We know from our research into the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, one of the fashion icons of her day, that she spent a considerable amount of money on clothes, hats and finery. Looking at some of her receipts we noticed that stockings featured on them, so with that in mind we simply had to do some more investigating into stockings of the day. Clearly not a subject not to be discussed in polite society, but how else should a Georgian lady keep her legs warm? A glimpse of the calf was regarded as shocking and tantalizing.
Following a recent visit to the Wallace Museum this image was far too good not to include – wonder what the gentleman on the ground was admiring?
Here on the left of the painting we have one of the prostitutes in Hogarth’s The Rake at Rose Tavern, Scene III of The Rake’s Progress, 1733, displaying her stockings whilst she adjusts her shoes, not a practice that would have been acceptable for a lady!
Many women today wear tights, although stockings are still extremely popular, especially the ‘hold up’ variety which sit toward the top of the thigh, although for some the suspender belt remains an important feature of the underwear as a means of holding the stocking in place. There was no such item in the 18th Century, so how were stockings worn and supported? For those who are not aware, neither did pantaloons, drawers, knickers, pants etc. Pantaloons first put in an appearance in 1806.
The Georgian era saw both men and women wearing stockings, usually brightly coloured, especially for the men as generally theirs were on show whereas respectable women kept theirs covered. It wasn’t until 1758 that we saw the invention of the Derby Rib machine by a Jedediah Strutt of Derbyshire, that allowed elastic to be added to stockings, but these were expensive so only the more affluent could afford them.
How were they worn?
Well, unless you were wealthy enough to afford stockings with elastic then you had to fasten them with a buckled garter or ribbon. The general consensus seems to be that they were tied just above the knee, although as we’re sure you’re can imagine that would probably have been quite uncomfortable, so it seems most likely that there was no right or wrong way to wear them and that women aimed for comfort, so either just above or just below the knee, in the way that we would for instance wear ‘knee highs’ today. The garter or ribbon would have to have fastened fairly tightly to stop the stocking from sliding down the leg as she walked.
This portrait by Francois Boucher seems to demonstrate that the stocking was worn just over the knee. However, this one indicates that one was above the knee, whilst the other was possibly on or slightly below the knee. It isn’t possible to be sure as to whether the artist was trying to simply paint a risqué picture or whether the positioning of the stocking was factually accurate. Given that the use of elastic was not that common the stocking would have moved around quite freely on its own, so a degree of ‘slippage’ would occur.
The description is taken directly from the V&A website –
Pair of knitted pink silk stockings with dark green clock and gusset. The welt is finished with four thin bands of green and there are three gauge holes. One stocking has the welt finished in white, and the other in yellow and green.
They are shaped but not fashioned, and have a green gore let in at the ankle. Around this they are embroidered with an undulating floral trail with a triangular spot design surmounted by a formal flower above which is a crown.
Many stockings at that time would have been manufactured in Nottinghamshire, home of the lace industry in England. The stockings were made using a framework knitting machine and by the early 1780’s the East Midlands over 90% of these frames were in Nottingham. To find out more about framework knitting we recommend these two websites The Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway and The Framework Knitters Museum.
One of the major supplies of stocking in London was Collyers, of No 41, The Poultry, who, according to The True Briton, 1799, produced ladies china white stockings with cotton feet at only 7s 6d, which is about £12 in today’s money, so not particularly affordable for many. We did try to find a trade card for them but so far no luck! We could not, however, resist including one or two that we thought you might enjoy.
Did you know that according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, what we would refer to today as a ladder or run in a stocking was known as a ‘louse ladder’ – delightful, hmm, wonder if there will ever be a revival of that term – perhaps not!
We couldn’t resist finishing our blog in our usual fashion, with the caricature ‘A Leg of Lamb’ courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.