History Of The Stocking

Stockings! They’re our favourite legwear – and an iconic essential of pin up art and burlesque performance, so we thought it would be a fine idea to write about the history of the stocking…

Early Origins

The origins of foot covering probably come from cavemen who lived in cold climates, where skins would have been tied around the feet as a lining to shoe/boot type items, moving upwards to more the more ‘sophisitcated’ wraps of matted hair and wraps of woven fabric or leather worn respectively by the people of ancient greece and the Romans, but it might come as a surprise to note that the earliest stocking that still survives dates from  between 300 and 500AD and was found at the archaeological site of Oxyrhynchus (on the Nile, about midway between Luxor and Cairo) in Egypt. These socks were made using a method called naalbinding – needle binding, kind of like crocheting, where yarn is looped together using one ‘knitting’ needle, and forked at the toe so a sandal could be worn. Quite a sophisticated item. The Vikings also wore similar socks to these, and as knitting with two needles, and later, when the knitting loom was invented in the late 1500s, knitted socks became more popular, especially after the early 1900s when circular knitting frames were developed, signalling the mass production.

Fabric Stockings Through History

The Coptics and early Christians of the fifth century AD wore puttees over their feet to symbolise purity and as we head towards the tenth century, foot coverings were getting longer and were beginning to be made from more refined fabrics such as linens (those wealthy enough to afford them) and held up with garters to stop them falling down. Important people of society, such as royals and religious leaders wore stockings made from fine silks, which has built in ties to hold them up and they were often embroidered with opulent patterns, while people of lower class often adopted hosen or chausses made from a colourful woven fabric, cut on the bias to allow a stretch which they would tie to other garments or around a belt on the waist, kind of an early suspender belt, worn over brais (a nappy-like pant item).

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(Oxyrhynchus naalbinding socks / silk stockings belonging to 11C German Pope Clement II / Medieval Chausses or hosen / reproduction Tudor joined hose with codpiece)

Tudor Times and on wards saw more sophisticated leg wear still, with stockings, joined hosen and socks being fashioned out of finer fabrics, and in the seventeenth century, the focus was firmly on the calf area with breeches a popular men’s fashion, and tighter, more fitted stockings (those who could afford them wore the fine silk knitted variety) accentuated the “well turned leg” and calf muscle (which was sometimes padded for extra effect!) – highly attractive in the 1600s, made all the more prominent with the heeled shoe!

(Medieval – Tudor period reproduction hosen, note the joined back seam and foot gusset pieces, still used up to the 1930s – as you will see below!) 

Women’s stockings weren’t as on display as those belonging to men, but in most cases, the woman’s stocking followed closely the design of their male counterparts (apart from the joined hosen, that is!) with linens, silks and woven fabrics being held up on the leg with garter ribbons tied around. But in Victorian times, for those who could afford them, socks had begun to be even more refined with a welt at the top, usually made of lace, which would help the stocking stay up and with the invention of elastic in 1820, garters became more sophisticated.

By the time we hit the roaring ’20s, and the rise of hemlines, ladies legs were beginning to get a lot of attention, having been covered for the most part of history until now. Before this time, stockings were mainly worn for comfort and warmth but with the rise of the flapper came an opportunity for leg wear to become fashionable and flirtatious! While fabrics continued to include silk, cotton and wool, the 20s stocking wearer now had a new, man made fabric in rayon, quite a shiny fabric (some ladies powdered their legs to matte the shine) that hugged the leg. Rayon stockings were held up by garter belts, garters or fashionably rolled to just above the knee and now came in “flesh” colours!

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In 1930, workers at the American DuPont Company invented nylon, and this new fabric, marketed “as strong as steel and as fine as a spider’s web” was used mainly in the surgical industry. Nylon stockings made their first appearance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, going into production soon after and the following year, as word spread that the sheen of a nylon would make the leg look beautiful, women were queuing around the block to get their hands on some nylons. Much like the earlier medieval hosen and linen stockings, fully fashioned nylons were joined at the back with a seam (which also became a fashion statement, still en vogue today), and stocking etiquette stated crooked seams were a real no no! All that changed during the war years of austerity and ration books and with necessities at short supply, women took to painting their legs with gravy browning or cold tea or penciling on seams on the back of their legs to make it appear they were wearing silk or nylon stockings.

Take a look at Lilly Laudanum’s collection of vintage stockings, below, for an example of how the early ‘modern’ stocking of the 1930s still resembled the medieval hosen with the sewn back seam and foot gusset. pic 1 is a 1937 ‘Rollins Runstop’ silk stocking, with french feet – ie fully ,machine-shaped (no gusset) feet and the back seam is machine turned. It’s one of the first stretch stockings. Pics 2 and 3 (with Otis demonstrating the stocking!) is one of the first nylon stockings, 1934 – but the foot gusset and back seam are still hand sewn – and the calf is shaped as there’s no stretch. Last two pics are a sock from the 1920s, although machine-knitted, the foot gusset and back seam are still hand turned and they still resemble the medieval shape. 

Stockings haven’t changed so much in modern times, although fabrics have, and thanks to the advent of modern materials we now have stockings that not only stay up by themselves but stockings that last longer without laddering. We also have tights – a fairly modern invention,

The Bluestocking…

Well, we couldn’t do a whole feature on stockings without a brief foray into the origins of our name, which starts out in Venice in the 1400s when a group of erudite men and women formed a secret society known as the Della Canza (“Of The Stocking”). The idea of this secret society hit Paris in the 1590s when a club of ‘ladies of learning’ named themselves Bas-Bleu or Bluestocking and marked out secret members by the blue stockings they wore. This movement hit London around 1750 when Lady Montagu, bored by the idle gossip and parlor small talk of ladies and shocked that the average middle aged woman knew no more than the average 12 year old boy, opened up her house to intellectual ladies and those who wanted to learn about the arts, culture and literature and share their ideas. Also led by Elizabeth Vesey, this group were The Blue Stocking Society and in a culture where only men went to university and women’s education consisted of knitting and needle crafts, this early feminist movement were revolutionary.

In (modern) history, “Blue Stocking” was sometimes used as an insult by a man when faced with a woman clever than he is… We like to think we’ve claimed back this misogynistic usage as we are proud to be BlueStockings!

Quick facts: 

The term hosiery, used for tights etc, is derived form the Medieval Hose and Hosen

The Christmas Stocking comes from prostitutes… Legend is that a wealthy nobelman lost all his money and was too poor to marry off his daughters as there was no dowry, so they were doomed to an unmarried life of prostitution and slavery. It goes that the generous bishop St Nicholas of Smyrna (271-350ad), troubled over their fate, tossed a gold coin into their window as they slept, which landed in one of their stockings which was hung up to dry by the fire.

Denier refers to the weight and thickness of the yarn the stockings are made from – the higher the denier,the more opague and thick the tights… Here’s the root: 1 denier = 9000 metres of yarn weighs 1 gram, so 15 denier tights have probably been made from 135,000 meters of yarn!

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