Sheer, opaque, 10 denier, ribbed, woolly, black, tan, fishnet, and every colour of the rainbow; I like a nice pair of tights and I have scores of them, all tangled in a bag at the back of my wardrobe like eels in a bucket. Nor do I shy away from a patterned tight. I recently supplemented my collection with two pairs from an old-fashioned department store in Northallerton: a slate grey pair with mauve and pink flowers and a cappuccino pair with amaretto paisley print. Besides those, I have grey and black herringbone, posies in autumnal hues, and cream with a burgundy Fair Isle pattern (they’re itchy). A decorated leg, I like. Walking along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, as I often do, one passes all things Scottish: kilts, cashmere, sporrans, whiskey, pewter quaichs, and (surprisingly ubiquitous) tartan tights. One shop, towards the bottom of the mile, has a fetching parade of tartanhosiery displayed on a row of single legged mannequins, toes pointed in the air like a disembodied chorus line of shapely pegs high-kicking their assets on stage at the Moulin Rouge. It’s a line up of Royal Stewart, Blackwatch, Mackenzie and other tartans for which I don’t know the name. One of these days I’ll buy myself a pair.
As a student, my dad worked as a bingo caller. In summer 1959 he took the boat to England, with a friend the name of McConnellogue, the two of them bound for Margate to call numbers for the season. He taught me some of the bingo calls when I was small – one little duck (2), clickety-click (66), two fat ladies (88), and the more obvious, legs eleven. “Legs Eleven,” I said into myself the other morning as I walked past a shop on Princes Street (named after what they tell you to mind when getting on and off the Underground). I thought about dad and the bingo, then doubled back to look again at the mannequin that had caught my eye. Balanced on a plinth, modelling a pair faded skinny jeans, was a form that little resembled any female I have ever seen. It was nothing like the tartan leg models a few streets away. For the legs on this particular shop dummy were straight up and down like the number 11. They were about four feet long and as thin as my arms. Giraffe-esque, like Usain Bolt’s pins, except someone had taken a potato peeler to them and pared them down to long tapers, spindly branches, stretched, narrow trickles of Moroccan mint tea poured form a great height. Nobody’s legs look like that – I thought, horrified. Women’s legs, as a rule of thumb, taper: wider at the top, where they meet ones hips, narrowing at the bottom, where they become ankles. Only those who are gravely ill have narrow train sleepers running in parallel, otherwise, legs come in every shape and undulation. We get what we’re given, largely dictated by our genes, with some sculpting and definition provided by one’s exercise of choice: the defined muscular legs of cyclists, skiers and dancers, versus what tends to be that leaner variety of leg acquired by the long distance runner or the under-nourished. My first reaction was to be thankful that I didn’t have legs like the mannequin, quickly followed by thoughts of frustration then indignation that that some young girls or women might think this is how their bodies ought to be, that they might see it as the ideal. My silent pavement rant propelled me inside to have a word with the manager of the Edinburgh branch of the global chain store where I asked him to consider using more realistic models. I’m quite mindful that my suggestion won’t go very far, but it made me feel better.
The following day I was waiting to board a flight to Dublin when I spied a pair of legs that were entirely the opposite of the plastic pair I had complained about. One of a group of garrulous young men bound for a weekend stag party in Temple Bar, this specimen was an all in one ‘dress’ with a PVC skirt, a built-in low slung bucked belt, cerise sleeveless blouse, black wig, moustache and a pair of Asics runners. On his hairy, squat, rugby legs (he was no Betty Grable) were a pair of fishnet tights – with a very big diamond, a whale net, I think it’s called. He sat opposite me looking uncomfortably resigned to what lay ahead. Gone are the days when a man in such a get-up turns head; he was ignored by everyone, except me. I found it hard to take my eyes off his legs, and I think he caught me staring. The thing is, I was only wondering if he would be a good leg model for that department store in Edinburgh, honest I was.