It was Robert Elberson’s job to take stock of a woman’s legs, and what he saw didn’t please him. It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.
The message was clear: Hanes needed to get its product into supermarkets. They would also have to stand out from the 600-plus other manufacturers who were producing pantyhose. Elberson needed a radical departure from the mundane cardboard packages. What his advertising firm came up with ended up revolutionizing the undergarment industry, and made the grocery store aisle practically competition-proof. It was called L’eggs, and it became a piece of retail art.
Ladies' undergarments experienced several radical paradigm shifts in the 20th century. Man-made nylon stockings, introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, provided an alternative to silk, which was pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch but tended to run and snag. When nylon was co-opted for the war effort, women drew “seams” on their legs to replicate the look and then practically rioted when stockings were once again made available.
In 1959, single-piece pantyhose made the labor of garters largely a thing of the past. Cheap to make and distribute, hundreds of companies glutted the market with product. But unlike other major consumer categories, there was no Coke or Pepsi—or even an RC Cola—of the pantyhose world; consumers had no brand loyalty. Pantyhose were pantyhose.
What women did prefer was buying them outside of department stores. This became even more apparent as the miniskirt and other slender fashion offerings made hem lines undesirable, and sales of hosiery climbed. Women, Elberson noted, embraced the convenience of tossing a pair of pantyhose in their cart along with bread and milk, even if the quality was poor. Hanes had been sticking with department stores. It was time for a change.
In 1968, Elberson and Hanes planning manager (and future executive vice president) David E. Harrold instructed their employees to begin work on designing a product that would capture a woman’s attention in the supermarket aisles. Because they feared department store buyers would revolt, they codenamed the project “V-1” and relegated it to the basement of the Hanes plant in Weeks, North Carolina. They enlisted graphic designer Roger Ferriter, of the ad firm Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, to revitalize the clichéd packaging common at the time: hose stretched over a piece of cardboard and inserted into a plastic sleeve.
Ferriter’s idea came to him the morning he was scheduled to make his presentation to Hanes. Crumpling the pantyhose in his hand, he realized it could fit inside an eggshell—and eggs, in Ferriter’s mind, were representative of something new, fresh, and natural. He gave it the name “L’eggs” and won over the Hanes executives in an instant.
Another designer, Fred Howard, developed the perfect complement to the egg-shaped package—a revolving display that housed the L’eggs shells and nothing else, so stores would be unable to stuff competing pantyhose in the rack. Hanes also eliminated wholesalers; they sold stores the product on consignment and hired sales reps to maintain the displays.
The one-size-fits-all L’eggs eggs made their debut in 1971. Hanes knew women wanted pantyhose in grocery stores. But how would they respond to an egg?
Within months, L’eggs was the top-selling brand in the hosiery market. Consumers were captivated by the package, the fact that the product largely held up over time, and the idea that they no longer had to feel obligated to run to a clothing or apparel store in order to replace a torn pair of stockings. Hanes recorded $120 million in L’eggs sales in 1972 alone. By 1976, they had taken 27 percent of the entire grocery store pantyhose business, virtually double that of their nearest competitor.
Like the Quaker Oats can and actual egg cartons, the L’eggs containers proved to be an enduring presence in the household. Some people used them as holiday decorations, party favors, or planters; Hanes had tremendous marketing success tweaking them in different colors for holiday promotions. They even released a book offering dozens of craft ideas. It sold 23,000 copies in its first month of release.
Despite the fact that L’eggs appeared to be a utilitarian product purchase, the growing eco-consciousness of consumers in the 1980s began to reject the idea that Hanes’s plastic design was good for the environment. From the perspective of Hanes, it was also a shipping hassle: the “dead space” in the egg not taken up by the rumpled pantyhose added to delivery costs. In 1992, the company unveiled a new, recyclable cardboard package with an ovoid top resembling an egg.
While the original L’eggs package reappears periodically for anniversaries and promotional duties, the design has largely been rendered obsolete by waste concerns. As a monument to retail design, however, it was once stocked in some of the most valuable shelf space in the world: the Museum of Modern Art.