropean boar shoots or après-ski in Lech (or, in my case, waiting by a mass grave in the snow). And, of course, matt black control-top 50-denier tights. Helmut Newton’s celebrated adverts for Wolford, seen here, promoted an outdoor lifestyle of sorts: faceless Amazons wearing tights and each other. Unlike most hosiery, you could probably go rock-climbing in Wolfords.
In those days, I bought my tights on expenses (it was bitter covering that war!), so it took me some time to realise their true cost. In 1996, I became senior editor at Tatler. In a corner of the magazine’s fashion room — behind the Missoni acid-striped knitted coats, Vivienne Westwood corsets and Jimmy Choo boots — stood the tights cupboard. It was packed with racks of slick white envelopes, through which peeped red lace, purple flowers, sheer nude and, of course, matt black. “Do you have any Wolfords?” I asked. The fashion editor handed me a couple of pairs with a nod of respect.
These are the tights fashion editors actually wear. During Paris Fashion Week earlier this month, bare flesh was in. Those braving the new miniskirt trend have the look of girls whose apartment-to-limo life means their legs never need to hit fresh air. But matt black tights are too practical and flattering ever to go out of fashion. In fact, I was reliably informed that Anna Wintour had been on the phone to Wolford that very week asking for tights for Paris — unlike limo-girl, fashion editors do, after all, commute.
It took about 18 months for my free Tatler Wolfords to die — they never laddered, but occasionally split over a toenail or just got a bit limp. By then I’d gone freelance and had to pay for my own. They were an appalling £20 a pair! So I shopped around — 99p for three from Boots, but I never managed to put on a pair without laddering them. M&S, too, proved a false economy: not only did my legs look like sausages, but the tights sagged and laddered after a week. I went back to Wolford with my credit card.
I am not alone in my addiction. In the Wolford shop on Regent Street, I met a woman my age, wearing a Burberry mac like mine and systematically piling up sensible tights, like me. “I travel a lot for work,” she said in clipped American. “They are reliable. I won’t find myself having to source pantyhose in Brazil.” She hands me her business card: she’s the chief executive of a part of BP.
Built for Teutonic Valkyries, Wolford tights never make you feel too old or too fat: a size large really is what it says on the packet. I was told by a friend formerly in the British Special Forces that they wear Wolfords to keep warm, although I don’t suppose the SAS go for the control top (ouch!).
Wolford sells in 62 countries now, and employs more than 1,500 people. It has branched out into jerseys and skirts that, despite looking scarily clingy, are actually flattering. It also does a lot of tights that don’t work on me: sparkly black lace that makes my legs look like they have an alien disease; 1940s good-time-girl nylons, with shiny patterns up the seam — but then I’m 50, not a fresh, young oligarch’s hooker.
If I can’t justify buying Wolford’s matt black tights for the rest of my life, things will have gone badly wrong (the recent collapse in sterling really hasn’t helped). A Russian friend in Knightsbridge was talking about the abandoned wife of another minigarch. “It was a Moscow divorce: she got nothing!” she shuddered (a London divorce, the Russians know, gives the wives 50%). “She’s back in Siberia living with her mother, but we girls all get together and send her Wolford tights.”