Stalking Stockings:

collecting antique and vintage hosiery

        Today we take stockings for granted. Nylons are relatively inexpensive, come in a wide variety of colors and styles, and can be found at any department or drug store. But this certainly hasn’t always been the case, In fact, stockings as we know them have an obscure origin. The first record of them comes from an illustration in Queen Mary’s Psalter, which is part of the Royal collection in the British Museum. The picture dates to c.1306, and shows a lady in her boudoir wearing one stocking and being handed another by a servant. These early stockings were apparently considered practical pieces of clothing, meant to protect the feet from the shoes, give warmth to the wearer, and add modesty to women’s attire.
       By the 16th century, however, stockings had evolved into a more decorative fashion. Tabelais (a French physician and humorist) wrote of women’s stockings in Thélémes: “The ladies...wore stockings of scarlet, crimson, or ingrained purple dye, which reached just three inches above their knees, having a ‘list’ beautified with exquisite embroideries and rare incisions of the cutter’s art.”
       Even elaborately decorated early stockings were usually made of cotton (sometimes backed with wool), and were quite thick. But in 1566 Queen Elizabeth received “a pair of black knit silk stockings for a new yeare’s gift” from her silk woman, who knitted them herself. The Queen was apparently pleased and her silk woman promised she’d soon knit more. “Do so,” the Queen replied, “for indeed I like silke stockings so well, because they are pleasant, fine and delicate, and henceforth I will wear no more cotton stockings.”
       As can be imagined, only the wealthy could afford silk and highly decorative stockings, while the poorer classes had to settle for plain white or grey cotton stockings. Nonetheless, the demand for stockings of any quality remained higher than what could be produced. Then, in 1589, parson William Lee invented a machine that could create stockings faster and more efficiently than even the best stocking knitter could be hand. However, when he gave Queen Elizabeth a gift of a pair of stockings made by his machine, and then demonstrated just how his invention worked, the Queen stated flatly that she feared the machine would put hand–knitters out of work—though she did clearly admire Lee’s cleverness. She denied him a patent for his invention. Sadly, other men were quick to copy his machine and make good use of it for creating stockings for the masses.
       By the early 1800s, when the slim–skirted Regency style came into vogue, it was the norm to wear machine made stockings; only the wealthy could afford the hand-knitted variety. The vast majority of women still worn plain stockings, though not necessarily white. One male writer, noting that the most fashionable ladies rarely wore petticoats anymore (in order to obtain the slim fit then desired) wrote: “The only sign of modesty in the present dress of the Ladies is the pink dye in their stockings, which makes their legs appear to blush for the total absence of petticoats.”
       The fashion for plain white or flesh–colored stockings was quickly to change, however. By the 1820s, black was not uncommon (being the most practical of all stocking colors), and black net stockings worn over flesh–colored ones were considered quite fashionable. In the 1850s and 60s, women realized that so long as only they (and perhaps their husbands) were going to see their stockings, they could at least have fun with them. New shades of red appeared, as did heavily embroidered versions. When skirts went “short” (revealing a bit of ankle) in the 1870s and 80s, the craze for elaborate stockings subsided—but women were not willing to revert back to plain white, black, and flesh tones. Respectable women often chose stockings that matched the color of their dress—usually white, red, or a pastel shade. By the late 1890s, creativity was on the rise again, and as soon as the turn of the century, any woman who desired could buy ready–made stockings elaborately decorated with silver snakes running up her legs (this was an especially popular motif and could be found in a variety of styles), butterflies swarming round her calves, flowers boldly growing from her ankles, or any number of other decorative varieties.
       By the 1920s, it was considered so unfashionable to wear plain white or black stockings that a popular vaudeville joke of the era was: “Q: What ever happened to the girl in the black stockings? A: Nothing.” The new look of the early 20s was bare legs—but few women were brave enough to run around town with naked calves. The solution? A reversion to flesh–colored stockings. The best were made of silk, but many women opted for rayon stockings. The reason for this preference is somewhat hard to understand; though rayon was indeed cheaper than silk, rayon stockings tended to bag terribly at the ankle and were flagrantly shiny. There would soon be another alternative, however. In 1929, while trying to create artificial rubber, W.H. Carothers accidentally discovered nylon. It took some time for the possibilities of this “mistake” to be fully recognized, but in 1939, the New York World’s Fair showcased nylon stockings. Marketed as “run–resistant,” over 64 million pairs were soon sold.
       Unfortunately, just as women were realizing the wonders of nylon, so too was the government. The second world war upon them, nylon was rationed for wartime uses (especially parachutes). In the 1950s, women eagerly reacquainted themselves with nylon, and by mid–decade, seamless stockings were fashionable. Though early versions of the seamless stockings bagged at the ankle, by the end of the decade well–fitted seamless hosiery was the norm; rather than becoming passé, old–fashioned seamed stockings took on new significant, worn by the temptresses in the movies, and advertised as “sexy.” When, in the mid–1960s, the mini–skirt was introduced, the most radical change in hosiery was forced into being. Stockings were still manufactured as two separate tubes that had to be held up by garters just above the knee. Mini–skirts, however, ended at the knee (or higher). The result was sloppy–looking. To remedy this, the young women who donned minis often went bare legged. That is, until (to the comfort of many women young and old) some unknown and clever person realized that the hosiery ballet dancers had been wearing for decades was an ideal solution. Tights appeared in fashionable circles, and soon after, pantyhose.
       Stockings are today among the more rare sort of collectible fashions; they were often worn until they wore out, and therefore, few examples are still in existence. However, both through high–quality antique fashion dealers and through chance encounters at antique shops, auctions, and shows, stockings can be found. Stockings from the 1920s forward are relatively easy to find wherever vintage fashions are sold. Most pairs that have survived have done so because they were never actually worn—though darned stockings are also found. Stockings from the ‘teens or earlier are considered the most valuable—particularly if they feature an interesting woven or embroidered pattern.
       If you have trouble uncovering period stockings, there are many other related collectibles that are just as intriguing. Stocking mending kits, and garters, for example. It was in the 1870s that the first garters attached to a corset appeared. Before this time, all garters were of the circular variety and tied, buttoned, or otherwise cut off the circulation of their wearer. Early examples of these are rare and expensive, but in the 1920s, there was a revival of them (because they were sometimes revealed when ladies partook in the new, energetic dances). Meant to be seen, evening garters from the 1920s are often extremely elaborate. Garters from other eras in the 20th century can also sometimes be found. During the first world war, for example, many women favored old–fashioned garters. It is not uncommon to find home–made garters crocheted and decorated with insertion ribbon.
        And if you discover a pair of feminine–looking garters with a man’s name embroidered on them, don’t be surprised. During WWI, many fashion magazines suggested: “What could be more delightfully sentimental that his name embroidered on one’s garters?”




(c) Copyright 2000 by Kristina Harris.