18th Century Stockings – how shocking!

lwlpr08916 - french fashion - note stocking
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

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?

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

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!

A Rake's Progress: The Orgy by William Hogarth.
A Rake’s Progress: The Orgy by William Hogarth. Sir John Soane’s Museum.

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.

Taking water for Vauxhall
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole

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.

La Toilette, François Boucher.
La Toilette, François Boucher. ©Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

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.

Jean-Honore Fragonard – Useless Resistance
2010EE8115_jpg_ds- pink stocking V and A
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

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 1780s, 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.

The Art of Stocking Framework Knitting, 1750. © British Museum. The man on the right is operating a framework knitting machine.
The Art of Stocking Framework Knitting, 1750. © British Museum. The man on the right is operating a framework knitting machine.

One of the major suppliers 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.

lwlpr21011 - stocking trade card
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
lwlpr21006 - trade card
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

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, I 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.

A leg of lamb Woodward 1799

28 thoughts on “18th Century Stockings – how shocking!

  1. Colleen

    I’d like to add some information I’ve gleaned from my own experimental archeology. Some people find it comfortable to tie above the knee, although not me. If you wrap your ribbon around twice, then tie, you can have quite a bit of slack for great holding power! You can tie the non-stretchy ribbon garters loosely enough to allow comfortable kneeling and have them stay up well. This even works, mostly, on small boys!

    I do not believe that elastic was incorporated into stockings until MUCH later, but I’m not as up on that. Stockings weren’t stretchy, though, that is easily seen when examining the originals.

    Lists of purchases for well off houses suggest that the nicer stockings worn by the family were white while the ones worn by the servants were colored, lots of blue and brown.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol Kocian

    “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,”

    It sounds like you mis-read something. The Derby Rib type of frame meant the machines (frames) could knit ribs. Previously, knitting frames could only knit plain, but hand knitters could knit ribs. It’s possible that someone said the ribs added elasticity to stockings; ribs being a bit stretchier than plain knits. Some ribbing was for looks only and did not make for a closer-fitting stocking. Derby Ribs were not enough to hold up a stocking. They would still need a garter.


      1. Carol Kocian

        Thank you for the link. Sadly, the author of that book did not include cites of their sources. This is the first I’ve heard of elastic in stockings in the 18th century. Their date for that is 1784, compared to 1758 for the Derby Rib frame so they aren’t related.
        The only extant examples of Derby Rib stockings found so far are from the General Carleton of Whitby ship wreck (1785) and they are sailor’s stockings. It’s possible that a sailor might splurge on a pair of expensive stockings, but those found on that wreck are primarily working-class quality.
        As far as colors, the shopping list of white, black and gray stockings for the family and colors for the servants is from the 1770s. Fashions for stockings changed throughout the century. The bright colors and clocks (pink and green stocking above, and also the blue and red stockings in the Hogarth party scene) were stylish in the first half of the 18th century. Color clocks and other bright designs came back again in the 1790s. You have a great selection of images that show a variety of what was worn through the century!


  3. Carol Kocian

    Aha, I found this!
    Google Books, “The Repertory of Patent Inventions: And Other Discoveries and Improvements ” starting on page 242 has a description of adding “elastic bands of India rubber” to knitted items, dated 1839.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Fantastic find, thank you so much, love the detailed description. He acknowledges half way down p243 though that there are already other modes of applying the elasticity of India rubber, his application appears to be for an improvement to the method. 🙂


  4. Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    I’m sure your question was rhetorical but just to add that the gentleman depicted in Fragonard’s The Swing is the Baron de Saint-Julien, a receiver general of the Clergy of France; the woman on the swing, his pretty young mistress, and the man pushing the swing is a bishop (not named, but recognizable). And yes, the baron is looking between her stockinged legs – all the more erotic because there was no such undergarment as drawers/pants/knickers. The painter Gabriel-Francois Doyen was approached to paint this scene, but he passed the commission on to Fragonard (thank goodness!), who was happy to play along with the gag! 🙂 [from Jean Montague Massengale’s book Fragonard]


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much, we’re delighted that you enjoyed it.

      Yes, absolutely, the question was rhetorical 🙂

      Having been fortunate enough to see the painting at The Wallace Collection recently it is even more obvious as to where he was looking!

      Thank you so much for the additional information, much appreciated 🙂


  5. Wonderful! I dimly remember my grandmother wearing rolled garters in the 1950s. Satin-covered circles, obviously with elastic in them, that you rolled stockings over. I think I tried some at age 12 before moving to a garter belt. Stockings did NOT stay up! By the way…I suppose it is in the interests of delicacy that you don’t mention that the Boucher painting is, indeed, a “dirty joke.” What is between the woman’s legs? Er, a…pussy. I know you knew that!


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    Loved your article so much I read it three times! I inherited a pair of Victorian silk stockings (light pink) with the initials “CB” on the welt. Just curious if this was a manufacturer’s initials or perhaps the lady’s initials who purchased them. Two other pairs (corn flower blue and light purple) have “Helene” or “Melene” on the welt. Just wondering if you have any idea if this is a manufacturer or a person. Thanks so much for your anticipated reply. Regards, Nancy


    1. Sarah Murden

      Hello Nancy
      Thank you so much for your comments, I’m delighted you enjoyed the article.

      I don’t know for sure, but my thinking is that the initials were probably those of the maker. There was a German, by the name of J Philip Helene who was a stocking weaver, living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on the 1850 census. As I don’t know whereabouts in the world you are, I have no idea whether that suggestion would make any sense?



        Good Morning Sarah and thank you so very much for your prompt reply. I found J. Philip Helene as a stocking knitter from 1850 (Lancaster, PA) and believe you solved the mystery. I live in New York. Just another quick question, some of my stockings have a tiny red thread at the top of the welt. Was this something the manufacturers put there and what on earth would be the purpose? Just thought I would ask the expert. These old stockings certainly have an interesting history and I am fascinated by all the information and history. Thanks again for your help and I look forward to your next communication (when you have a moment!). Regards, Nancy


        1. Sarah Murden

          Oh I do hope so. The only possible explanation I can think of for the red thread is that perhaps, given that they wore a ribbon around the stocking, that it was some sort of marker for where to put the the ribbon? Not sure if that helps at all! 🙂


          1. Sarah Murden

            You’re very welcome, you hold a fascinating piece of social history. I’m sure one of your local museums would really love to see them. 🙂


    1. Sarah Murden

      I think they would be made in many colours, both bright and muted or subtle colours. It would probably depend upon the fashion of the day.


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