Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Sight of a Woman's Stocking

There was a time in history, not so long ago, when the sight of a woman's ankle or leg was enough to send a man into a tizzy. Skirts were long then and lifting one's skirts was a gesture to come-hither...

During periods in history when women wore panniers, hoops, or crinolines, the swaying motion of these hip-expanding substructures sometimes permitted men to see a woman's stockings. Given that women did not wear underpants of any sort until the middle of the 19th century, it didn't take much imagination to know that flesh began where the sock ended.

One writer to the London Times noted that crinoline wearers swayed and hoisted their skirts in a manner "alarmingly disclosive of their legs" which showed off their stockings. He presumed that these "highly decorated" stockings were "not put on in order that they should not be looked at." (The Anatomy of Fashion by Susan J. Vincent, published by Berg 2009, page 88)

There are several exquisite pairs of highly decorated stockings in the Bata Shoe Museum's current exhibition of socks and stockings called "Socks: Between You and Your Shoes". 

P96.0101 17th Century Stockings, possibly Spanish
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum c2010
This glorious pair of stockings made with red dyed silk threads and silver and gold gilt thread was probably made to be worn by a child from a very wealthy family. Red was the most expensive dye during the 17th century.

Apparently, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have declared that she would never again wear linen hose after trying on a pair of Spanish silk stockings. Finely knit silk stockings from Spain were highly coveted for their quality. (Knitting was introduced into Europe by the Moors who ruled Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries.)

P97.011 English socks, shoes and French buckles, mid 18th century
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, c2010

Imagine this pretty pair of robin's egg stockings peaking out from a dress worn by either Marie Antoinette or Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Are they not exquisite?

And yet the derogatory English term 'blue stocking' actually describes women who preferred intellectual pursuits instead of fashion. Even so, this pair of blue silk stockings would have been extremely fashionable.  They are a very fine example of machine-made hosiery with the luxurious silver embroidery at the ankle (called a clock) would have been appropriate for a finely dressed 18th century woman.

The Bata Shoe Museum's exhibit Socks: Between You and Your Shoes continues until February 2011.

Photos provided courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum and are under copyright.